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What is a Literature Review?

Apr 07, 2021

Literature reviews are often misrepresented. Many early-stage researchers believe that literature reviews are an easier way to be published than research articles; however, this is not necessarily true. If you are struggling to write research articles, consider getting my Scientific Research Paper Checklist below!

Instead, literature reviews fulfill an important role for both the writer and the reader. In this article, we are going to discuss the purpose of literature reviews, different types of literature reviews, and common misconceptions of literature reviews.

Purpose of Literature Reviews

The main purpose of a literature review is to allow readers to quickly understand a field, learn the bulk of the research that has been conducted in the field, and know the direction of the field. Therefore, literature reviews should have three main components:

  • An introduction that covers background material
  • A literature story that covers relevant research papers
  • A conclusion that synthesizes the information together

These sections allow a reader to become more comfortable with a new topic or field. Reading a literature review should accomplish the same as reading a textbook chapter and several research papers together. Because of this, having recent literature reviews in your field can be immensely helpful when starting in your field.

As a writer, publishing a literature review can give you more authority in your field. Literature reviews are often read and cited more than research papers because they cover a wider range of research and can make more global conclusions.

As an example, my literature review published in 2020 on Steroid analysis by ion mobility has been cited by 7 papers compared to a research paper that is only cited by 5 also published in 2020. While that is a very small sample size, my review can help me reach additional researchers that my research paper would not.

Types of Literature Reviews

There are multiple different types of literature reviews. This could be an entire blog post, and you can check out this article for more information on the different types. I want to touch on two different comparisons of reviews: (1) mini-reviews vs. larger reviews and (2) topic reviews vs. research questions reviews.

Mini-reviews vs. larger reviews

From my experience, there is not a clear divide between a mini-review or a larger review. However, some reviews are much smaller and more specific in their topic than other reviews. Each of these reviews serves different purposes.

A mini-review is meant to go very in-depth on a specific topic. My review published in 2020 would be considered more of a mini-review. The review was on steroid analysis by ion mobility. This field was much newer and had fewer relevant research papers.

On the other hand, I contributed to a review on carbohydrates and ion mobility in graduate school. This review would have been a larger review with over 200 research papers included. In the carbohydrates review, we included multiple different types of carbohydrates including glycopeptides, free carbohydrates, glycolipids, and free glycans. Therefore, this review was created through multiple people's contributions as compared to my mini-review which was written by me.

If you are a graduate student, I would suggest focusing more on mini-reviews if you are planning to write one by yourself. As your research experience grows and becomes broader, then you could start creating larger reviews by yourself.

Topic reviews vs. research question reviews

Literature reviews can focus on summarizing a specific topic or asking a specific research question. These different types of reviews serve different purposes.

The majority of literature reviews in my field are more topic reviews. My published literature review was also a topic review. Topic reviews cover a literature story within a topic and can feel more like a summary of a topic. Good topic reviews will synthesize information from the accumulated research studies.

On the other hand, research question reviews are using previous research to understand a research question. In these reviews, many researchers will only touch on one part of a research paper that specifically relates to or helps answer the research question. These reviews still need a literature story, similar to how a research paper needs a story.

While you do not need to know exactly what type your review falls into, you need to know what your final review will be to know the best way to start it.

Misconceptions of Literature Reviews

Many common conceptions around literature reviews hurt scientists trying to write them. Therefore, I want to talk about a couple of misconceptions!

Literature reviews are messy and difficult.

The first misconception is that literature reviews have to be messy and difficult. I think this is often true for people who attempt to complete literature reviews too early in their careers. If you have not completed research in the field you are discussing, then it can be very difficult to complete a literature review.

The other reason why literature reviews can be more difficult is that you do not know how to compile literature and write a literature review. In a few weeks, I will have another blog post on how to write a literature review if you are struggling with this.

Literature reviews are easier than research papers.

I hate any time of hierarchical statements especially about what is easier than something else! However, a literature review and a research paper are different. One is not necessarily harder or easier than the other. I think this misconception leads early-stage researchers to waste their time and energy working on literature reviews that may never be publishable compared to focusing on research initially.

Literature reviews need to include every paper on the topic.

I have watched so many writers stress about the possibility that you are missing a paper or two for your literature review. They continually look through google scholar searching for papers, instead of focusing on writing and completing the literature review. The fact is that your literature review will likely miss research papers on your topic. You do not need to include every paper on your topic.

The other tip is to make sure your topic is narrow enough for the expected work. If you are a graduate student, you likely do not want to take on a large topic/research question that will consist of 100 papers. You are better of doing a research topic/question that consists of about 6-12 papers if you are writing a paper on your own.

Major Takeaways

Literature reviews are great papers to quickly summarize and compare research papers on a topic. Writing a literature review can be very helpful to your research career, but many misconceptions make it more difficult. Before you start writing your paper, you want to determine what you want the final product to look like. This will help you determine the type and length of your literature review. Learning how to write a literature review will be helpful before you start writing your own.

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