When you write a research paper, thesis or dissertation, you need to include a review of the related prior studies in the existing body of literature. This overview is referred to as a ‘literature review’, and is typically included in the section just before your research methodology. It is generally an objective, critical summarization of all the related published literature. It is crucial to not only review what others have done, but also to analyze and criticize their work and point out gaps or problems in their work. This way, you would be able to come up with an effective problem statement and explain how your work would address or resolve the research gaps you have pointed out in prior work.
A well-written and concise literature review would help to show that you are familiar with the topic of study, and all the work that has been done on that topic, and also to point out existing problems in prior work and how you would resolve those problems. Note that it is critical to based your work on improving problems in recent literature, and not old work that is considered outdated in your field.
Search for related work
The first step is to search for any work in the literature that is related to your specific research problem. This involves searching scientific and academic journal indexing databases such as Scopus or WoS using specific search queries. It is recommended to use very specific search queries in an attempt to narrow down the results as much as possible. This is to retrieve only work that is within the scope of your research area, and to simultaneously exclude work that does not fit the search criteria in mind. It helps to brainstorm and make a list of keywords that are related to your area, and then use trial and error to search for publications using the keywords separated by boolean operators such as AND, OR and NOT. Of course, you also need to filter out articles that are of low quality to only retain credible ones.
Refine list of articles
The second step is to take the list of retrieved articles and further refine it, since you won’t be able to read entirely all the work in your area. Refining this list to one that only includes articles that are the closest to your topic would certainly help to limit the scope to a reasonable number of studies. This involves reading the title, keywords and abstract of the article, and make a decision as to whether to keep it on the list. You can also check its citations on Google Scholar, which would help to rank the articles based on how influential they are to the field. Another tip is to rank them based on date of publication, to ensure that you select those that are considered recent, while excluding outdated work.
Point out research gaps
The third step would be to read the final list of publications thoroughly and point out any trends, patters and gaps. This would help to explicitly highlight the loopholes or problems of each paper. By doing this, you would be able to write your problem statement based on the highlighted problems in prior work, and your research objectives based on the problem statement.
Write the review (summarize, criticize, analyze)
The fourth and final step is to write your literature review. It is always recommended to write quick drafts as you are reading related articles rather than to read all the articles and then start writing your review. This would help you to quickly write down important concepts you pick up in real-time during the reading process. Then later you can refine and improve the drafts and shape out a nice review from them. If you start writing after reading all the articles, you would certainly forget the important concepts you encounter in the first few articles, and realize you would have to re-read them once you start writing. So ‘write as you read’, then continuously refine your drafts until you have a decent review you are happy with.
Always remember that a literature review is not simply a review of other works. It is important to not only summarize other work, but also to synthesize and critically analyze and evaluate it. This helps to explicitly point out problem areas in the area under study, and then formulate your problem statement. In summary, an effective and impactful literature review summarizes all the related, recent work in your area, and also provides a critical analysis that points out both strengths (contributions) and weaknesses (gaps) for each work. A final step would be to proofread and edit your literature review to ensure it is well-written, concise and free of any grammatical errors.