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Engineering: The Literature Review Process : 1. What is a Literature Review?

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

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.  

 

  1. The Stand-Alone Literature Review

    A literature review may stand alone as an individual document in which the history of the topic is reported and then analyzed for trends, controversial issues, and what still needs to be studied.  The review could just be a few pages for narrow topics or quite extensive with long bibliographies for in-depth reviews.   In-depth review articles are valuable time-savers for professionals and researchers who need a quick introduction or analysis of a topic but they can be very time-consuming for authors to produce.

    Examples of review articles: 

    Walker, Sara Louise (2011)  Building mounted wind turbines and their suitability for the urban scale - a review of methods of estimating urban wind resource.  Energy and Buildings 43(8):1852-1862.
    For this review, the author focused on the different methodologies used to estimate wind speed in urban settings.  After introducing the theory, she explained the difficulty for in-situ measuring, and then followed up by describing each of the different estimation techniques that have been used instead.  Strengths and weaknesses of each method are discussed and suggestions are given on where more study is needed.   Length: 11 pages. References: 59.

    Calm, J.M. (2008)  The next generation of refrigerants - historical review, considerations, and outlook.  International Journal of Refrigeration 31(7):1123-1133.
    This review focuses on the evolution of refrigerants and divides the evolution into 4 generations.  In each generation the author describes which type of refrigerants were most popular and discusses how political, environmental, and economic issues as well as chemical properties effected choices.  Length: 11 pages.  References: 51.

     
  2. The Literature Review as a Section Within a Document

    Literature reviews are also part of dissertations, theses, research reports and scholarly journal articles; these types of documents include the review in a section or chapter that discusses what has gone before, how the research being presented in this document fills a gap in the field's knowledge and why that is important.  

    Examples of literature reviews within a journal article: 

    Jobert, Arthur, et al. (2007) Local acceptance of wind energy: factors of success identified in French and German case studies. Energy Policy 35(5):2751-2760. 
    In this case, the literature review is a separate, labeled section appearing between the introduction and methodology sections. 

    Peel, Deborah and Lloyd, Michael Gregory (2007)  Positive planning for wind-turbines in an urban context.  Local Environment 12(4):343-354.
    In this case the literature review is incorporated into the article's introduction rather than have its own section.  

    Which version you choose (separate section or within the introduction) depends on format requirements of the publisher (for journal articles), the ASU Graduate College and your academic unit (for ASU dissertations and theses) and application instructions for grants.   If no format is specified choose the method in which you can best explain your research topic, what has come before and the importance of the knowledge you are adding to the field.   

    Examples of literature reviews within a dissertation or thesis

    Porter, Wayne Eliot (2011)  Renewable Energy in Rural Southeastern Arizona: Decision Factors: A Comparison of the Consumer Profiles of Homeowners Who Purchased Renewable Energy Systems With Those Who Performed Other Home Upgrades or Remodeling Projects.   Arizona State University, M.S. Thesis. 
    This author effectively uses a separate chapter for the literature review for his detailed analysis. 

    Magerman, Beth (2014)  Short-Term Wind Power Forecasts using Doppler Lidar.  Arizona State University, M.S. Thesis.
    The author puts the literature review within Chapter Two presenting it as part of the background information of her topic.  

    Note that the literature review within a thesis or dissertation more closely resembles the scope and depth of a stand- alone literature review as opposed to the briefer reviews appearing within journal articles.  Within a thesis or dissertation, the review not only presents the status of research in the specific area it also establishes the author's expertise and justifies his/her own research.   

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