Engineering: The Literature Review Process

  • How to Use This Guide

What is a literature review and why is it important?

Further reading ....

  • 2. Precision vs Retrieval
  • 3. Equip Your Tool Box
  • 4. What to look for
  • 5. Where to Look for it
  • 6. How to Look for it
  • 7. Keeping Current
  • 8. Reading Tips
  • 9. Writing Tips
  • 10. Checklist

A literature review not only summarizes the knowledge of a particular area or field of study, it also evaluates what has been done, what still needs to be done and why all of this is important to the subject.  

  • The Stand-Alone Literature Review A literature review may stand alone as an individual document in which the history of the topic is reported and then analyzed for trends, controversial issues, and what still needs to be studied.  The review could just be a few pages for narrow topics or quite extensive with long bibliographies for in-depth reviews.   In-depth review articles are valuable time-savers for professionals and researchers who need a quick introduction or analysis of a topic but they can be very time-consuming for authors to produce. Examples of review articles:   Walker, Sara Louise (2011)   Building mounted wind turbines and their suitability for the urban scale - a review of methods of estimating urban wind resource .   Energy and Buildings  43(8):1852-1862. For this review, the author focused on the different methodologies used to estimate wind speed in urban settings.  After introducing the theory, she explained the difficulty for in-situ measuring, and then followed up by describing each of the different estimation techniques that have been used instead.  Strengths and weaknesses of each method are discussed and suggestions are given on where more study is needed.   Length: 11 pages. References: 59. Calm, J.M. (2008)   The next generation of refrigerants - historical review, considerations, and outlook.   International Journal of Refrigeration  31(7):1123-1133. This review focuses on the evolution of refrigerants and divides the evolution into 4 generations.  In each generation the author describes which type of refrigerants were most popular and discusses how political, environmental, and economic issues as well as chemical properties effected choices.  Length: 11 pages.  References: 51.  
  • The Literature Review as a Section Within a Document Literature reviews are also part of dissertations, theses, research reports and scholarly journal articles; these types of documents include the review in a section or chapter that discusses what has gone before, how the research being presented in this document fills a gap in the field's knowledge and why that is important.   Examples of literature reviews within a journal article:  Jobert, Arthur, et al. (2007) Local acceptance of wind energy: factors of success identified in French and German case studies.  Energy Policy  35(5):2751-2760.  In this case, the literature review is a separate, labeled section appearing between the introduction and methodology sections.  Peel, Deborah and Lloyd, Michael Gregory (2007)   Positive planning for wind-turbines in an urban context.   Local Environment  12(4):343-354. In this case the literature review is incorporated into the article's introduction rather than have its own section.   Which version you choose (separate section or within the introduction) depends on format requirements of the publisher (for journal articles), the ASU Graduate College and your academic unit (for ASU dissertations and theses) and application instructions for grants.   If no format is specified choose the method in which you can best explain your research topic, what has come before and the importance of the knowledge you are adding to the field.    Examples of literature reviews within a dissertation or thesis :  Porter, Wayne Eliot (2011)   Renewable Energy in Rural Southeastern Arizona: Decision Factors: A Comparison of the Consumer Profiles of Homeowners Who Purchased Renewable Energy Systems With Those Who Performed Other Home Upgrades or Remodeling Projects .    Arizona State University, M.S. Thesis.  This author effectively uses a separate chapter for the literature review for his detailed analysis.  Magerman, Beth (2014)   Short-Term Wind Power Forecasts using Doppler Lidar.   Arizona State University, M.S. Thesis. The author puts the literature review within Chapter Two presenting it as part of the background information of her topic.   Note that the literature review within a thesis or dissertation more closely resembles the scope and depth of a stand- alone literature review as opposed to the briefer reviews appearing within journal articles.  Within a thesis or dissertation, the review not only presents the status of research in the specific area it also establishes the author's expertise and justifies his/her own research.   

Online tutorials:

  • Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students Created by the North Caroline State University Libraries

Other ASU Library Guides: 

  • Literature Reviews and Annotated Bibliographies More general information about the format and content of literature reviews; created by Ed Oetting, History and Political Science Librarian, Hayden Library. ​


  • The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It Written by Dena Taylor, Health Sciences Writing Centre, University of Toronto
  • Literature Reviews Created by The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 
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Engineering Honours Project

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Engineering Centre of Excellence, Loughborough University: Literature Review

Shared under Creative Commons License 2.0 UK . No modifications have been made to this Slideshare presentation.

Engineering Centre of Excellence, Loughborough University: Literature Review Handouts

The good oil on literature reviews.

  • Components of Documents: Literature Review
  • Writing as an Engineering or Scientist These guidelines are designed to help engineers and scientists communicate their work. To that end, these guidelines contain advice and models for writing and speaking situations in engineering and science. These guidelines also contain teaching and learning resources to help engineering and science students communicate their work. You are more than welcome to link to these pages, films, and files. In addition, you are welcome to print and distribute these materials, as long as you credit the website and its principal references: The Craft of Scientific Writing and The Craft of Scientific Presentations. Source: Writing Guidelines Website (Michael Alley, author)

Manage Your Literature with EndNote

Endnote is a bibliographic citation manager ., what is a bibliographic citation.

A bibliographic citation is any reference to a book, journal article, video or other source that you might use in an academic paper or article. EndNote allows you to manage those citations by saving, organising, and formatting them into a bibliography or reference list in your thesis, publication or assessment. Visit the Endnote Guide  for more information.

What will it do for me?

  • Import sets of references found in database searches.
  • Provide a place to keep unlimited number of article references' associated pdfs, charts, illustrations etc along with its abstract and research notes.
  • Insert references into your thesis or publication and automatically format them in the style you have chosen.

What won't it do?

  • It won't teach you how to reference correctly; you need to know how to do that before using any citation manager.
  • It won't make a correct reference if you enter incorrect data, or enter it in the wrong place.

Should I use it?

  • If you are doing research and handling lots of references, you should be using Endnote!
  • Endnote is a computer program and it takes time to learn and gain proficiency, so you should get some training from your librarian before using it.
  • It is most likely to be useful to researchers writing a thesis or preparing a publication with a substantial number of references.
  • Undergraduate students who want to use a citation manager should consider using  EndnoteOnline as it is web based and you can teach yourself to use it. Students may use Endnote on campus PCs if they wish.
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What is Literature Review?

Literature review is a "systematic, explicit, and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work produced by researchers, scholars, and practitioners."

literature review example for engineering project

Why is it important?

  • provides a context for the research topic
  • identifies major themes and concepts of the research topic
  • outlines gaps and flaws in previous research
  • enables the researcher to learn from previous theory on the subject
  • identifies what has been already covered to prevent duplication
  • position the work within the existing literature
  • discusses further research questions

Literature review ca be a short introduction to an article, an article by itself, or the first chapter of a thesis or dissertation.

Adapted from:

literature review example for engineering project

Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students

Revision Date

Revised and updated on 10/26/2021.

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literature review example for engineering project

Embark on an informative journey exploring the intricacies of an Engineering Literature Review, a critical component in the realm of engineering studies. This comprehensive guide is designed to aid in your understanding of the function and importance it holds in the discourse of Engineering. Throughout this document, you'll uncover the…

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Embark on an informative journey exploring the intricacies of an Engineering Literature Review, a critical component in the realm of engineering studies. This comprehensive guide is designed to aid in your understanding of the function and importance it holds in the discourse of Engineering. Throughout this document, you'll uncover the essential elements that make up the structure of a robust literature review, with practical examples taken from Civil and Mechanical Engineering. You'll also gain beneficial tips on crafting a top-notch review and discover how to sidestep common challenges. Lastly, a section dedicated to further reading will reinforce your knowledge and enhance your skills, making you proficient in delivering exceptional Engineering Literature Reviews.

Understanding Engineering Literature Review: A Comprehensive Guide

An Engineering Literature Review is a detailed examination and analysis of scholarly articles, books, and other resources relevant to a specific aspect of engineering. It is not simply a summary, but a careful evaluation of the literature, synthesizing the available material and identifying trends, theories, practices, gaps in research, and areas of controversy.

Unpacking the Meaning of Engineering Literature Review

  • Define the scope of your research
  • Determine the current state of your field of study
  • Identify any gaps in the existing literature
  • Relate your study to the existing research

For example, if you're conducting a literature review on the latest advancements in green energy technology, you would search through various scholarly databases to find articles, books and other resources that discuss this topic. After reading and analyzing these sources, you would summarize your findings, highlighting the main theories, ongoing debates, and gaps in the knowledge about green energy technology.

Significance of Literature Review in Engineering Studies

Deep dive: Doing a literature review also acquaints you with research methodologies, techniques and tools in your field of study. Understanding how past studies were conducted - and their strengths and weaknesses - will help you plan your study more effectively.

How to Construct an Effective Engineering Literature Review Structure

Fundamental elements of an engineering literature review.

  • Introduction : The initial part of your Literature Review should present your research topic, clarify its value, and show how exactly the review will build upon the existing compilation of scholarly works. Your readers should grasp the essence, significance, and the aim of your review from the introduction.
  • Body : This is where you explore various resources, analyse them critically, and present the crucial points collected in a structured manner. The body could be arranged based on themes, trends, or chronologically, depending on the nature of your research.
  • Conclusion : The conclusion should summarise the main observations from your compiled resources. It provides an avenue to underscore the gap in existing research, which your study intends to fill.

The process is not unlike solving an engineering problem where multiple components need to work together for an effective solution. Just as you wouldn't simply present an unordered list of all the components and their individual functionalities, in your literature review too, merely summarising the articles isn't enough. They have to be connected and analysed for the readers to understand the full picture.

Steps to Structure a Solid Engineering Literature Review

  • Define your research question : Every Literature Review starts by defining a clear, concise, and relevant research question.

In the context of Engineering, a research question will focus on a specific problem, phenomenon, or component within the broader engineering landscape. It could be related to the efficiency of an existing design, exploring the impact of a particular process, or the development of a new technology.

  • Search and Select Literature : Once you have established your research question, identify and gather resources related to your research topic. This might involve searching databases, examining journals, or going through conference papers. Always ensure the sources are reliable and up-to-date.
  • Evaluate Sources : After your compilation, critically evaluate each work for its relevance, reliability, accuracy, and contribution to your research.
  • Plan Structure : Plan an outline for your review regarding how the body will be arranged. This structure could be thematic, based on trends, chronologically arranged, or in any other way that best suits your research.
  • Write your Review : With the plan in place and resources in hand, write your review, ensuring that each section (Introduction, Body, Conclusion) is well-crafted to encapsulate your entire research.

Practical Exploration of Engineering Literature Review Examples

Engineering literature review example: civil engineering, engineering literature review example: mechanical engineering, introduction to crafting an exceptional engineering literature review, essential tips for writing an engineering literature review.

  • Focus on Relevance : Prioritise your reading and inclusion based on the relevance to your research question. Every article or book that is part of your review should contribute meaningfully to setting the context, highlighting the gap, or providing evidence for your arguments.
  • Be Critical : A literature review isn't just a summarisation - it's essentially an evaluation. Critique the methodology, question the interpretations, explore the inconsistencies, and assimilate the ideas. But remember, criticism doesn't mean just pointing out flaws, it also involves recognising the strengths and unique contributions.
  • Thoroughly Cite Sources : Remember that your literature review is based on the work of others, so always credit the original sources using appropriate citation styles.
  • Stay Coherent : Your review should read as a unified document, and not a compilation of summarised articles. Each point or section should logically connect to the next. Often, using a table can help in structuring your thoughts and presenting the comparisons in a more reader-friendly form:

Challenges to Avoid When Conducting an Engineering Literature Review

  • Not Critically Evaluating Sources : It's necessary to critically evaluate each source, and not just accept the content at face value. Does the article substantiate its claims with empirical evidence? Is the methodology suitable?
  • Overlooking Relevant Research : Staying within the comforting walls of what we know and believe often results in confirmation bias. Even if some studies contradict your expectations or assumptions, if they are relevant, they need to be included.
  • Lack of Organisation : A literature review can easily become overwhelming if adequate organisation isn't maintained. Schedule regular times for studying, organise your notes meticulously, and stay on top of your bibliography. Use LaTeX to maintain consistency. For instance, for organising your formulas, LaTeX's align environment can be much cleaner than inline math mode:
  • Failing to Update Review : Remember, a literature review needs to be a living document, especially for lengthy research projects like a dissertation. New research papers relevant to your review can be published anytime, and it's essential to update your review to reflect such changes.

Advancing Your Knowledge: Further Reading on Engineering Literature Reviews

Revisiting crucial engineering literature review tips and examples.

  • Define Your Scope : Understand the breadth of your research question. Knowing this helps in identifying relevant literature, contributing to your research while keeping it confined within manageable limits.
  • Analyse, don't Summarise : Your literature review should demonstrate your deep understanding of the topic. It should pick apart and critique the chosen papers, not just summarise their abstracts. Your comprehension of the methodologies used, the robustness of their findings and their relevance to your study should shine through.
  • Think Synthetically : Good literature reviews don't just dissect each source individually, they also synthesise them together, drawing connections between the findings and discussions of various papers. Considering your review like patchwork, each 'patch' or source should interlace with the others, providing a unified narrative.

Next Steps: Enhancing Your Skills in Writing Engineering Literature Reviews

  • Quality over Quantity : Ensure that every source you include adds value to your review in its own unique way. Avoid unnecessary padding with irrelevant or weak sources.
  • Stay Objective : A literature review isn't the place to let personal bias take the reins. Keep your review objective, substantiated by evidence, and let the literature guide your narrative.
  • Application Coding Language : In Engineering Literature Reviews, you might encounter coding snippets, which you need to comprehend and explain. For instance, this is a Python code snippet that calculates force using Newton's second law:

Engineering Literature Review - Key takeaways

  • Engineering Literature Review forms the foundation for developing innovative solutions and advancements in existing technologies. It involves critical thinking, careful reading, analysis, and synthesis of information.
  • The key elements of an Engineering Literature Review include an introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction presents the research topic, its significance, and how the review will build upon existing literature. The body involves exploring various resources, their critical analysis, and presenting crucial points in a structured manner. The conclusion summarizes the main observations from the resources, and highlights the gap in existing research.
  • Structuring an Engineering Literature Review involves defining a clear research question, searching and selecting relevant literature, evaluating these sources critically, planning the structure of the review, and writing the review with a well-crafted introduction, body, and conclusion.
  • Examples of Engineering Literature Reviews in Civil and Mechanical engineering may focus on advancements in sustainable building material, and innovations in biomedical devices respectively. They contain detailed explorations of scholarly articles and journals, critical analysis and comparison of studies, and a summary of the main findings with a highlight on areas requiring further research.
  • Writing an Engineering Literature Review requires focus on relevance, critical evaluation of sources, thorough citation of sources, and coherent writing. Challenges to avoid include not critically evaluating sources, overlooking relevant research, and lack of organisation.

Frequently Asked Questions about Engineering Literature Review

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What is an Engineering Literature Review?

Show answer

An Engineering Literature Review is a detailed examination and analysis of scholarly articles, books, and other resources relevant to a specific aspect of engineering. It synthesizes the available material and identifies trends, theories, practices, and gaps in research.

Show question

What are the objectives of an Engineering Literature Review?

The objectives are to define the scope of your research, determine the current state of your field of study, identify any gaps in the existing literature, and relate your study to the existing research.

Why is a Literature Review essential in Engineering Studies?

It develops critical thinking skills, acts as a knowledge repository, provides a foundation for new research, and acquaints you with research methodologies, techniques, and tools in your field of study.

What are the fundamental elements of an Engineering Literature Review?

An Engineering Literature Review contains an Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. The Introduction presents the research topic, the Body explores various resources and analyses them, and the Conclusion summarizes the main observations.

What is the process of crafting an effective Engineering Literature Review?

It involves defining a research question, searching and selecting literature, evaluating sources, planning the structure, and writing the review with well-crafted sections.

What is the significance of the structure in an Engineering Literature Review?

The structure of a Literature Review offers a logical path for your arguments, helps to maintain consistency and coherence in your review, and promotes better comprehension for your audience.

What are some common elements of a literature review in civil engineering focused on sustainable building materials?

The review starts with an introduction that highlights why sustainable materials matter, then dissects various studies and their methodologies, findings, etc within the body, and concludes summarising main findings and areas for further research.

What are typical features of a mechanical engineering literature review examining innovations in biomedical devices?

The literature review would start with a context-setting introduction, then categorise and explain studies focused on different types of medical devices in the body section, and end with a conclusion that summarises significant findings and identifies knowledge gaps.

How are tables used effectively in literature reviews of engineering topics?

Tables are used to compare and contrast various findings and parameters of different studies in a structured, easily understandable manner.

What are key aspects to keep in mind while conducting an Engineering Literature Review?

Key aspects include focusing on relevance to research question, critical evaluation of sources, proper citation, maintaining coherence, and conducting regular updates.

What challenges need to be avoided while conducting an Engineering Literature Review?

Avoid not critically evaluating sources, overlooking research that contradicts your expectations, lack of organisation, and failing to update your review over time.

What purpose does using a table structure in literature reviews serve?

Using a table helps in structuring thoughts, presenting comparisons and maintaining the coherence of the review, making it more reader-friendly.

What are some essential aspects to consider when conducting an Engineering Literature Review?

Some essentials include defining your research scope, analyzing instead of just summarizing the chosen papers, synthesizing the findings from various papers, ensuring quality over quantity of sources, and maintaining objectivity in your review.

How can you further enhance your skills in writing Engineering Literature Reviews?

You can enhance your skills by understanding scholarly publishing, decoding statistical analysis in research articles, mastering the use of Research Management Tools, learning application coding language, and constantly seeking feedback from mentors.

What resources can you explore to gain a deeper understanding of conducting an Engineering Literature Review?

To deepen your understanding, you can explore comprehensive online resources, open access scholarly articles on various engineering sub-disciplines, and books or e-books that focus on research methodologies related to engineering.

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Engineering -- Literature Reviews: Getting Started

  • Types of literature review
  • Developing a research question
  • Why is a literature Review Important?
  • Developing your search strategy
  • Finding Information
  • Citing your sources

Aditi Gupta

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What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a study of existing published information on a specific topic. Literature reviews:

  • identify key information relevant to a topic
  • assess the status or quality of existing research
  • critically examine support for alternative theories or arguments
  • evaluate research methods used in previous studies.

A good literature review will consist of a summary of key sources, and is analytical and synthesizes information. Usually a literature review is organized, not however a chronological description of discoveries in your field, and explains how your research will address gaps in existing literature on a particular topic.

Doing a literature review. (2010). In Thomas, D. R., & Hodges, I. D. Designing and managing your research project: Core skills for social and health research (pp. 105-130). London: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781446289044

Steps involved in taking a literature review

literature review example for engineering project

Machi, L. A., & McEvoy, B. T. (2012). The literature review: Six steps to success (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press.

Steps to writing a review

  • Steps to writing a literature review This handy Infographic from Emerald publishing provides an overview to the various steps involved in writing a literature review.

Writing a literature review

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Tips on reading articles better

Reading a lot of articles in short period of time is tough! It's important to take breaks, and to take quick notes after each article. Otherwise it will all blend together.

See this article for advice from different STEM researchers on how they read articles:

Guides to writing articles and literature reviews in STEM

For individual help with your writing, it's best to book an appointment with the Academic Help Writing Centre on campus .

Cover Art

  • How to Write a good technical paper Short article from Concrete International magazine.

Cover Art

  • Ten Simple Rules for writing a literature review, by Marco Pautasso (2013) A popular article published in PLoS Computational Biology.

literature review example for engineering project

Examples of literature reviews

If you're writing a published article or a thesis, it's always good to read different examples in your field. In a research database like Scopus or Web of Science, you can search for review articles on your topic - see the Find Articles tab. You can also see previous theses in your program. Follow this link, and modify the search to find ones from your department.

Here is an example of a review paper written by a uOttawa PhD student in civil engineering, which is structured by analytical approach.

  • Example journal article with highlights This is a journal article written by two members of the School of EECS here. I have highlighted key phrases in their lit review in which they synthesize and summarize the previous literature.

Science and Engineering Librarian | Bibliothécaire spécialisé en sciences et génie

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Doing a systematic review?

If you've been asked to do a systematic review , we have a guide for doing them . But another type of review might actually be better suited to your project! This chart describes different types of reviews and why you might use them.

What do your professors want in a literature review?

Whether you are doing a topic summary for a term paper, a state-of-the-art survey, or a full literature review for a thesis or article, there are some common expectations that your professors have for graduate student work. They are not looking for you to simply describe some papers that you have read on the topic, one after the other. What they do expect is:

  • That you have found and thoroughly read enough papers to have a solid grasp of the particular topic. This is where it's very important to properly define your topic so you can do a good job, and do a structured database search! You should start to encounter some of the same authors and papers repeatedly as you read, indicating that you are finding the major works in this topic. For searching advice, see the Find Articles tab. You should use at least two search tools (Scopus, Web of Science, Google Scholar, etc).
  • That you have understood them enough to identify major trends, methods, approaches, and differences . This takes work! You do not want to just re-phrase the abstract. See below for some tips on doing this.
  • That you can communicate your own perspective and informed opinion on what is truly important - including where the current research is lacking (where there is a gap). If you are doing your own research, this is a very important part of the literature review as it justifies the rest of your project.

The process of doing a literature review

Process of doing a literature review

Source: North Carolina State University. (n.d.). Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students .

Reading and note-taking efficiently

Getting started.

You want to be organized from the start when doing a literature review, especially for a project that will take a long time. 

  • In a Word or Excel file, keep track of your searching - which search databases and tools you use, and paste in all the search queries you run that are useful, with parameters. In Scopus, for example, this might be ' TITLE-ABS-KEY   (   anaerobic   AND  digestion   AND  feedstock   )   AND   PUBYEAR   >   2013'. This will help you avoid duplicating work later.
  • Use a citation manager program like Zotero or Mendeley, to keep track of your papers as you find them, and format citations later. See this guide for details on the programs. Save the PDFs to your computer, and attach them to the entries in your citation manager if it isn't added automatically.

Reading and Note-taking on Individual papers

When you actually read the papers that you find, most people take a staged approach to save time:

  • Read the abstract fully to determine if it's actually on topic.
  • If so, read the discussion and conclusion, and the figures and graphs, to figure out if the results were significant or produced interesting results.
  • If so, make sure it is saved. Then read the full article, and annotate the article right away.

What does annotating mean? Take very short notes (on paper or digital) of the most important findings and/or highlight important lines in the paper. You can highlight and annotate the PDF file if you want, or in your citation manager. You don't usually need to summarize the whole article - instead focus on what is important for your research or review, and write it in your own words. This could be the

  • whether the study was theoretical, experimental, numerical simulation, etc
  • main theoretical approach, model, algorithms, etc
  • number of test specimens or subjects
  • key assumptions made that might impact its general validity
  • key outcome measured, statistical significance of it, etc
  • Your own comments - for example, strengths and weaknesses

Synthesizing the papers and structuring your review

Concept mapping.

One technique is to create a concept map or 'mind map' showing the relationships or groupings of the key papers on your topic, with short labels. This way, you can try out different options for how to structure your paper and see which one makes the most sense. You can do this on paper:

You can also do this digitally, using a mind-mapping website. There are some easy-to-use, free tools that are available now. Two that I have used are Coggle and Miro. You can also just sketch on paper.

Mind map showing papers for the topic 'methods for bearing signature extraction'

Created using, based on a chart in Huang, H. (2018). Methods for Rolling Element Bearing Fault Diagnosis under Constant and Time-varying Rotational Speed Conditions (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Ottawa).

literature review example for engineering project

Image: Pacheco-Vega, R. (2016, June 15). How to do a literature review: Citation tracing, concept saturation and results’ mind-mapping. Retrieved from

After you have taken notes on individual articles, it can be very helpful to create a chart with key variables that seem important. Not every article will cover the same material. But there should be some common factors, and some differences between them. This chart is called a synthesis matrix.

Example of a 'synthesis matrix'

Source: University of Western Ontario Library (n.d.). “Writing your literature review”.

See this blog post by researcher Raul Pacheco-Vega for another example of how he does this.

This chart can help you decide how to organize your review. If it's a very short review, some people write it chronologically - they describe how the topic evolved, one paper at a time. But if you have more than 10 papers, this is not a good approach. Instead, it is best to organize your review thematically . In this approach, you group the papers into several groups or themes, and discuss each theme in a separate section. Usually the groups are major methods of tackling the problem, or concepts, or techniques.

In each section of your paper, you introduce the theme, and then discuss and compare the papers in the group. Using this approach lets you show that you have not just read the papers, but have understood the topic as a whole, and can synthesize the literature.

For example, this paper co-authored by Ping Li , a Civil Engineering PhD graduate of uOttawa, organizes the papers into three categories: ones that used a 'traditional' approach; ones based on characterization of the soil microstructure, and ones that also incorporate soil mechanics. The strengths and weaknesses of category are discussed, and in the conclusion, the authors recommend approaches for future studies. 

You can often include a form of a synthesis chart in your paper or thesis, as a visual summary of your lit review. This is part of a chart included in a Masters' thesis in Computer Science from uOttawa.

Part of a chart showing various papers on Phishing Detection.

From Le Page, S. (2019). Understanding the Phishing Ecosystem (M.Sc. Thesis, University of Ottawa).

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Literature Reviews

The Literature Review is one of the most important and poorly understood components of a document. Here, we try to briefly explain the role and structure of the literature review, and present some strategies for conducting and writing one. (There are many other relevant resources on this site: see in particular Online Handbook / Accurate Documentation for information on conducting/understanding research, proper documentation guidelines, and using and acknowledging other people’s ideas in your writing).

1. The Role of the Literature Review: The function of a scientific literature review is primarily to collect and examine the state of current knowledge in a field by examining the work of scholars and researchers whose work has been recognized as valuable. Ultimately, a well researched and written literature review accomplishes three goals. It:

  • Establishes context for your work by showing what has been done in the area
  • Exposes the gap in current knowledge
  • Shows your supervisors that you have done your research [1]

The literature review might be considered a more detailed, elaborated and well-supported version of the introduction. In the literature review, the gap is developed in significantly greater detail and supported by references to research (See also Online Handbook / Components of Documents / Introductions ).

2. Structure of the Literature Review: There are two options for organizing your literature review. You can either organize A) by source or B) by topic. Both are acceptable, but rarely is organization by source a better strategy than organizing by topic.

A. Organization by source allows you to develop how one researcher or group of researchers has, in one book or paper, contributed to the field.

B. Organization by topic, however, allows you to cover all of the contributions, by different researchers to one topic or key area of knowledge.

Option B allows for more coherence and is a more effective way of integrating contributions by different people or research groups. Option A is most often used when several pivotal studies with distinct contributions form the foundation of the literature review and deserve their own dedicated sections. Option B, however, is more challenging to write because it depends on your ability to synthesize information effectively. Sometimes, a combined approach is appropriate: one paper may contribute significantly to one area, although other papers might also add to knowledge in that area. (See Online Handbook / Accurate Documentation ).

3. Strategies for Writing a Literature Review: After finding / reading the relevant articles, proceed by:

a) Organizing: The first step is to develop a framework for the review: this can be done by identifying the key articles or the key areas of knowledge (depending on the organizational structure chosen), and associating papers with specific areas of knowledge. This set of topics or papers should form the sections of your literature review; however, you’ll need to organize these topics logically, and develop transitions between the sections.

b) Summarizing: The second step involves identifying each article’s contribution to the area of knowledge. You may be summarizing an entire article, or just including a brief reference to the article. When summarizing an article, ask the following questions:

  • What is the author’s purpose?
  • What are the writer’s assumptions?
  • What are the author’s main claims (conclusions)?  How are they supported; how have they been qualified [1]?

This second step should leave you with a clear idea of what the author is saying.

c) Evaluating: In the final step, you need to assess the work done in the key area of knowledge or by the pivotal paper, in order to establish:

  • How previous work has left a gap, because of either inadequate assumptions or inconclusive findings;
  • How previous research will be applied in a new context; or
  • How general disagreement or different views on the subject create a need for a solution [1]

In evaluating each article, consider the following questions:

  • How strong are the basic components of the study design? Could the problem have been approached more effectively from another perspective or with different assumptions?
  • Are the paper’s conclusions well warranted by evidence from research? Is the evidence from the research conclusive? Or are there limitations to the research?
  • How does this paper contribute to our understanding of the problem/issue?
  • How does the paper relate to your research [1]?

In evaluating several papers on a specific topic, ask these questions:

  • What are the significant points of agreement between articles?
  • Where the research disagrees, is one researcher more conclusive than another?
  • How can you fit the articles together to build a logical argument that furthers your purpose [1]?

[1] Irish, R., Tiede K., and Weiss, P. Communication Course Notes. Engineering Communication Program, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering,University of Toronto. 2004.

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    To that end, these guidelines contain advice and models for writing and speaking situations in engineering and science. These guidelines also

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  14. (PDF) Literature Review on Engineering Project Risk Management

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