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Engineering: The Literature Review Process

How to do a thorough literature review for a dissertation, thesis, applied project or grant application.

Your TBR (To Be Read) Pile

You've been searching the literature gathering documents  -- lots of documents.  Your file in a citation manager for this project is bulging and if you've printed out those documents, the pile is huge.   

Here's some advice on how to manage all this reading material.  


Tips For Getting Through That TBR Pile

  • Set Goals
    Decide the date when you need to complete your reading list.   How many days away is that from today?   How many documents are in your list?  If you've got 200 articles to read and you want to accomplish that within a month, you'll need to be reading 6-7 articles each day or about 50 each week.
  • Schedule Reading "Appointments" on Your Calendar
    Don't leave this up to chance. Make an appointment with yourself as often as needed - an hour or two each day, several times a week - whatever you need.   And then stick to it; don't cancel your reading time for other activities. 
  • Always Have Your Reading Available
    You never know when you might get the "gift of time" so whether you prefer digital or print, carry the items you need to read with you.   Whether riding the bus, waiting for someone to arrive for an appointment, standing in line, or riding that exercise bike, take advantage of these short breaks to pull out the next item in your reading pile.

How to Read a Research Article

The following articles recommend ways to read and digest a research article ...

  1. Keshav, S.  How to Read a Paper.  University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada)  August 2, 2013.
    "The key idea is that you should read the paper in up to three passes, instead of starting at the beginning and plowing your way to the end. Each pass accomplishes specific goals and builds upon the previous pass: The first pass gives you a general idea about the paper. The second pass lets you grasp the paper’s content, but not its details. The third pass helps you understand the paper in depth."
  2. Ling, Charles X. and Yang, Qiang. Crafting Your Research Future: A guide to Successful Master’s and Ph.D. Degrees in Science & engineering. Morgan & Claypool, 2012. Synthesis Lectures on Engineering #18.
    Section 3.3: How to Read Papers presents advice on what parts of a journal article to read and what concepts to look for. 
  3. Purugganan, Mary and Hewitt, Jan.  How to Read a Scientific Article.  Rice University, Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication. 2004.
    "Reading a scientific article is a complex task. The worst way to approach this task is to treat it like the reading of a textbook ..."

Using a Literature Matrix

In your review you will need to "group" the literature that you've found. As you'll see in the next section, you can group by theme, method, topic, chronology, and other issues.   To keep track of what each document says and which ones have similar information, create a literature matrix.  The matrix will consist of a table, with each row representing a specific document.  Each column in the table will represent different issues, topics, themes, etc.   Once the table is filled out and you re-sort by the different columns, the patterns in the literature will stand out.  


Here's some articles that show how to do a matrix. 

  1. Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix.  VCU/NCSU
  2. Literature Review: Synthesizing Multiple Sources. VCU/IUPUI
    See the literature review grid on page 2. 

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