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NE 423: Naval Engineering Senior Design

Literature Reviews: What They Are and Why They're Important

What They Are

  • A critical summary of the relevant literature of a subject.
  • Depending on your subject, your field, and the type of review you're conducting, the chronological focus can be broad (historical) or narrow (state of the art).
    • Sciences tend to emphasize currency.
  • In whatever field, if there is some fundamental text that defined the field or topic of study, that must usually be included no matter how old it is (unless the focus of your review is limited to current research, as in a state-of-the-art review).
  • Literature reviews range in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages.
    • Or can be extended into an article solely reviewing recent literature, which are called review articles and which can be structured in different ways listed here.


Why They're Important

  • Think of a review as “[a]nalyzing the past to prepare for the future.” (Webster & Watson, 2002)
  • "Good review papers ... help bring structure and understanding to the often disjointed and contradictory work that is at the forefront of a research field." (Moldwin et al, 2017)
  • To discover the patterns that emerge within the large body of work devoted to one issue.
  • To establish an evidentiary basis of common thought and current questions about a subject at the given moment.


Moldwin, M. B., Florindo, F., Okin, G., et al. (2017). Why and how to write a high‐impact review paper: Lessons from eight years of editorial board service to Reviews of Geophysics. Reviews of Geophysics, 55, 860–863.

Webster, J., & Watson, R. (2002). "Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: Writing a literature review." MIS Quarterly 26(2), xiii-xxiii.

How to Write a Literature Review

Analyze!  Evaluate!  Synthesize!*



  • Keep an eye out for:
    • Pertinent info – who/what/where/when/why
    • Methods – the ever important how
    • Page numbers if you quote something (for easy transfer into your paper!)
    • Numbers (not just “increase/decrease” but “up 50%” or “down 24%”)
    • Purpose – why was each article written?
    • Bias – the author, like all of us, is a product of their education and experience, and that might affect how they perform their study and write about it. Is their bias obvious in their article? Does that affect the conclusions they draw?
  • Pay attention to citation counts and which articles/authors are especially influential in the field. 


  • Do you observe any patterns between articles? Is there a common thread in the research done in this field?
  • Conversely, do you see any gaps in research? (This is a good way to figure out what you can study yourself!)
  • How does each article compare to the others?
  • The conversation between researchers: Do any authors directly agree with each other? Do any disagree? Are some studies clearly responding to the work of earlier researchers?
  • What do the foundational articles (usually denoted by high citation counts and current citation even for an older article) say about the field? How has subsequent research responded/built on/diverged from the conclusions in this earlier research?
  • Do you agree/disagree with the conclusions drawn by the authors?


  • Use your spreadsheet (or whatever means by which you keep your articles organized) to sort the articles based on your plan in writing it, perhaps chronologically, or by pattern or theme.
  • Write what you found into a linear narrative, tying all the studies together by their subject matter and findings, grouping certain studies by pattern/theme. Show your understanding of the research you've read.
  • How have the key concepts of the field evolved through the process of the research conducted?
  • Quote if necessary but sparingly, there's usually a lot of material to cover and the important part of a lit review is your explanation of the issue, not the direct words of others. 
  • Keep it succinct -- it’s a lot of material but it’s not the bulk of your paper (unless it’s your whole paper!), so make sure you stick to word limits while also including the studies and discussion of those studies you have to to meet your research objective.



You are not writing an annotated bibliography, a simple summary of individual studies. You are showing the discourse in this research, the conversation these authors are having:

In other words, it is a style of writing which includes a number of different features including summarizing, description, analysis, discussion, evaluation, reflection and comparison. In order to achieve this style, a literature review cannot be brief, which explains why it is often the longest chapter in a student dissertation. (Oliver, 2012, p. 9)

You are writing this based on both what you've read and your experience with the subject. The conclusions you draw from the literature will show the reasons for your own work, so think of the review as a way to demonstrate your understanding of the subject.

*Adapted from Froese, A. D., Gantz, B. S., & Henry, A. L. (1998). Teaching students to write literature reviews: A meta-analytic model. Teaching of Psychology 25, pp. 102-105.

Oliver, P. (2012). Succeeding with Your Literature Review : A Handbook for Students. McGraw-Hill Education.

For more information:

For help writing the review:

One Way To Track What You Read

This is an image of the spreadsheet one of our librarians used to track dozens of articles for a research article literature review. Your needs may vary, but attached below is a template of this spreadsheet for you to use yourself, if it works for you.

Another way:

Finding Relevant Articles

When you need to include every article written on your topic for your project's report, there is no single place to look to make sure you've found everything. However, the job is made somewhat easier by databases known as citation indexes.

Scopus and Web of Science track how often papers are cited, and it is through this citation analysis that you can get a sense of what people have written and what, based on the citations, are considered foundational papers in the field. You should do your search in both to make sure you're catching everything; while there is a fair amount of overlap, they draw from different collections of publications.