Literature Reviews in the Sciences


Has this ever happened to you? One day, you are happily analyzing your research data. The next day, you are scrambling to figure out how to research and write a literature review. You’ve searched for and read research articles before. You may have even written or contributed to research articles. You KNOW your disciplines foundations. So why is researching and writing a literature review about something you know, giving you so many challenges? Literature reviews are notoriously difficult to write, especially for the first time. There are well-established reasons for this. As with any new and complex process, educating yourself is an excellent first step. In this micro-course, we will provide an overview of what literature reviews are, provide fundamental skills in both researching for and writing literature reviews, and suggest resources to help you along the way. Researching and writing literature reviews is not an easy project, but it is a project you can accomplish. The Writing Center, University of Wisconsin – Madison Libraries, University of Wisconsin – Madison.


Literature reviews are notoriously difficult to write, especially when attempted for the first time. What makes them so challenging?

  1. They require a complex integration of both research and writing processes. Many skills and competencies are involved in creating a successful literature review, including information literacy, data management, rhetorical awareness, and both content and procedural knowledge specific to your discipline. Current graduate students have shared that some of their challenges are knowing who the most reputable scholars are in their field; developing efficient processes for storing and managing information; and figuring out what is too broad or too specific an approach to writing.
  2. The literature review is not a particularly well-defined genre. What a literature review looks like can vary significantly depending on its context. As you’ll learn in the first lesson of this micro-course, literature reviews are diverse and dynamic because of the interrelationships among four major rhetorical features: type, form, purpose, and audience. One thing we can say for certain, though, is that a literature review is not a reference list! Rather, what characterizes a literature review is how authors put their collected sources into conversation with one another.
  3. Writing a literature review is often bound up in a high-stakes endeavor. It can be especially difficult to gain a sense of control and comfort in researching and writing literature reviews when your funding, dissertation progress, or publication is on the line.

Rhetoric is a complex facet of communication that has been explored and theorized for millennia, comprising an academic discipline in itself to this day. For now, what you need to know about rhetoric is this: Generally, “rhetoric” (and phrases like “rhetorical awareness” or “rhetorical features”) refers to the means of persuasion at play in a text. As you can imagine, the various means by which you might persuade someone (or a whole community of readers) will be different from one situation to the next. For example, if your purpose in communicating is to explain how climate change works, the way you go about explaining that will look different if you’re talking to a 6th-grade class versus colleagues in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

This micro-course addresses all three of these challenges to help you succeed in researching and writing literature reviews as a UW-Madison graduate student.

The course is broken into four lessons and includes opportunities for reflection, planning, and checking your knowledge along the way. While each of these lessons addresses specific facets of researching and writing literature reviews, please note that the many variations in literature review requirements prevent us from laying out a concrete step-by-step guide. What this course offers are strategies and guiding principles to aid your development of a process that works for you in your specific context.

Learning Objectives

By completing this course, you will be able to:

  1. Articulate the interrelationships among type, form, purpose, and audience for literature reviews in STEM
  2. Understand the foundational skills of researching for literature reviews (i.e. planning, organization, and disciplinary-based source exploration)
  3. Understand the foundational skills of writing literature reviews (i.e. planning, drafting, and revision)
  4. Apply skills in planning, organization, composition, and disciplinary-based source exploration