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Literature review for scientists

Robert Saunders, Tuesday 23 March, 1.30pm-2.30pm, Workshop 2E, Wilson D Block

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13 March 2010

Robert Saunders

Tuesday 23 March, 1.30pm-2.30pm
Workshop 2E

Wilson D Block, HR Learning & Development Centre, Seminar Room 4

As a research student, it is vitally important to keep abreast of the literature as it pertains to your research field.  There are two points during your studentship where this is likely to be assessed formally: at probation Review and at the final Viva Voce examination.

The scientific literature is always changing, is often very fast moving, and it is wise to make plans and efforts to keep up to date at all times, and not just in preparation for the assessments mentioned above.  This session will cover the following topics: Exploring the purposes of the ongoing literature review; Identifying the sources; Internet searching; Structuring your review; Organising your materials; Working together to review the literature.

Robert Saunders is a Reader in Molecular Genetics in the Department of Life Sciences, where he researches the basic biology of ageing.  In that research, he uses the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model system, and takes a genetic approach.  From January 2008 until February 2010, he held the position of Academic Coordinator in the Research School, in which capacity he led the Research Career Development Team.  The RCD team is responsible for the delivery of career development events across all disciplines, and for all career stages.

Robert's research career followed a stereotyped path typical of the sciences.  His first degree was in Genetics at the University of Edinburgh.  Subsequently he embarked on a career in Drosophila research with a PhD in molecular genetics, also at Edinburgh.  From there, he moved to Imperial College and subsequently the University of Dundee for postdoctoral research, during which time he studied the cell cycle, and conducted genomic research, again using the fly as a model.  He continued the genomic research while undertaking a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellowship in which   techniques he developed for the Drosophila genome project were applied to the medically important fly Anopheles gambiae.


Robert joined the Open University in 1999, since when his research focus has been on aspects of the basic biology of ageing; specifically on oxidative stress and its relationship to the ageing process, and currently on modelling the human progeroid disorder, Werner's syndrome in flies.

(See also Workshop 2C: The literature review.)

Extra content

Rob Saunders (Session 2E)

Literature Review for Scientists (Tuesday 23rd March, 2010, 1:30 pm)

Very full session – I probably stole someone’s seat J.

Rob has started.

The purpose of the literature review is to review your literature and synthesise your ideas. Literature review is something you build up as you go through the year. You have to understand critically what your literature is saying about your research topic.

You need to state your own opinion and back it up with the literature. The field changes between an application going in for funding and the student being appointed. Sometimes, there are issues that come out of the literature which fundamentally changes what the student does.

You may also use the literature to understand how to display and compare your data.

Sources to be used in a review

  • Journals – major peer-reviewed source of information
  • Conference papers and proceedings
    • some conferences are rigorous in peer-reviewed and in others not so much as they can be preliminary sort of data
    • Book s – science changes so much that it may not be the best for the most updated information
    • Students’ theses and dissertation – information that probably not published but very valuable
    • Government documents
    • Statistics database
    • TV/Radio broadcasts
    • Grey literature
      • Company reports – these don’t usually write to be telling the truth i.e. they’ll be writing at an angle
      • Exhibitions/ performance

A student is asking how to reference notes made in a conference or meeting. Rob suggests asking the person and then citing it as personal communication or otherwise probably by the time you write your thesis it might be published already.

A student is asking how you know the academic reputation of a journal. However, Rob suggested that you evaluate the quality of the work and you have to trust the journal to peer-review properly. Using impact factors are probably not the best way of determining the reputation of a journal as it is dependent on the trendiness of the science.

Ensuring internet searching is done well

There are a variety of online databases for literature, grant opportunities etc.

You can use Google Scholar for journal articles or find pdfs online.

If you can’t find a document but you have the reference, you can ask the library to get it for you (library document request) or email the author for a copy.

Looking at science blogs is sometimes an interesting way of finding some research papers.

Aware of networks of researchers

Being proactive and going to conferences and meeting people.

You need to develop a network and contact people

Be careful of writing things on blog that might be intellectual property – and might give something away to a competitor. However, you can write about things you have already published.

Keeping organised

Organise your pdfs and your photocopies such as Endnote

Rob is saying he uses mind-mapping software when he has time to use it

Rob is asking how many journals they keep track of in a regular basis. Most of them say under 10. The students say they set up alerts at each journal.

Rob is talking about PubCrawler where you can set up keywords and then sends your articles that relate to it – but it can send you a lot of rubbish.

You can also use RSS feeds – and Rob is saying he uses Google Reader for his RSS feeds.

Rob is saying to keep up with the organising and putting it into Endnote etc.

Structuring your literature review

There’ll be two literature reviews you’ll write, one for the probation report and the other for your thesis and they might be the same or completely different.

It is structured by the research process stage:

  • Project aims
  • General subject background
  • Focus on specific subject area
  • Key issues that the literature identifies as needing researching

Don’t review heavily on review articles but it is useful for starting the literature review and getting the primary literature. Do read the primary literature.

You might do a literature for deciding your methods in the lab and for writing publications (e.g. literature review and the discussion sections). Brush up on literature before going to an international conference. Literature review is also necessary for writing a grant.

Rob says in a viva he might ask students why they cited a particular paper if the paper does not look appropriate.

Anesa Hosein
13:36 on 23 March 2010

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