The purpose of a literature review in a thesis is to synthesise previous researchers’ studies on a topic or subject. In a typical thesis, at least 30 studies are evaluated. Sometimes up to 150 studies are reviewed if the scope of the research is vast with many elements. Therefore literature review planning is a crucial step. Not only does it give the researcher a clear map of the entire study, but it also simplifies the process of writing.
The first step in planning a literature review is to decide the topic or subject. Then, identify the research gap(s). This should be followed by deciding the research audience, who will be interested in the study and why.
Finally, the most time-consuming step in the literature review planning is deciding the sources of information and the structure of the chapter. A literature review should be organized from broad to specific concepts and explain the significant theories or models with a conclusion.
Key challenges in the literature review writing process
Before exploring why literature review planning is important, it is essential to identify the common difficulties faced while writing the literature review. Some of the key difficulties are as follows.
- Losing track: It’s easy to lose track while reading a book or a lengthy article. The lack of attention may lead to missing some essential details for writing a literature review successfully.
- Finding relevant information: It’s challenging to find relevant and accurate results when searching for information online. Finding good sources of information like journal articles and books requires entering the right keywords on search engines, access to expensive online libraries, and availability of enough studies on a topic.
- Tracking recent statistics: finding statistical data on recent developments in the field of research is a challenge too.
- Keeping track of the references: Since researchers cite more than 100 studies, it gets challenging to keep a track of all the references used. This may cause loss of some references, improper citation, etc.
- Formatting: Researchers underestimate how long it takes to format a thesis. A literature review consists of not only text but diagrams and tables too. Therefore formatting is essential and challenging.
Literature review planning tools to simplify the writing process
To actively handle the above challenges, proper planning is essential. Fortunately, today there are a number of applications and tools that make literature review planning easier. These tools deal with the task of mainly finding, organizing, and managing resources.
Referencing tools can format and organize the references in research papers, essays, PhD thesis, and dissertations. Different tools like Mendeley, Zotero, EndNote, Citavi, or RefWorks are used for storing and formatting the references. They perform the following functions:
- Discover the latest research on a topic through communication with other researchers.
- Database for organising and storing your online resources.
- Automatic citation and bibliography generator.
Creating mind maps
A thesis has many concepts. Researchers split these concepts into tranches during the research process to make the writing simpler. However, sometimes it does not make sense as a whole in the end. A mind map is a diagram which represents your idea systematically. An increasing number of researchers are using mind mapping tools like XMind to visualise their research idea. Many of these tools are free and offer advantages like:
- It shows how different elements of a study are interconnected.
- It is excellent for brainstorming; it can show how small ideas can emerge from a central research topic.
- Keeps a track of keywords.
- Enables problem-solving.
Keeping plagiarism at bay is one of the biggest challenges in thesis writing. Even the best authors with original research findings find it hard to make their thesis completely plagiarism free in their first attempt. This is not always intentional. That’s why plagiarism detection software is useful. They help authors trace similarities in their content instantly, so that major changes, in the end, can be avoided. Therefore stage-by-stage plagiarism check is also a major part of literature review planning.
While plagiarism detection databases like Turnitin are renowned worldwide, their access is restricted and paid. There are some free ones like Grammarly which offers limited content plagiarism checks. They are easily accessible and user-friendly too.
When planning a literature review, it is important to know where to start and what comprehensive information to look for. Specific databases exist for academic purposes. Some, such as Google Scholar and Google Books are available for free. Others, such as Elsevier, Web of Science databases, JStor etc. need paid access. However, some universities offer free access to their students to such rich databases. They are extremely useful, particularly for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) research.
Perhaps the most common mistake researchers make in the thesis writing process is to leave the formatting to the end. Doing so leaves room for mistakes like skipping some citations or references, labelling figures and tables incorrectly, adjusting headings and sub-headings many times, and not getting an accurate idea about the page count. Following the formatting rules from the beginning of the literature review writing can help save a lot of time in the end. Formatting mistakes can be avoided by using simple formatting tools in MS Word. It has a number of features like:
- Auto-generation of the table of contents, list of figures and list of tables.
- Automatic tracking of the numbering in headings, and sub-headings.
- A simpler way to caption tables and figures.
- Automatically updating the page numbers.
- Grammar and spell-check.
The end goal should be to optimise time usage
New literature review planning tools are coming up every day. As research becomes increasingly complex, more advanced tools to simplify the process are also catching up. This article summarises the basic tools which must be used by every researcher in the thesis writing process. Apart from them, researchers can use others which can aid them in the literature review planning, especially in the case of technical subjects. The goal should be to simplify work as far as possible while reducing the time needed.