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Engineering Literature Review

This guide provides an overview of the engineering literature review and its place in a research project, thesis, or dissertation.

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Get the big picture

As you retrieve sources, skim the article to get the “big picture” to ascertain its relevancy to your topic. You don’t have to understand every single idea in a text the first time you read it.


  • Start with venue / title / author list / structure of the article

Where was the paper published? What kind of journal it is? Is the journal peer-reviewed? Can you tell what the paper is about? Who are the authors? What are their credentials? Where are they from? What are the sections of the article? Are these clearly defined?

  • Read the Abstract
    • Can you figure out the purpose of the study, methodology, results and conclusion?
    • Mentally review what you know about the topic
    • Do you know enough to be able to understand the paper? If not, first read about the unfamiliar concepts
  • Read the Introduction section

What is the overall context? Is the problem clearly stated? What does the paper bring new? Did it miss any previous major studies? Identify all the author’s assumptions.

  • Examine graphs, diagrams, tables
    Analyze the visuals for yourself and try to understand each of them. Make notes on what you understand. Write questions of what you do not understand. Make a guess about what materials/methods you expect to see. Do your own data interpretation and check them against the conclusions.
  • Read the Results section
    Do you agree with the author’s opinion?
  • As you read, write down terms, techniques, unfamiliar concepts and look them up

Save useful references

Reference management tools are excellent tool to help you with collection, organization, note taking, sharing, and writing bibliographies. It takes disciple to use them efficiently but if done dilligently, the results are worthy.

Read for comprehension and take notes

Read for comprehension

After first evaluation of sources, critically read the selected sources. Your goal is to determine how much of it to accept, determine its value, and decide whether you plan to include it in your literature review.

Read the whole article, section by section but not necessarily in order and make sure you understand:

Introduction: What is known about the research and what is still unknown.
Methods: What was measured? How was measured? Were the measurement appropriate? Did they offer sufficient evidence?
Results: What is the main finding? Were there enough data presented? Were there problems not addressed?
Discussions: Are these conclusions appropriate? Are there other factors that might have influenced? What does it need to be done to answer remaining questions?

Find answers to your question from first step

Formulate new questions and try to answer them

Can you find any discrepancies? What would you have done differently?

Re-read the whole article or just sections as many times you feel you need to

When you believe that you have understood the article, write a summary in your own words (Make sure that there is nothing left that you cannot understand)

Take notes

As you read, take (extensive) notes. Create your own system to take notes but be consistent. Remember that notes can be taken within the citation management tool.

What to write in your notes:

  • identify key topic, methodology, key terms
  • identify emphases, strengths, weaknesses, gaps (if any)
  • determine relationships to other studies
  • identify the relationship to your research topic
  • new questions you have  
  • suggestions for new directions, new sources to read
  • everything else that seems relevant

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