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Engineering -- Literature Reviews: Getting Started

This guide provides an overview of different types of literature reviews

Choosing your topic

One of the most difficult things while considering a literature review is to develop a research question. Your research question or hypothesis must be something that interests you, but also motivates you and is useful to investigate. Once your supervisor and you have decided on a topic, you may want to create a broad outline of the topic. You may or may not be able to narrow it down always, but by doing a preliminary search of the literature about the topic, will allow you to expand your knowledge of the topic and help you focus your topic and narrow it down further. This also helps to identify any gaps in the literature that require more research and may help you focus your research question further.

Some important questions to ask yourself when deciding a topic include:

  • Are you interested enough in the topic?
  • Do you know enough about the general context of the topic you want to work on?
  • Can you refine your topic down to a description of doable research?
  • Do you know how you will actually do the research?
  • Do you know what resources you need to do the research?
  • Do you know what kind of ethical approval you need?
  • Can your project be done in the time available?
  • Can you get access to the research context?
  • Can you work out a timetable for getting the research done and written up?

Taken from : Byrne, D. (2017). Checklist: questions to ask yourself when deciding on a topic. Project Planner. 10.4135/9781526408501

Research Question

Concepts and Keywords

Once you have determined your topic, you will need to develop the question or questions that your research will try to answer. One of the best ways to identify potential research questions is to identify concepts or keywords pertaining to your topic. These keywords will guide you to develop a search strategy. 

Key steps to follow while developing your topic:

  • Brainstorm concepts and keywords
  • Ask yourself if these concepts are too broad or too narrow
  • Write down a list of related terms or synonyms
  • Develop a Concept Map (A concept map is a brainstorming tool used to help you generate ideas and think about the relationships among these ideas).

Below is an example of a concept map  for the topic, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Note how research questions can emerge from your concept map.

Some of the research questions that might arise from this concept map include:

a. How has robotic technology enhanced ROV designs?
b. What are the applications of ROVs?
c. Which ROV design has the best maneuverability?

Another example of a concept map includes a researcher's ideas on expanding his interest on the topic of climate change.

Concept mapping or "clustering" "is a spatial technique that generates associations and seeks connections among them.  You begin by writing a work or phrase in the middle of a blank page and circling it.  As associations occur to you, you write them down and circle them, connecting them by a line to the work/phrase that gave rise to the association.  As you continue this process beyond the first words/phrases surrounding the original word/phrase, you will develop larger clusters in some places than in other.  The well-developed clusters may suggest the most promising ways to develop your topic" Henderson, Eric. (2012) The active reader: Strategies for academic reading and writing (2nd ed.) Don Mills, Canada: Oxford, p 73.

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