How to write a constructive literature review


Literature reviews are an essential part of starting any research project or answering a new research question. As well as helping you identify a gap within literature that you can address with your research, they are also incredibly useful for other scientists. The volume of papers and articles being published in the majority of scientific fields, including neuroscience, has grown vastly over the past few decades. It is totally unfeasible to expect researchers to read everything produced. Therefore, they rely on reviews of past research, and many of them become relatively widely read.

Most graduate science students will be required to carry out some form of literature review when they start on their new research projects. Here are some tips to help make writing a coherent literature review easier.

Define your topic

This will probably be the most important thing you do in preparation of the literature review. Whilst the research topics you decide to look at may evolve over the course of the review, you should start off with a clear idea of what it is you want to research. This will help you to refine the research topics that fall within the extent of your project. Otherwise, it is too easy to wander from the important literature and end up talking about something that is neither helpful nor interesting for you.

Get better search results

Searching databases of scientific research is an art of its own. Learning how to use the Boolean Operators and wildcards properly is sure to make a big difference, but there are a number of guides on the Internet for specific databases. For example, Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science has a video explaining some of their search tips:



Using the right databases and refining the scope and number of papers in the results will save you time and effort when deciding whether a certain paper is relevant or completely unrelated. This is something that gets better with practice. Reading the abstracts of articles to check if they are relevant before obtaining full copies or reading further can save you time, and sometimes money. 

It is a good idea to keep a record of the searches you have already made, to prevent you duplicating searches or missing something important as you think you have already searched for it.

Be critical

Your job as a reviewer is not to create an extensive library of papers related to your research project (although this may be a handy outcome). You should be critically appraising each of the items you read, describing their strengths and weaknesses, their main findings and why they are significant to the field.

You should also include any technical or methodological problems that the primary research paper’s authors have had and if these have since been overcome. It is sometimes worth including when new technologies have started to help answer questions that were previously unanswerable.

Here are some points to think about when reading research papers:

  • Are the researchers making any assumptions?
  • What are their methodologies? Were there any problems?
  • Is the author biased or do they have a neutral perspective?
  • Do the results of any papers conflict?
  • Note common theories and whether these have changed over time. 

Create a structure

The best structure for your review will depend on your research project, questions and area. It is important, however, that it is not simply a list of papers and your thoughts on each of them.

There should be a logical and consistent comparison between the literature and a discussion of how this integrated knowledge has led to the position that the research topic is in today. It should show the similarities and differences between the findings of separate papers and any technical problems that are halting significant advances.

To help ensure your review has a logical structure, use headings and sub-headings to organise it, starting with an introduction and finishing with a conclusion. This will help it flow from one point to the next.

By the end of the review, the reader should understand the major breakthroughs in the field, conflicting points of view on the subject and the questions that still require answers.

Use the people around you

If you’re a student, the chances are that there are a number of people working around you with lots of experience. Make sure you don’t let that experience go to waste. Let them help you, ask them for their advice and take their constructive criticisms on board. Additionally, if you submit your work for publishing it will probably be peer reviewed. You should use any comments to improve your work and look further into any area that might be slightly lacking.

Simplify your referencing with software

There are all manner of programs available to help with referencing, saving and annotating the papers you have used or want to look at next. Nearly all of them will make your life easier.

Some of the best include:

But the best one for you will depend on how you like to work.

Avoid plagiarism

When researching literature and making notes, it can be easy to plagiarise by mistakenly not referencing the source, or by repeating the exact words used in the source. To help avoid this, make notes about the research in your own words when possible and include references with your notes. 

If you don’t reword some literature as you are making notes, put inverted commas around the sentence(s) so you know that they haven’t been reworded, and record the page number that the information appears on. When it comes to writing about that reference in your review, you can either use the exact quote in inverted commas, along with the reference and page number, or describe it in your own words with the reference but without the page number. 

Review and edit

Once you have written your review, it is important to read through it multiple times to check if there are any spelling or grammar mistakes, that the content is written in the best order and everything has been explained. Printing the document off and reading the paper copy as well as the digital version can make it easier to spot errors. 

Literature reviews are an incredible amount of work, but they are an excellent way to clarify exactly what your research goals are and how you intend to achieve them. Without a comprehensive understanding of the area in which you work it will be impossible to make the best use of your time and money when answering your research questions. Additionally they are often published and help other researchers to understand what questions have already been answered and where the holes still remain.

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