Form 2

Tips on Developing a Proposal Literature Review

“The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley [often go awry]”.  Robert Burns

The purpose of this form is to:

  • Introduce what a literature review is, in general, and in the context of a research proposal.
  • Help the resident researcher to kick-start the process of reviewing the literature and writing the literature review section of the research proposal.
  • Provide useful resources on how to conduct literature reviews.

A literature review in a research proposal:

  • Will discuss how the literature will be dealt with in the study you are proposing.
  • Should be a brief, systematic and condensed statement that orients the reader to the location of your proposed research in the broader literature.
  • Should cite and briefly outline only those sources that have the most direct relevance to your research questions in terms of ideas, methods, and theories and so on.
  • Should, if feasible, identify any gaps or inconsistencies or shortcomings in the existing literature (which could be used to refine your research purpose).

The act of reviewing the literature for a research proposal will: 

  • Suggest how to refine or rework your research questions or hypotheses.
  • Provide examples of methodological approaches you may wish to consider in your own study(methods is the next step after the literature review)
  • Help you identify and become familiar with your research area and topic.

One could start a research project by immersing themselves in the literature, reading broadly across some area. This could be initially interesting and thought-provoking, but it can soon become overwhelming, disorienting and time-consuming. So, go ahead immerse yourself – for a while. But the sooner you form research questions (as per Form 1), the better. The bottom line is this: The clearer your research questions, purpose and topic before you engage the literature, the less time you will spend searching through the literature. This being said, you should expect a certain ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ between the research questions and literature reviewing phases of your research proposal. Even if you feel uneasy about the first draft of your Form 1, it is a place to start. It will provide you with an anchor in what could be an ocean of literature.

After some initial excursions into the literature (and this means reading and critically appraising) -- something that no machine can do for you -- it is common to realize that your research questions and purpose needs revision. Do not be surprised that you will want to reword, or even totally replace the entire content of Form 1. You might discover, for example, that your research topic has already been studied ad nauseam or that someone has already done what you intended. You might even spend months on a literature review and then come across a single article, and in one ‘aha moment’, your research focus and questions become fundamentally transformed. When you complete your research proposal, make sure that whatever literature you review, the reader should be able to see a direct and obvious relation between each reference and your research purpose and questions. 

You might also discover that you find little to nothing on your research topic. This has two implications. First, you have discovered a ‘gap’ in the literature. This is a good thing. This would help you form a stronger case for why your research needs to be done – you would add something to your research purpose discussion. Second, you are still left with the task of locating your research project in the broader literature, but you did not find anything!  Don’t despair. At this point you will realize why I bothered you so much on Form 1 about organizing your research project in terms of “Research Area” and “Research Topic”. Your next step then is to move up a level in abstraction from your “Research Topic” and explore the literature as per your statement of your Research Area. Again, the work you spend on Form 1 pays dividends later on.

Exploring the literature always involves broadening your understanding of what has already been done in relation to your research questions. In situations where the relevant literature is small, it may be possible that the literature review section of your proposal will not differ much from the one in your final report. In other cases, where the literature is extensive, it is appropriate to identify and review what seems like the key sources related to your questions and then say something like: “I propose to explore this literature more comprehensively later on”. And then indicate precisely what this literature is that you plan to explore. State why and to what ends, you plan to explore this research – usually to further ‘locate’ your research or to help answer one of your specific research questions.  This would be an example of something that is “open- ended” in your proposal, as opposed to “prestructured” (Punch, 2006).  Do not forget that a literature search is research.  A well-designed and implemented literature search may end up forming central pillar of the argument you make in your completed research report.  A full literature search can sometimes require a lot of time, deferring this task is an option, but only in cases where you can make a solid case for doing so.

Also keep in mind as you go over the literature that you should be attentive to discussions of theoretical or conceptual frameworks and methods that others have already used in your research area/topic. Sometimes a lot of your conceptual work, specific protocols, statistical applications and so on, has already been done for you – in the least they can fuel your own creative juices.The next major task in the proposal development is the methodology and there is no better place to get ideas for this than the pre-existing literature. You may also discover an article that has already reviewed extensively the literature related to your research questions. Also, do not neglect theses, dissertations and systematic reviews which may have done a lot of the time-consuming work for you already. Such sources often provide extended and critical appraisals that are often not present in space-constrained journal articles. (Do not to forget to make appropriate acknowledgements to any influences or sources of information in your proposal even if you do not quote directly from them.)

Librarians, databanks, and other literature searching tools 

While database searching can be learned on your own, I would recommend taking a short orientation workshop offered from time to time at the Health Sciences Library (individual sessions can also be arranged). A short workshop will save you time in the long-run.  So when you are ready to do your literature search, you will know the basics of database searches enabling a focus on the literature not the technology. While anytime is a good time to learn database searches, the ideal time to seek librarian assistance is AFTER you have decided on the contents of your Form 1, even if this is still tentative.

While you can ask a librarian to do much of, if not all, the database searching for you, I do not recommend this. I suggest you work in conjunction with a librarian. This means having a good grasp of the lingo, limitations and capabilities of the database search technology. Searches will be far more productive this way. And besides, knowing the basics of database searching will be forever useful. No matter how excellent the librarian is, they are not mind-readers.  They can never know exactly what you want (often because you are still in a process of figuring this out). Librarians will not likely stray too far from the path you have set for them and if you have set this path too wide, you get back more information than you can manage efficiently. However, when you have closer control of the search, you can afford to take whimsical side-trips from time to time.  You know when to proceed or turn around if a dead-end is suspected – a librarian may not. 

Librarians can also help you learn how to organize all of the citations you will discover by using a personalized, computerized bibliographic data base such as RefWorks. Again, you can learn this yourself, but do yourself a favour and take a workshop. RefWorks has its quirks.  And your librarian can help you around these. RefWorks is a creative tool for keeping track of your literature search. It allows you for example to form bibliographies; to help you keep track of what sources you have read. It can even do such things as prioritize and classify the sources you are reviewing, and take personal notes on each bibliographic reference.  When you come to preparing a journal manuscript, RefWorks can generate whatever bibliographic style is required. One drawback of RefWorks is that it is institution dependent.  So when you leave MUN, be sure to make arrangements so your RefWorks file does not get lost. 

Further Resources

  • Punch, Keith F., ‘Developing effective research proposals’, Sage, 2006.

    I suggest you buy a copy of this book and read over it carefully – a copy is available in the Health Sciences Library. In my consultation with you I will often refer to this book and the ideas contained within it. See pages 38-42 for specific discussion of literature reviews.

  • ‘The Research Guide: A primer for residents, other health care trainees, and practitioners’, Bart J. Harvey et al. Eds., Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, 2011.

    Contains a wealth of information on starting, planning, designing, proposing, conducting and reporting on research written especially for novice resident researchers in health sciences.  Each chapter lists a handy set “additional resources”.  Chapter 7, on “Searching the literature” is unfortunately limited to data base searching.

  • The online Anesthesia Research Guide.

    The Guide, prepared especially for anesthesia residents contains links to many sources on research proposal development, as well as lots of other useful information about research.

  • Garrard, Judith, ‘Health Sciences Literature Review Made Easy, the Matrix Method’, Aspen Publishers, 3rd edition, 2011.

    Is a step-by-step guide to doing literature reviews for the most inexperienced researcher. Even if you don’t follow the method exactly, it provides useful suggestions on how to conduct literature reviews systematically. Has a helpful appendix called Useful Resources for Literature Reviews.