Writing Reviews

472 265 Office of Research Trainees
Writing a literature review will appear less intimidating if you clearly define your topic, audience, type of review you’re writing, and literature search strategy at the outset.

NOTE: This article appeared in the March 2020 Edition of the ORT Times.

Writing Reviews: Where to Start?

Breaking down this daunting task into three steps before you begin to write.

By: Candice Tang, Publications & Communications Assistant, ORT Times

Literature reviews are a staple in every trainee’s reading lists. A good review paper summarizes and evaluates research in the field of interest, imparting foundational knowledge to the reader. With new research being published at an unprecedented rate, some experts consider literature reviews both necessary and advantageous (link is external) for the busy grad student and scientist.

What if you are asked to write a literature review? It is more than simply gathering a list of relevant references: you must consider what you are writing about and who you are writing for. Moreover, the amount of time and resources that are available to you will dictate what type of review you will write.

This daunting task will seem more manageable when you break it down into the following three steps:

1. Define the topic and audience

Typically, it is safe to write about a topic you are comfortable with, such as the disease area you are studying. The topic should be broad enough to draw in readers from related fields yet narrow enough to keep the readers focused. At the same time, avoid too-narrow topics such as very recent trends, where there may not be enough peer-reviewed literature to summarize.

As you refine your topic, think about what interests you and others in the field. Ask yourself, “Why should someone read my review and no one else’s?” For example, a literature review on the applications of artificial intelligence in cardiac care is a hot topic that could appeal to individuals from multiple disciplines.

2. Decide on a type of review

Not all reviews summarize recent advancements in the field, such as with a narrative review. The University of Toronto defines (link is external) eight other common types of literature review such as meta-analyses and clinical practice guidelines. The type of review you write will depend on the amount of time and resources available to you. It can take writers up to one year to complete a systematic review, which involves identifying, critically evaluating and synthesizing empirical evidence across multiple research articles to draw precise, unbiased conclusions.

3. Review the literature

Performing the initial literature search for your review can help you further define your topic, audience and type of review that you are writing. Define search criteria (e.g., database, keywords, year published, geographic region) to retrieve the most impactful and interesting articles among thousands. Systematic reviews typically include a detailed search strategy in the methods section. To save time, remember to record quotes, ideas and detailed references as you read.

This article is meant to serve as a starting point for trainees hoping to practice their communication skills and learn more about their field of interest by writing a review article. Feel free to complete each step in the order that works best for you. Ultimately, the reader and the writer should be able to appreciate the major achievements, theories, challenges and outstanding questions pertinent to the research field.

For more information about literature reviews, check out the UHN Library and Information Services workshops here (link is external).