Literature Reviews


Functions of the Lit Review

The function of a lit review/background section is several fold:

  • It provides the reader with basic context
  • It shows readers that the author knows the context and the major players/researchers/information pieces in the field
  • It summarizes current practices or the state of the field/topic
  • It builds the ethos of the author
  • It tracks back to core information via citations

Placement of the Lit Review

The function of the lit review gesture can be found in different sections of a piece of documentation, depending on the target publishing venue. For example, a traditional PhD dissertation would have a long section called, specifically, “Literature Review.” However, in a journal, you might see that the lit review actually takes place in the section called “Introduction” (see the articles in Physical Review, for example, at ).   Other documents, such as white papers or technical reports, might put their lit reviews in a “Background” or “History” section.

Investigate how your target publishing venue places the lit review, and follow that pattern.

Style of the Lit Review

The work of the lit review comes long before you set pen to paper or pixels. A lit review is the gathering, reading, analyzing, vetting, and synthesizing of the current state of information regarding the project/issue. For the technical professions, generally speaking, lit reviews do very little direct quoting; you don’t see very many quote marks. Rather, the major ideas are paraphrased and put into the writer’s own words and context. If several sources have the same stance, they are all cited.

Because this gathering-to-synthesizing activity is performed for a specific set of reasons, towards a specific end (providing a framework for your project or problem), it will necessarily have opinion, a bias, and a viewpoint to it. However, that stance should appear and read “clean.” There’s no reason to be too heavy-handed with your persuasive moves. The lit review is a piece written to convey what exists in the body of knowledge for your topic,  which pieces you are looking at,  and those pieces inform  the work you will be communicating in the rest of the report or article.

Length of the Lit Review

Some lit reviews/backgrounds (LRBs) do this in very short order, using anywhere from 250-750 words. Others, like those found in academic doctoral projects, can be pages and pages long. For most organizations outside of academic PhD programs, short lit reviews are common. Here is an example of a very short one from industry that did all the work that it needed to do in one short paragraph, using seven outside sources. Note that this writer is using IEEE citation format.

Engine cam covers have been made of thermoplastic for over a decade [1]. There has been more than plenty of research and technical publications [2] and patents [3] about the subject of thermoplastic cam covers. Unfortunately, most of the articles and publications focus on eliminating Noise, Vibration, and Harshness (NVH) emitted from the engine [4, 5]. The spacing between the bolts is only mentioned in some of the sources [6]. While bolt spacing can affect the NVH characteristics, the biggest limiting factor for the span between fasteners is the seal performance [7]. Internally, MPC has done extensive work on benchmarking our competitor’s products. This project will use this benchmark database to supplement the ongoing internal and external literature research.


(This example comes from M. Tanner, “Fastener Spacing Optimization for Sealed Engine Covers,” Internal document, Miniature Precision Components, Inc. Used with permission.)


Here is another short example from industry, with APA citation format in use. It goes into two paragraphs.

Jim Claerbout and Jens Godbersen describe a method of using a 1.2MW Active Front End system in testing VFD’s that is currently being used in production testing at Danfoss (Claerbout & Godberson, 2007). Keith Sueker has written of testing VFD’susing a static dynamometer system and another paper was discovered that uses a dynamic dynamometer for testing VFD’s which are similar methods to the one currently used at Danfoss (Newton, Betz, & Penfold, 1995; Sueker, 1997).


In an effort to gather information on the cost of implementing production test strategies, two works were identified that discuss the selection of test equipment to verify quality and functionality of a product as well as how slight improvements to testing can have a large impact on more costly downstream processes (Dendorfer & Sengupta, 2000; Smith, 2006). These combined works will serve as a starting point for making both the technical and financial arguments for this project.


(This example comes from  M. Press, “High Power Test Recommendation Report,” Internal document, Danfoss, Inc. Used with permission.)

There is more help available, too, from the Cornell Libraries: