A thorough literature review is crucial for most academic projects. Reading through articles, organizing your ideas and synthesizing a body of literature can seem like a daunting task. In what follows, we will guide you through a step-by-step process of conducting a thorough literature review.
- It might seem obvious that the next step to a literature review is actually reading the articles! While there are no right and wrong ways to read an article, there are some methods that can increase your efficiency. Sciencemag published a great piece about how different academics read scientific papers. How you proceed will also depend on the types of studies you are interested in. In any case, here are some overall guidelines on reading the articles that will help you extract relevant information into your spreadsheet. You want to summarize what people did, rather than what people said. After having scanned the title and abstract, we suggest reading the method section first, followed by the last section of the introduction. This will allow you to evaluate how the study was conducted, and whether the methodology allowed the authors to reach their professed objectives. Next, proceed to the results section. At this point, you should begin entering the information on your spreadsheet. The introduction section can be a useful place to cull more references and the discussion section often highlights gaps in the literature (which your study will hopefully fill, at least in part!).
- Using a reference manager will help organize your articles. There are several paid options (such as Endnote, Papers) as well as free ones (such as Mendeley, Zotero).
- One of the most useful techniques we’ve found to track the articles we read is through a spreadsheet. Not only will you be able to summarize the details and findings of each paper, you’ll end up with a visual and searchable document that makes writing the actual paper much faster. The spreadsheet can have as many headings as you see fit, but at the minimum, it should include: Full Reference, Study Population, Methodology & Objectives, Results, and Comments
- Begin with an outline of the main headings and subheadings of your literature review. These can be tweaked as you go along but it will prevent you from reading articles that are interesting, but completely irrelevant to your literature review. Entering “rabbit-holes” in literature is a common mistake when searching databases, but it’s certainly avoidable if you keep referring back to your outline.
- The most important first step is to identify your research question. With over 26 million citations in PubMed alone, refining your research question will be instrumental in performing a comprehensive, but not unnecessarily exhaustive search. Even if you are at the preliminary stages of your research, identifying the PICOT – Population, Intervention/Exposure, Comparison group, Outcome and Time – is critical to your success.
- The section on study population should include the name of the study (if applicable), study setting, sample size, sampling strategy and time frame.
- Methodology and objectives should include the objective(s) of the study, study design, details of the study protocol and analytic strategy.
- In the results section, it is helpful to summarize the main findings in the article and index them by table/figure.
- The comments section can include your observations about the study: study limitations, a note that the authors wrote some of the seminal research on your topic, and a reminder to yourself to go back to the article at a later date.
- Don’t forget to search for other published reviews! Reading in-depth work on a similar topic as yours can help identify seminal papers and authors who continuously contribute to your field.
An important tip: when you find yourself struggling to find certain types of research (using a particular method, population, study design etc.) – take note of it. Reviews are not simply a summary of the research that has been done, it is also important to discuss where there are gaps in the literature.
Now that you have a solid research question, a detailed outline, and a spreadsheet of the articles you’ve read – it’s time to write!