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Literature review: getting started


Choose, define and refine your topic

Do you have the question or topic for your literature review clearly defined? A lot of time and effort can be wasted unless you do. View this video to break through that starting barrier, find a direction and get your literature review on track.

Let’s explore the levels of thinking that are required for writing a good critical literature review. Writing a critical literature review requires more than just setting forth lots of facts collected from different sources. Benjamin Bloom developed his taxonomy - that is a classification system - of cognitive levels. The lower levels of knowledge, comprehension and application are simply knowing stuff, understanding what it is about, and knowing how to use it.

At tertiary level, however, we are expected to work at the levels above this, namely analysis where you pull an idea or a concept apart to find out what it is about; synthesis is where you take different ideas from different sources and combine them into a new understanding, and you do a lot of this in a literature review. And finally, evaluation, where you keep a critical eye open, make judgements on what you read or hear, and even accept or reject the ideas with your reasoning of why you did so.

This is something you need to do in a critical literature review. You are encouraged to be judicious on the validity or the importance of a writer’s opinion, as long as you have sound arguments in support of your decisions. The point here is: you need to do more than to collect and organise already existing information. This means that you are operating within the lower three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and this is less than what you are expected to do in higher education. You need to create a new overall understanding or a new insight into an issue. Creating new knowledge is what the upper three levels are about. In a literature review, you are not creating new knowledge in terms of experimental data, of course, but you are creating your own interpretation of the information that is available.

It is most important to choose your topic wisely in the first place. Choose a topic that actually is arguable. If there is no dissent or controversy about an issue, procedure or theory, you will find that you’ll be reproducing accepted facts and there will be no room - or reason - to take a stand one way or the other. On some topics, not all researchers are of all the same opinion. They may agree in part, but vary on the details, or they may in fact be diametrically opposed. These disagreements are to be relished, rather than avoided, because it affords plenty of room to make sense of it yourself, and that makes the topic much more interesting.

If you were to choose something in the area of mental health for example, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, there is little point telling your readers what these conditions entail - this has already been done. The extent to which these conditions could be moderated with diet for example, is still opened to question. And this question is, therefore, worth exploring.

If you can, choose a topic that has relevance and importance. This does not mean that it has to about finding the cure for cancer. The question of whether handwashing with soap and water is better than hand rubbing with anti-bacterial gel, for example, may sound insignificant at first, but it is hugely relevant to a wide number of health professionals. Therefore, this question matters! And, incidentally, there is a broad spectrum of opinions about this question on both sides.

Finally, just to keep yourself on track, turn your topic into a question. A general topic - such as the benefits of hand rubbing - does not imply a specific focus, and you can easily end up collecting a large amount of information on this subject. If you turn your topic into a question such as, “is hand rubbing more effective than handwashing?”, or more specifically, “is hand rubbing the more effective method in the operating theatre environment?”, this gives you something to to respond to; it keeps you on a defined path.

When told to choose something controversial, this means simply arguable, and something for which there is not one widely accepted point of view. It does not necessarily mean to choose one of the socially controversial topics, such as abortion or euthanasia. In fact, I would be very wary of doing so, unless you feel equipped to argue using philosophy, ethics, social theory or theology. Many of these issues have a large moral component and for an academics essay, you would be expected to draw on these sources to make your points.

Whether you feel something is right or wrong is not enough in an academic text. These emotive topics can easily diverge from the field of medical science into ethics, unless you define your question very clearly to keep them there. Lastly, it is a literature review and not a commonwealth-funded task force - you don’t need to solve the problem, or even come up with recommendations necessarily. For a literature review, you are required to say what the experts have already said on your chosen issue. Just find what is already out there in the literature, and help your reader make sense of the wide variety of the perspectives.

Cluster your literature around common themes or threads of ideas. Structure your writing thematically and not author by author. This allows you to compare, contrast, and make sense of the different authors’ perspectives on one point./ And if you find there are a lot of authors with some contribution to one point, then maybe that point needs to be teased out into sub-themes.

Try not hide behind what the literature is saying. Remember, it is up to you to interpret it and make sense of it for your reader. Listing what they have found or believe is part of a literature review, but in itself is not enough, you need to clarify what the reader is to take away from this body of research.

Never be afraid to narrow your topic. You have a word limit, which is enough to make one meaningful point, but not to include detail for its own sake. It is better to dig deep into a topic rather than be broad and superficial. Make your question more specific, such as, “is hand-rubbing more effective in operating theatres?”, or “can diet moderate schizophrenia at onset?”.

You may have to limit you question many times before you submit your draft. This does not diminish the quality of your research, it actually enhances it. So, think long and hard about your question, because this provides the guidelines for your writing and your research. You need to have clear guidelines so that you can research with purpose and efficiency, even if these guidelines get modified at a later date. Otherwise a lot of time and energy will be wasted, either, looking at irrelevant material, or material that cannot fit into your review.

The research timeline

Do you spend hours (if not weeks) printing off more information than you will ever need for your assignment? Thorough research is important but some students get stuck at this stage. Stop the madness and watch this video to see how to keep the research process efficient, effective and moving forward.

If you’re writing on a topic that you know little about, it is worthwhile to get acquainted with the area before you define your question. This means reading generally and broadly but with the aim of moving towards a more targeted search. Avoid getting comfortable in this general reading phase, you need to move beyond this as soon as you can by defining the question yourself – even a tentative one – so that you can start making progress.

If necessary, set a date to turn your contemplation into action. Once you’ve defined a question, you have automatically narrowed the field. You will start to know what you are looking for, and will feel less overwhelmed by the massive amount of information at your fingertips. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it is likely that you do not have a clear enough idea of what you are looking for. Then, you need to revisit and perhaps refine your question.

After your general reading and defining some question, time for a brainstorm. Put everything down on a large sheet of paper. Use mind maps or lists to see what you can explore. But a mind map will lose form very quickly, if there is no purpose or question underpinning it.

Reading, writing, refining and redefining your topic are all cyclic and interlinked parts of your research process. Don’t wallow in the information collecting phase for too long though; the writing process clarifies your thoughts and therefore the outline of the review. When you know what you are looking for, you can go back to the literature.

This may open up new avenues to explore, which again, may mean redefining your question. The notes you make are only raw material only when you put them into paragraph form, and until then, they have no place or function. The only thing more effective than defining a question is to start getting something down on paper, and this will really make your searches more targeted, because your information gaps will be made obvious.

Even if you don’t feel ready to call it your first draft, call it “draft minus 10”. The process of writing is a huge part of clarifying your own thoughts, and giving your writing a direction. The early stages of mainly researching will transition to mainly writing with very specific searching. But on the whole, writing and researching have a symbiotic interaction throughout.

After all, a bird does not build its nest by collecting a huge number of twigs, stop, and frantically assemble them in one day. However, many students research and write their essays just in that way. The bird starts with the basic structure of their nest early on, and collects and build things as needed. We could learn from this example in our own writing – put pen to paper as soon as possible. Writing is part of the research process, it is not the end point.

You have now complete the Literature Review module. We hope you have enjoyed the content. For more study skill resources, visit the RMIT Learning Lab.


Writing a literature review
Many students find that writing a literature review can be a difficult task. Like essays, the literature review must follow a set structure. This tutorial shows you how to write a critical examination of the most relevant, recent and scholarly research of a topic that is not just a summary of the articles you have read.

Researching your assignment
Research skills are also an important part of tertiary study. If you want to learn how to search smarter not harder, try the Researching your assignment tutorials.