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Engineering

Literature Reviews in Engineering

What is a literature review?

"A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. Occasionally you will be asked to write one as a separate assignment ... but more often it is part of the introduction to an essay, research report, or thesis. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries."

--Written by Dena Taylor, Health Sciences Writing Centre and available at http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review (Accessed August 27th, 2019)

What is the purpose of a literature review?

Not to be confused with a book review, a literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings, reports) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory.  Literature reviews provide a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work. The purpose is to offer an overview of and background on significant literature published on a topic, as well as your own critical thinking on how these works comprise this background, and what questions remain unaddressed by the existing literature.  A literature review's purpose is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution

  • Describe the relationship of each work to others under consideration

  • Identify new ways to interpret and shed light on any gaps in previous research

  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies

  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort (or retest previous effort to confirm or dispute it)

  • Point the way forward for further research

  • Place one's original work in the context of existing literature

The Literature Review Process:

Writing a literature review is a non-linear process. You may decide to revise your research question, find more resources and discard resources you've already found, change the way you want to structure your literature review, or how you want to address theories and ideas. Also, as you find resources on your topic, you will find that what you're writing is part of a larger conversation. There are already leading theories and a history on the topic you're pursuing and leaders who are already publishing their ideas. You'll become part of that conversation.

  • Choose a topic to explore and develop a research question to focus your research. You may revise this as you go.
  • Research and collect information from a variety of sources - books, journal articles, patents, conference proceedings, theses and dissertations, etc.
  • Skim the resources that you find.
    • Make note of those who are leading the conversation and the main theories in this field of research.
    • Make a brief note for each source of information. How do your sources support or contradict your theories?
    • Keep track of citations. You may want to use a citation manager such as EndNote or Zotero.
  • Organize your thoughts. What do you want to say and how do you want to say it?
  • Read sources more completely that fit within the scope of your research question.
  • Write, revise, proof-read, and add a bibliography.

Elements of a literature review:

  • An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review

  • Division of works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely)

  • Explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others

  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research
     

The literature review does not present new primary scholarship.  That comes in the section of your research that describes your experimentation (see the Research Process tab under Getting Started With Research).

What is a Literature Review and Why is it important?

A literature review not only summarizes the knowledge of a particular area or field of study, it also evaluates what has been done, what still needs to be done and why all of this is important to the subject.  

 

The Stand-Alone Literature Review:

When a literature review stands alone, it is reviewing what is known about the topic, analyzed for trends, controversial issues, and what still needs to be studied to better understand the topic at hand. A stand-alone literature review can be as short as a few pages or may be more extensive with long bibliographies for in-depth reviews. 

Examples:

The Literature Review as a Section:

Literature reviews can be used as part of dissertations, theses, research reports, and scholarly journal articles. They generally discuss what has been done before and how the research being introduced in this document fills a gap in the field's knowledge and why it is an important.  

Examples:

Annotated bibliographies

WHAT IS AN ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY?

An annotated bibliography is a list of citations to books, articles, and documents. Each citation is followed by a brief (usually about 150 words) descriptive and evaluative paragraph, the annotation. The purpose of the annotation is to inform the reader of the relevance, accuracy, and quality of the sources cited.


ANNOTATIONS VS. ABSTRACTS

Abstracts are the purely descriptive summaries often found at the beginning of scholarly journal articles or in periodical indexes. Annotations are descriptive and critical; they may describe the author's point of view, authority, or clarity and appropriateness of expression.

Permission to use all content in the tabs on this page granted from:
Olin Library Reference
Research & Learning Services

Cornell University Library
Ithaca, NY, USA

This guide shared under a Creative Commons Commons Deed, version 2.0 regarding attribution, noncommercial use, and "Share Alike" reuse.

WRITING AN ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Creating an annotated bibliography calls for the application of a variety of intellectual skills: concise exposition, succinct analysis, and informed library research.

  • First, locate and record citations to books, periodicals, and documents that may contain useful information and ideas on your topic. Briefly examine and review the actual items. Then choose those works that provide a variety of perspectives on your topic.
  • Cite the book, article, or document using the appropriate style -- here is a page explaining and offering examples of the different major citation styles.
  • Write a concise annotation that summarizes the central theme and scope of the book or article. Include one or more sentences that (a) evaluate the authority or background of the author, (b) comment on the intended audience, (c) compare or contrast this work with another you have cited, or (d) explain how this work illuminates your bibliography topic.

SAMPLE ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY ENTRY FOR A JOURNAL ARTICLE

 

The following example uses APA style (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edition, 2010) for the journal citation:

Waite, L. J., Goldschneider, F. K., & Witsberger, C. (1986). Nonfamily living and the erosion of traditional family orientations among young adults. American Sociological Review, 51, 541-554.

The authors, researchers at the Rand Corporation and Brown University, use data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Young Women and Young Men to test their hypothesis that nonfamily living by young adults alters their attitudes, values, plans, and expectations, moving them away from their belief in traditional sex roles. They find their hypothesis strongly supported in young females, while the effects were fewer in studies of young males. Increasing the time away from parents before marrying increased individualism, self-sufficiency, and changes in attitudes about families. In contrast, an earlier study by Williams cited below shows no significant gender differences in sex role attitudes as a result of nonfamily living.

 

This example uses MLA style (MLA Handbook, 8th edition, 2016) for the journal citation:

Waite, Linda J., et al. "Nonfamily Living and the Erosion of Traditional Family Orientations Among Young Adults." American Sociological Review, vol. 51, no. 4, 1986, pp. 541-554.

The authors, researchers at the Rand Corporation and Brown University, use data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Young Women and Young Men to test their hypothesis that nonfamily living by young adults alters their attitudes, values, plans, and expectations, moving them away from their belief in traditional sex roles. They find their hypothesis strongly supported in young females, while the effects were fewer in studies of young males. Increasing the time away from parents before marrying increased individualism, self-sufficiency, and changes in attitudes about families. In contrast, an earlier study by Williams cited below shows no significant gender differences in sex role attitudes as a result of nonfamily living.

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