Importance of literature review in research
As an academic research scholar, one of the crucial soft skills you would need to develop is that of literature review. In this article, we will look into detail of what a literature review is, what is the importance of literature review in research and when and how to conduct a literature review. For the moment, you just need to understand that doing the literature review exercise will help you get a good lay of the land- the prior work and the competition there is before you commit to putting in the efforts. This is crucial for you to understand the potential of the research questions you are after and help you carve a strong research proposal. Now, let us dive deeper into what a literature review is and why you need to do it as an academic research scholar.
What is a literature review?
Literature review sometimes also referred to as literature survey is a process of extensively reading and understanding the literature and the prior works there are within a particular field. Literature here simply refers to previously published scholarly articles which could include- peer reviewed conferences, journal articles, book chapters and so on. While they are not only an academic requirement but essential when planning a research project in general, in this article, we will purely focus on the academic context.
What is the importance of literature review in research?
- Context: For any research proposal, it is crucial to provide context to put the research into perspective and establish the significance of the research.
- Competitors: Conducting a thorough literature survey will help you identify who are the scholars (aka competitors) who are actively contributing to your field. This will help you plan your own research well and establish a moat to prevent others from beating you to the punch. In fact, not only competitors, some of these people might go on to become your collaborators down the line if they can bring in complementary expertise.
- Framework: Literature review will help you identify the research frameworks that your peers have already used in the past so you can use this as an evidence and build on top of it.
- Research Questions: The quality of a research question can in turn make or break your research progress. In order to come up with good quality research questions of your own, you would first need to interpret what are the questions your peers are trying to answer. While this is not always mentioned explicitly, but as a part of the literature review, you would be able to carve this information out as your read the prior works.
- Prior works: As the name suggests, prior works are the existing contributions made by your peers prior to you jumping into the field. The term “research” itself can be broken down into “re” + “search” meaning you are searching for what is already known and trying to find a new angle of approach for novel contributions. Literature survey will help you collect all such information to prevent you from re-inventing the wheel.
- Opportunities: As you spend more and more time surveying the literature and understanding what has already been done, you are also understanding what is not being done. With time, you will have your own Eureka moment (often at times when you least expect it), wherein you will uncover research opportunities all thanks to an extensive literature survey.
- Evidence: At some point in your own research, you would need evidence to support your finding and to prove that they are good enough to warrant a new publication. Your literature review database would come in very handy for this too to help you establish how your results compare to existing state of art.
- Resources: If you are just starting out a project, you may not necessarily know all the resources that you would need to carry out the research. Low and behold, some of your peers might have already gone through this stage already and in their published articles would have documented all such resources- datasets, devices, software, facilities etc. So, you do not need to scratch your head but just put the pieces together.
- Efficiency: Efficiency is often overlooked and ignored as an outcome of a well structure literature review in research writing. The thing is that, as an early stage researcher, you will be easily distracted as you read more- almost everything that passes by you will sound and feel interesting. This is somewhat similar to what happens when you hop on to YouTube or start watching a series on Netflix. But, a well structured literature review database will actually help you keep such distractions in check and make a decision on what is relevant versus what isn’t.
- Impact: Often when you are proposing a research project, you would be asked about its intended impact- on the society, academia and industry. To some extent, the impact is governed by the approach meaning that the impact of your peers could be different from that you can make if your approach is different. A thorough literature survey can help you establish the nature of impact of your proposed contributions.
So, as you can see from the relative extensive list of benefits of conducting a thorough literature review in scientific research, literature review is indeed a very important step. So, let us look into when and how to conduct the literature review.
When and how to conduct a literature review?
The importance of literature review is often the highest during the early days of planning a research project. With time however, further passes of literature review are done just as a sanity check to re-evaluate any recent advances. The depth and level of detail might vary depending on whether you are doing this appraisal for a conference manuscript or for a PhD thesis, but overall the process would be quite similar.
Writing a literature review comprises of a range of soft skills like gathering, prioritizing, reading, evaluating, note taking and summarizing the peer-reviewed articles. As you might imagine, with time, this can easily get out of hand if you do not have an agile system in place. While there are many ways of doing this, but I have prepared a FREE to use Notion template to help you plan and manage your literature review database. Feel free to replicate the template and adapt it to your needs. You could also do the literature review the old school way wherein you scribble notes onto printed documents but sifting through them will get cumbersome. So, I would recommend opting for one of the easy to use digital tools especially as this allows you to maintain, search and sort the database as needed.
If you are conducting the literature review for the very first time, you might be feeling overwhelmed with how to go about it so here is a step-by-step guide for you:
- Step-1 (Keyword): Make a list of a broad keyword that is highly relevant to your area of research. Then make a few different variations of this keyword to make a bag of keywords.
- Step-2 (Search): Enter the keywords from Step-1 into a search engine like Google and see what scientific articles pop up. At this stage, you are trying to identify some of the highly respected venues in your niche and the authors that are actively publishing. At this stage, you would also start discovering various research databases where such peer-reviewed articles are typically indexed. Perhaps you can try to search with those directly as time progresses as search engines would also pick up other publications like books, media articles and so on which are not directly relevant for literature review.
- Step-3 (Database): Once you start to get a hang of who is who and what is up in your field, it is time to start doing the data entry and populating your database. Some of the key things you would like to keep track of are:
- the authors,
- their affiliations,
- publication venue,
- publication date,
- summary of contributions,
- strengths and weaknesses- Remember not to plagiarize. Instead, write this bit in your own words to avoid plagiarism from propagating onwards to your manuscripts and thesis.
- Step-4 (Clustering): Once you have an extensive database, you should try and see if you can form data clusters. While every paper might appear to be a standalone contribution, this is hardly the case. There will be research overlaps and gaps which is what you are trying to discover by clustering. Also, the size and density of the clusters will help you evaluate the level of competition within the cluster and will help you position your own research contributions.
- Step-5 (Debate): A fresh pair of eyes never hurts and in fact gives you a fresh perspective into things you might have overlooked. If feasible, form a focused reading group with people who have similar research interest to that of yours. In the group try to have a nice mix of early stage and senior researchers for effective debates. Once your group is in place, conduct a free-flow discussion, scribble notes on a white board, or make a presentation, but the key idea here is to discuss what you learnt and concluded and debate it with others to ensure you haven’t misinterpreted or missed anything. Reader’s bias is very real in conducting solo literature review so such an exercise can help fix such biases.
One caveat though, often the early stage researchers think of the literature review as a one time exercise. As it turns out, literature review database as actually time sensitive- meaning the importance of a literature review database diminishes without outdated content. So, with the passage of time, you would want to filter out the “old” citations and look for their recent extensions or swap them out with other relevant works. This will help ensure that the literature review is kept up-to-date so that you are basing your claims on recent data. The frequency at which you would need to update this literature review database depends on the rate of progress of your niche. Ideally, your literature review database is considered relevant if you have the past 5-7 years of articles in your collection, though these numbers are arbitrary.
Literature review or literature survey is often the precursor to planning a research project and proposing to invest significant efforts in it. The main idea behind this appraisal is to clearly understand who the closest competitors are, what is the current state-of-the-art in the field and what are the limitations that you plan to address as a part of your research proposal. The more thorough you are with your literature review, the more confident you can be with your proposal to pursue a certain research topic while providing evidence.
Another key thing to keep in mind when it comes to literature review is that, the literature review database you prepare needs to be constantly updated with time as an outdated database would mean somebody else might have already beaten you to the punch and you are trying to reinvent the wheel thereby wasting efforts. The frequency of update of this database needs to be aligned with the rate of advancement in your particular field.