Academic writing tips 6 : From Title to Literature Review

This is a request writing that came to me several days ago. The aim of this article is giving simple guideline for students to develop a good literature review. Hence they can understand why they need to conduct a research (chapter one), what is the background theory (chapter two) and what is the best method to conduct the research (chapter three)

The Background Story
There is a common practice – in the place where I teach – that students should submit the title of their future thesis (undergrade and post grade level). From this title, the research committee will decide who will be their supervisor.

Now comes the problem, how should we make a guideline for the students so that they can build the chapter one (why they want to make a research), chapter two (the literature review), and chapter three (how do they do it).

I hope this article will give you, my students, a brief and simple guideline to make it. Some of this material actually is already written in my blog too, but for this particular reason, I will compile it and I hope will make it easier for you to understand.

Number One
Your title should be coming from your question it self (ignore the terms research question, if that make you scared).
What do you really want to know ?

I will use the example from my student, Janatarum (thanks for him), that allowing me to use his material.

It is important for you, that you know what you want to know. In my case, me as supervisor, will have a discussion with my student. And discuss that title. Why did he came out with the title. Usually this will have the result of Research Questions. The sharpen one.

The Illustration below :

Janatarum, why do you want to make a research on Surgical Check List ? Since I can see that your title is Compliance in Surgical Safety Checklist (translation from : Kepatuhan Pelaksanaan Surgical Safety Checklist ). He said that he want to know whether SSC could be implemented in Indonesia. And he want to know what is the factor that influence the SSC application. Do they like it ? Or do not like it ? or .. ?

After several discussion, he, in this case, want to make a review paper of SSC.
My suggestion is, if you don’t have time with your supervisor, then talk to your friend. Have a discussion with your friend. If you cannot explain clearly what you want to your friend, it meant you are not clear your self. You still confused.

In this case, his research question at this moment is that he want to know the factors that influence the adherence of using SSC.
Remember, don’t think that this is fix. Actually I have rules to my student(s) that title is always will be called as working title (a.k.a not fix), until they announce you graduate and your thesis is submitted to library (after long revision). Title could be change. Don’t worry, it is not personal.
This also applied to research question(s), it can be change in the middle. Why ? after studying a lot of things, we usually find something new that make our research question changed. Because sharpened, more specific, or could be little bit turn to the other course. No worries.
I keep making it a joke, if you can make your research question correctly, means you already passed your PhD.

sample title

Take a look at the illustration above. We have the title, and we will go to next section.

Number Two
From the title, turn out we can make it into two distinct domain of knowledge, I will call it dk. In this Number Two section, we will discuss what happened after we found out the title with the real question that you, my student(s), want to know.

Turn out, from the title we have 2 dk. It can be different with your case, I use example from one of my student which is recently graduate, therefore I still remember the process.

In this section, you have to start to make technical notes (tn) for each dk.
You can find how to make technical notes from here. And you should use bibliographic software from now on, Zotero is one of it (you could find it here)

The important things to start with, is understanding the SSC it self. So make a tn of SSC dk. I was asking my student to find any review paper or paper that able to describe about SSC.
Make it into tn format, and discuss it with me after that.
This one is to make sure that he knows exactly about SSC

So, in this step, the main point is : understand everything about the main topic. In this case about SSC.

Find about 10 (at least) review (also systematic review) paper and plus other sources to read. Don’t read only, make a note. Because otherwise you will forget easily.

This will be the first question you should find the answer :

And those questions, then translated into TN.
You have to find at least 3 answer from each question from the left column. Copy paste the answer into right column.

a technical note (TN)

Do this kind of format for each of the DK. One DK one TN.
If you have 3 dk, then you have to do that for each of those dk. This is for the start.

Number Three
after you have basic knowledge, then we move to another step. In this step, the main point is developing keywords, in order to have/get more complete resources.

This basic knowledge is a good starting point for developing good keywords. And remember, you can’t build good keywords unless you have good knowledge. So reading is essential.

from one domain of knowledge (DK) become keywords

After initial reading, turn out, we found three keywords that we can use to describe surgical safety checklist. We did not find any other name or research brand that similar to this. Therefore, we stick to those three keywords to describe SSC.

Moving towards compliance. What is it actually?
This is about behavior. A physician behavior. Especially their adherence, their behavior with the “strict rules” in doing something. Therefore, you could read and find any keywords that match with the concept of behavior in terms of the physician practice/habit or culture within their working environment, hospital.

At that time, we want to focus on the specific topic. See below diagram

complince keywords checklist

After initial discusion, we had discussion on the keywords that we agree on. Turn out, there are two sub DK, Complience and Improvement.
And later on, we add more searching about behavior.

Repeat this process. Read to find another keywords.
You can start small. Then read it. After that, you will find another keywords.
Add that keywords to search strategy. And read again the result.

Number Four
This is the step for searching and collecting the resources.

So many times I heard from students that they didn’t find the information they need. Most of them are lacking of the skills of searching. Lacking of building keywords.

I like to start my search using Pubmed.gov
And search it using boolean search strategy. About boolean, just remember three things AND, OR, NOT


with an OR, the database will show all record that have coffee
also all record that have health

in this case,
the database will show the record if they have the words coffee also health at the same time. If they only have one of it, it will not appear in the search result

This one is pretty easy to understand. The database will show the record that have coffee in it. But if somehow in that record also contain healt, they will not show it.
In other words, they will not show any records that have healt in it.

After you understand this principle, you can use this whenever you want to search in any database (kind of). In google or google scholar, for example.
Although I prefer you to search from Pubmed.

I wrote simple how to here.
You can try to use it. And see what happened.

Sometimes, some database have their own rules, and also have very different web interface (looks). Even they have kind of automatic search finding that can help you by finding something that might related to your search. I do not really like it, though. I prefer manual search. You still can do similar boolean logic search in that database (usually).

Number Five
Structure of your literature review (chapter two), become the minimum knowledge that you have to understand.
Remember, you will not be able to create chapter two (the list) at once. Usually, after reading some, then you get more information. And you will edit chapter two. Reading again … so on ..and so on. Till you think it is enough.

This is the illustration on how the chapter two is growing.
At first, he think that in chapter two should be incorporated
1. Surgical Safety Check List
2. Compliance

And then after reading and discussion again, become
1. Patient Safety
2. Surgical Safety Check List
3. Compliance

And at the end of the thesis, become
1. Patient Safety
2. Surgical Safety Check List
3. Human Behavior

Those process above was the result of reading, contemplation, summarize
and back to reading again. All of those reading and summarizing has to be written and documented in TN. Otherwise, you will forget about it.
And that will create sub-sections(sub-heading) below each section (heading). And you will find it from your TN.

If you want to make a review paper, please refer to this article.

Number Six
Not only chapter two, actually. But you can do this for chapter three.

Most of the time, I asked my students to make this kind of TN. But in order to study and find the best Research Method, of course you will focus on the Method section of the journal papers.

Find similar research, and how do they do it. If you find the resource from reputable journal, you don’t need to worry about the quality of the research method. You might not be able to find research that exactly match with your research.
So, you can combine several research methods.

What about chapter one ? well find it, review from background or introduction section of journal paper too. You will see so many example of the reason why researcher do their research. What do they want and why.

Last but Not the Least
Avoiding plagiarism. This is simple, but might take times.

Remember that you have to find 3 or more answer for each question in TN ? Well …this is the reason.

Sentences example :
1. Lecturer says that student must work hard to study the material.
2. Learning style from each student are different, some need snacks during study. Whilst eating snacks quietly is allowed by the lecturer.
3. Drinking lots of water will keep your concentration

Combine together become :
Students are allowed to eat and drink during class, as long as able to create conducive environment, so that everyone is able to study for long time period.

Above is just whatever sentences coming out. But I hope you get my point.
From 3 sentences, you can create by summarizing/interpret, become one sentence.

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