Kirsop Labs

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Writing your first literature review

Writing your first literature review can be daunting, and getting started is often the hardest part.

This article explains how to approach your first literature review and gives some tips on what to include and what to avoid.

If you’re about to write a literature review for a university assignment, you’re probably feeling a bit unsure, or unclear about what’s expected of you. 

Keeping the focus narrow

After being allocated with a suitable topic for your assignment, the first thing is to make sure that you know what it means – and what you’re expected to cover.

Writing a literature review on ‘the reaction of oxygen with flavoproteins’ is achievable.

But researching ‘all the reactions of flavoproteins in the body’ would be a never-ending nightmare!

Start with books and databases

If the topic is completely unknown to you, the first step is to consult a textbook or some basic introductory text designed to explain the subject to people with little prior knowledge.

Don’t jump straight in at the deep end searching for papers if you don’t have a good understanding of the content. If you do, you’ll end up producing a ‘data dump’ of irrelevant material.

That’s not a literature review.

If you feel up to it right away, start by finding 1 or 2 good review papers from a detailed database search and use those as your starting point.

Refer to your notes from a database workshop you must have attended in the past. These notes will refresh your memory about how to use keyword searches to find optimum results.

You shouldn’t just rely on Google Scholar as your only source of inquiry. Use 2 or 3 different chemistry databases and vary your keyword searches in each one.

Relevance is key

Once you have a grounding in the topic and feel ready to make a start, use the review papers you found from your database search to locate seminal papers and key players in the field.

Which papers are highly cited and why?

Then continue with your database search looking for original research articles to build your story around.

Important: Pay attention to how relevant an article is within the narrow focus of your topic.

For example, say your topic is on the uptake of vanadium in macrocycles as anti-HIV agents. A newly published paper on a major development in vanadium batteries might be fascinating, but it’s not relevant to your review.

Review articles vs original research

What’s the difference? Well, researchers submit 2 types of articles to academic journals. We refer to them as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ sources of literature.

Primary publications are articles that publish results of original research findings. These are the publications you are already familiar with – the ones you think of as ‘scientific papers,’ – they’ll make up the majority of references in your final bibliography.

Secondary sources, on the other hand, are review articles (published versions of the assignment you have been asked to write). These are not always peer-reviewed, so take care how many you use if they’re from sources other than scientific journals.

Reviews don’t contain original research – they are a summary of other peoples’ work.

They’re particularly useful for updating you on a topic and directing you to well-known published authors and research groups in the field. They’re also really useful for highlighting highly cited articles.

By the end of your research, your list of references will probably consist of:

  • the original or seminal paper on your topic
  • relevant original studies and reviews from the last 5 to 10 years
  • relevant publications that have a high citation rate

Remember to limit your references to the most recently published work. You probably only need 30 or 40 references for a student literature review and 10 years is a very long time in academia.

How to structure your literature review

Your review should consist of an Abstract (if asked for one), Introduction, Main Body and Conclusion.

Make sure that the Introduction contains any definitions and a short history of the subject area, leading into a statement of what the review is intended to cover.

You should organise the body of the text into numbered sections, which flow from one to another.

Think of it as telling a story – the reader shouldn’t have to jump backward and forwards so pay attention to the timeline and chronological order of events.

After considering the evidence from all the references you have used, you will form an opinion on where research in the field is going next.

Use this knowledge to write your Conclusion at the end.

Use clear, concise scientific language

Your literature review is more than just a list of publications.

As I mentioned earlier – it’s not a data dump. You are trying to tell the story of your topic, by evaluating the information you uncover and presenting it in a logical, flowing manner.

Use clear, concise language and keep the focus of your review topic.

Here are some useful links for formatting styles and templates:

  • Harvard. A guide for reference style.
  • Author templates. Provided by the RSC to ensure your review looks professional – UK universities accept this method for assignments, although US universities might prefer ACS standards. Either is fine so long as you only use one. Be consistent and don’t mix styles!

Use reference manager software

Don’t underestimate how awful it will be to organise references after your article is written.

Using reference manager software allows you to set up a personal database of selected literature, and each reference quickly builds up your bibliography in the formatting style of your choice.

It’s much easier, efficient and accurate than entering each reference one by one manually into a Word document. That’s tedious, time-consuming, and likely to be filled with errors.

You’ll already be aware of EndNote, and there are others like ReadCube, Zotero or Mendeley which are open source and free.

Pick one, learn how to use it, and you’ll never look back.

Use this literature review assignment as a practice run to teach yourself how to use it, and your writing will be much easier when it comes to your final dissertation.

Some general tips

Technical hints

  • If you decide to use explanatory diagrams to emphasise sections of text, make sure you use high resolution. Be especially aware of any text in your images as this might be unreadable once it’s inserted into your final document. Fix it – don’t leave it as it is.
  • Latin text is italicised such as in-vivo, e.g., i.e., etc. Cis-, trans-, R and S are derived from Latin and also italicised.
  • For chemical structures, use the ACS 1996 setting in ChemDraw. When you open the program, click ‘Apply Document Settings From’ in the File menu. By selecting ACS 1996, your structures will automatically be the correct arrangement and size to be seen on an A4 page.

Writing style hints

  • Don’t start a paragraph with a quote. Say what you think, then back it up with a citation source.
  • Overuse of common words is a hazard often encountered when writing literature reviews. Substitute words like ‘main,’ ‘popular,’ and ‘interesting,’ for more descriptive words.

Make use of the ‘Tools’ function in Word – use the Thesaurus to find alternatives to common words and learn how to improve your language. Keep it clear and concise.


Finally, don’t worry about how many references you have, or whether you’ve covered enough information. Just try to write a balanced, honest representation of the research and if you’re concerned, ask for help.

You should now understand how to approach writing a literature review.


Co-founder of the KirsopLabs project, and Editorial Manager of Neuroendocrinology, a peer-review Medical Sciences journal. Writing for a science blog is a great way for students to get published early in their career and great for a CV. Drop me a line if you'd like to discuss how to get involved with the KLabs project.

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