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Reviewing literature

1rad-1rl As a PhD student, you are expected to place your work in the context of current research. It will save you time and effort to develop a systematic searching and reviewing approach early in your career. Follow these three steps towards an efficient literature reviewing:

  • develop a search strategy
  • select literature based on critical reading
  • write using the reviewed literature

Develop a search strategy

A search strategy can either aim to capture as much of the relevant literature as possible, known as high sensitivity, or to be very precise to ensure high relevance, often called high specificity.

Two widely applied methods of searching are:

  • Tracing references – to build on the literature you already have, using reference lists and citations in relevant works, going forwards and backwards in citation indexes.
  • Topic searching – to actively search out relevant literature using bibliographic databases, search engines, library catalogues and indexes.

More details on the search methods including practical examples from various disciplines are available on the Discovering your field page.

Critical reading

While you are searching, reading and evaluating, your search results or hit list will focus your search and limit the amount of text you will have to read. Evaluation is first and foremost a question of dicipline-based judgements.  A systematic description of the process can include:

  • read titles and abstracts
  • use bibliometric measures
  • describe inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • read selected literature in depth
  • save search strategies to repeat searches

Bibliometric measures

Citations are increasingly used for the purpose of evaluating research. The most common bibliometric measures are:

There are several online services that will help you find these measures:


Writing with literature

Your research is not done in isolation from previous research. At PhD level your inclusion of existing literature will show how well you know your field of research, as well as demonstrate that your research will fill gaps in the present knowledge. Your text should aim to:

“The most important things are first of all to know the state of research in what you actually do. And be able to place yourself in relation to what is going on in your field”.
PhD, social sciences

  • develop arguments with previous research
  • compare your findings with previous research
  • contrast your results with those of others
  • demonstrate the contributions your research gives to the field

The writing may take the form of:

  • a chapter in your dissertation
  • a section in your article
  • the introduction or summary in an article-based thesis
  • an integrated discussion with your arguments and interpretations throughout your dissertation
  • a work in its own right, e.g. a review article
  • applications for grants and funding

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