When writing research articles, most students feel confident enough to make a good paper out of the research they have conducted. But when it comes to writing literature review articles, this confidence may quickly evaporate if one doesn’t have much experience with them. So, what exactly is a literature review article, and how to avoid the most common pitfall on the road to writing one?
In literature review articles, authors are organizing, integrating and critically evaluating already published material in an attempt to consider the progress of research toward clarifying a certain problem (American Psychological Association [APA], 2009). Although literature review articles are somewhat less common in scientific journals compared to research articles, they are nonetheless at least as important. They provide their readers with a comprehensive and relatively concise résumé on a certain topic and are thus a good starting point if you want a quick introduction to it.
By the time you have decided to write a literature review on the topic of your interest, you have probably already acquired some knowledge in the area. Writing a good literature review, however, requires more than just merely listing the main theoretical approaches to the problem and the research they have generated. It has to review the topic in a critical, unbiased and holistic way, which makes connections between the different lines of research, points out any inconsistencies and suggests directions for further research. Here are some more specific tips that will help you achieve the abovementioned.
Choosing which sources to cite
- The number of sources you will have to go through depends mainly on how much interest your topic has generated among researchers. But even if it has just recently become popular among psychologists, chances are that you may have to read at least a few dozens of them. Although it might be tempting to cite every relevant source that you come across, try to choose only the most representative and informative ones. Of course, unlike research articles which often have severe space limitations, literature review articles naturally allow for a more in-depth theoretical and research review. However, you should make sure that the number of sources you choose to cite is reasonable for the total length of your article. When in doubt, always consider your readers – you’re not writing to show them how many studies you have read, but to give them an informative and complete overview of the topic. For example, if there are two sources that essentially cover the same content without offering different perspective, you can consider leaving out one of them.
- When you are doing the literature research on your topic, always keep in mind that the sources you choose to cite should be as up-to-date as possible. Your readers won’t get much insight of the problem if you’re summarizing the state in which the theories were two decades ago. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore the older works altogether, but that you should try to focus on the more recent ones.
- If you can’t go into much detail about some theoretical perspective or experimental approach, refer your readers to sources which will give them more information (e.g., other literature reviews or meta-analyses). Don’t just expect that they will figure out things just as easily as you do, because some of your readers may have little knowledge in the topic. The skillful and considerate writer is able to anticipate the questions of his readers and to answer them as they read along.
Evaluating the literature critically
When you are reading the literature on your topic, don’t just passively assimilate all the information. Try to analyze it critically and to detect any possible inconsistencies like theoretical issues, methodological flaws, sample size and generalizations. A good literature review will not only summarize the information, but also point out weaknesses in the experimental procedures as well as possible theoretical conflicts. It builds on the current knowledge by identifying gaps in the available literature and suggesting future directions for research. This will not only allow you to ask new questions about the problem, but also to put the old questions in new context.
Writing in an unbiased manner
Your readers will not gain much from reading your literature review article if it fails to deliver a holistic and bias-free approach to the problem. Moreover, the reviewers of your work will not be all too happy to read a literature review that is clearly biased in favour of a single point of view, since the odds are that at least one of them will have views different from your own (Sternberg, 2003). It is natural that you may consider one theory as a better explanation of the problem compared to others, but you should also consider different theoretical perspectives. Make sure that you’re not leaving out works that are clearly relevant to your topic. Ask yourself questions like: Did I point out any weaknesses of my perspective? Did I discuss studies contrary to it? Did I allow for alternative explanations of the phenomenon being reviewed?
Structuring your literature review article
Unlike the distinct and consecutive sections of research articles that we are all familiar with, sometimes it can be difficult to decide on the structure of your literature review article. Before making any final decisions, it may be well worth the time to consider a few different options and then choose the one which presents your text in the most coherent and informative way. If your article turns out to be a longer one, you can also consider outlining its structure in the beginning of your text. By saying how you will present your review to the readers, they will know what to expect and will be better prepared to assimilate what you have to say. You may also find it useful to group different studies or theoretical approaches in a logical way (e.g., chronologically, according to the conclusion they make). But however you may decide to structure your article, try to make it as easy for the readers to understand as possible.
American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington DC: Author.
Sternberg, R. J. (2003). The psychologist’s companion (4th ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Martin Vasilev is an Editor in JEPS. He is a final year undergraduate student of Psychology at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria, and the author of some of the most popular posts at the JEPS Bulletin (see for example, his post on writing literature reviews, which was reprinted in the MBA Edge, a magazine for Malaysian prospective postgraduate students).