Return to the Courses page


Each of my courses requires a major writing experience called a literature review. Uniformly, these are due the last day of classes at 4:00 PM EST, no exceptions. The guidelines are given here and should be read and followed closely.



It is not a term paper. You are not reviewing information as much as you are reviewing the literature that contains the information. The creation of a literature review is one of the most difficult and important tasks faced by scientists. It requires the culmination of many skills including library research, logical arrangement of information, and scientific writing. The purpose of the literature review may be many fold but usually it is the first step in the process of doing scientific research. Before any scientist approaches the lab bench, they first approach the body of primary literature. It might surprise you to learn that most literature in science is rather useless in that it is never cited in other publications. It is estimated that only 5% of the publications in the natural sciences are useful in terms of being accurate, significant and worthy of guiding future research. Thus, the role of a good literature review is to find and present the pertinent work from the primary literature in a logical, organized manner and to bring the reader as up-to-date as possible. Primary literature is defined as peer-reviewed journals that publish the original research findings. Review articles and general science coverage articles are called secondary literature. One way of looking at this is to find the latest review article on a subject, use that information for your introduction, and then update that with the primary literature throughout the text of the review. Remember that works such as the Annual Reviews series (which are collections of literature reviews) contain information that is about 2 years old.

Although as a student you may not be planning actual research, you must learn the skills needed for doing a literature review. The following sections will guide you in terms of my expectations.


If you are doing this process as an assignment (as opposed to planning research), it is often difficult to choose a topic. A topic may be either too broad or too narrow. Your goal with the review is to define the topic, provide historical perspectives, and to describe the knowledge of the topic as up to date as possible. You may also need to discuss or resolve conflict in the literature. The first step is to pick a general topic and then to find a few articles on it. The only way to define a topic is to read about it. You can find these first articles by using written indices such as BIO ABSTRACTS or INDEX MEDICUS. It is normal to change the scope of your topic as you proceed with the process of searching the literature.


Along with searching via the written indices, you should also learn to search via computer on the appropriate database. The library homepage allows access to both Biosis and Medline literature databases. There are special rules in place for computerized searching to conserve on expenses.

1. Review your search strategy with your instructor prior to doing the search, especially if it is an on-line search.

2. Design your on-line search strategy to give a yield of about 40 or less citations. You will use language and date of coverage to do this in addition to a good search strategy. If you are searching via Internet on Basic Biosis and/or Medline, there is no limit on citations.

3. Do not submit more than 40 ILL requests (PER COURSE). This does not mean that you only need 40 references. Be sure to fill out the ILL form correctly. You may attach a copy of the computer printout of the citation but be sure to include the assession or record number on the form. [Note: if you access MEDLINE through First Search, this number is called the record number. If you access it through PubMed or Greatful Med on the internet, this number is called the UI number. If you access it through the Silver Platter at the Launders Library terminals (not the computer lab but the stations inside the library), the number is called the assession number.] ILL will not process your request without these numbers. Also be sure not to submit duplicate requests.


The review will contain the following:

Title page - The title should be succinct and descriptive. Include the course and date somewhere on this page along with your name.

Outline - This gives the details of organization of the information covered in the review. Each item listed will correspond to a section heading within the text of the review.

Text - The first section of the text should be the introduction. Here you will define the topic and in doing so, give appropriate historical perspective of the topic. The remainder of the text will be the various sections as outlined. The text should end with a succinct summary or conclusion section on the most relevant findings of the review or a discussion of the future directions of research based on the logic of the information presented.

Literature cited - Here you will list only the citations of the articles that were referenced within the review. Do not use footnotes in the text for referencing. Everything in your text other than your own thoughts should be referenced. The reader should be able to find the original source of all the information presented. It is better to over-cite than to under-cite. Use the following format for the citations listed as "Literature Cited".


Journal article:

Last, F., F. Last2, F. Last3, and F. Last4. (199X) Title of the article. Journal abbreviation ##(#):##-##.
(i.e., volume(number):inclusive pages)


Budd, T., K. Bielat, M. Meenaghan and N. Schaaf (1992) Microscopic Observations of the Bone-Implant Interface of Surface Treated Titanium Implants. Int. J. Oral Maxillofacial Implants 6(3):253-258.

Book citation:

Last, F., F. Last2, F. Last3, and F. Last4. (199X) Title of the chapter. In Title of Book, vol. #, no. # , Last, F., F. Last2 and F. Last3, (Eds.), Publisher, City., pp ## - ##


Meenaghan, M., K. Bielat, T. Budd, N. Schaaf, and K. Nagahara, (1991) Nature of Metalic Implant Surfaces and the Importance of their Preparation. In Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Clinics of North America, vol. 3, no. 4, Berardi, L. (Ed.), W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, PA., pp. 765-773.

Taheri, S.A., R. Heffner, M.A. Meenaghan, T.W. BUDD, B. Albini, S.M. Elias, L.H. Pollack, D.R. Pendergast, R.M. Shores, (1985), Technique and Results of Venous Valve Transplantation. Chapter 16 in Surgery of the Veins, Bergan, T.J., J.S. Yao, (Eds.), Grune & Stratton, Inc., Orlando, FL., pp. 219-231.

The citations may be referenced in the text of the review by a number that is either encased in parenthesis, superscripted or subscripted. They may also be referenced by last name and year of publication.


...were tested by ELISA. (1) ...were tested by ELISA(1,6,11-14)

...were tested by ELISA 1 ...were tested by ELISA 1

...were tested by ELISA. (Budd 1992)

If referenced in the text by a number, the citations may be listed in the literature cited section either in the chronological order of use in the text or alphabetically by the senior authors last name. If citations are listed in order of use and a single citation is referenced more than once in the review text, do not assign a new number on the second use. Use the number assigned initially to it. If the citations are listed alphabetically, assign numbers according to the ascending sequence. The number for each citation may also be used more than once if cited more than once in the review. In other words, don't use IBIDs. If citations are referenced by name and year, the citations should be listed alphabetically.


In a word, this means succinct. Use the fewest number of words but be precise and clear.

Other rules for this review:
1. Write in the past tense. You are writing about information that was discovered in the past. Many journal editors allow authors to write in present tense when dealing with what are referred to as "continuing situations", i.e., it was true in the past, is true presently and will be true in the future. There is some latitude for this in the introduction where you are describing the general status of your topic but when you are writing about the articles that you have found to up-date the topic, write in the past tense.

2. Do not write in the first person. Again, some editors allow this but it is poor scientific writing. Instead of writing "We (He, They) found this and that" write "This and that were found" or "It was reported that this caused that" etc.

3. Do not borrow language. That constitutes plagiarism and is not permitted, even though you may have cited the article. Write in your own words according to your own understanding of the material. Use quotes only sparingly. It is the student's responsibility to read the student handbook section on academic honesty and to understand what plagiarism is. I reserve the right to ask you for copies of your references if I suspect that you have plagiarized.

4. Do not use material from the Internet unless it is a professional, peer-reviewed scientific journal, of which there are now many on the Internet. Most of these are published by professional associations. If you are not sure of the validity of your source, ask your instructor for clarification.

5. Type the review double-spaced, use New Times Roman or New York font not less than 12 pitch, and staple the review at the upper left corner. Do not use any paper clips, binders or covers.


Quantity is not relevant. Quality is! My standard reply to this question is that "I have seen great reviews with 100 pages and 100 references and I have seen poor reviews with 100 pages and 100 references. I have seen great reviews with 20 pages and 20 references and I have seen poor reviews with 20 pages and 20 references. " This endeavor will be a significant part of your grade. You will learn a great deal from this exercise, not only about your topic, but also about how to learn science. I doubt that there are many topics that you could choose that would have fewer than 50-100 recently published articles. Most have several hundred or thousands. It is your task to find the relevant articles and make sense of them.

I do not return literature reviews. I do not review drafts. Examine past reviews to get a feel for the scope and nature of what I expect of this endeavor.

Reviews are due the last day of classes at 4:00 PM, EST, NBS. There are no exceptions to this deadline. I advise that you make several backup copies of your work as you progress through the writing.

Students are also required to turn in an electronic copy of their review as a Microsoft Word document. These are then sent to a website and checked electronically for plagiarism.



Acronyms that I use when evaluating your work and tests:

NACS = not a complete sentence (you need a noun, verb, and object)
LAP = lick and a promise (insufficient effort, do it over)
SS = sentence structure (bad, doesn't make sense, wordy, tenses don't agree)
PT = past tense (i.e., you didn't use it)
NRTQ = not relevant to question (or topic)
BW = borrowed words (plagiarism, if I prove it, you flunk)
Eh! = not really well worded or thought out, but technically correct.
? = you did much worse than expected.
SOOFU = spell out on first use (for uncommon acronyms)

Common tense bloopers:

Present tense vs Past tense
bind Bound (not binded)
Has/have Had
Lead (not the metal) Led (not lead)
Can Could
May Might

Miscellaneous rules commonly violated:

Don't begin a sentence with a numeral.
Spell out acronyms on their first use (unless generally known such as DNA).
Try not to use passive voice.

Be succinct (i.e., precise, clear and use the fewest words possible):


Wordy = During the year of 1988, the CDC decided to do a national survey in an attempt to elucidate and evaluate the extent of HIV infection that was thought to exist in women throughout the entire country.

Colloquial = In 1988, the CDC did a national survey to see the HIV that women get.

Redundant = In 1988, the CDC conducted a national survey to determine HIV prevalence among women nation-wide.

Succinct = In 1988, the CDC conducted a national survey to determine HIV prevalence among women.


Wordy, colloquial and redundant (an actual quote from a review) = There exists much criticisms of research done in developing countries for a lot of reasons including the fact that some researches have been done in these developing countries that are found to be unethical in developing countries.

Succinct = Research performed in developing countries has been criticized for many reasons, including ethical considerations.

Wordy (an actual quote from a review) = It was studied and observed that introduction of one stress can make it so that the organism was more protected against these other reported stresses.

Succinct = The introduction of one stress developed protection against the other stresses.

Other examples:

In order to (To )
It was found to have had (It had )
Due to the fact that (Because )
.. serves the function of having been (.. was )


Poor wording = The amino acid in the sixth position of the b-globulin protein was changed and it was unable to maintain the original configuration.

What does "it" refer to, the amino acid or the protein?

Clear wording = The b-globulin protein was unable to maintain the original configuration due to the change in the sixth amino acid position.


Word experimental evidence and recorded observations in the past tense. Only use present tense for general information and continuing situations.

Present tense = African American AIDS patients are diagnosed with CMV retinitis at a later stage than white patients.

Remember that you are reporting on literature, not on the information. You have no way of knowing if the example above is true today or will be true tomorrow. You are only reporting what was found in this past study.

Past tense = African American AIDS patients were diagnosed

Tense switching (and wordy) = The educational message that has been delivered by these kinds of programs was that no risk activity is safe and that exposure to blood was dangerous.

Better = These programs delivered the educational message that risk activities and exposure to blood were dangerous.

Incorrect = There has been few problems using condoms.
Correct = There have been few problems using condoms.
Better = There were few problems using condoms

Dumb = The article talked about or The article spoke about
Obviously articles can't talk or speak; they can explain, describe, enumerate, clarify, compare, define, contrast, elucidate, report, record, outline, list or conclude, but they can't talk or speak.

Dumb = After viewing through the microscope, the cells looked large.
In 30 years, I have yet to see a cell viewing anything with a microscope.
Better = Microscopically, the cells looked large.


Good luck, have fun, and don't worry!

Return to the Courses page