The role of 'the literature'

Most projects will require you to look beyond the unit lecture notes to learn all you need to know to complete the task. You will therefore need to find, evaluate and use information from published sources of information: ‘the literature’. This usually means scholarly literature such as textbooks and journal articles, but can also include official publications such as engineering standards and government reports.

For help finding reliable sources of information, see Finding and evaluating information.

Information drawn from the literature will form a smaller or larger part of your report depending on the type of assignment. For example:

Project type

Possible information needs

Relevant sources

Site visit

Company history, operation processes, statistics

Company prospectus, annual report


Local environment, theory, materials properties, government regulations

Textbooks, journal articles, government and industry websites, standards


Historical development, processes, state of the art, problems, possible solutions, recent research, current debates

Textbooks, journal articles, government, scientific and industry websites, journal articles, newspapers


Detailed information about the topic, theory, recent research, research methods

Textbooks, journal articles, conference papers

Investigative reports, also called stand-alone literature reviews, require you to research a topic then report and comment on what you learn. In these assignments, the majority of the content will come from the literature, but your report will still need a focus beyond just repeating what you learn. A common focus is to persuade your reader that the conclusions you draw are valid.

In other reports, information from the literature is used to:

  • provide contextual information
  • establish what is known about the topic
    • theory
    • current state-of-the-art
    • previous studies
  • introduce methods or technology you will use in your project
  • compare your results with those obtained by others.

Note how the writers draw on the literature to provide context and motivation in the Introduction to the design and build project report below.

Introduction Over one billion people in developing countries do not have access to electricity [1].  Indoor lighting, where available, is therefore usually provided by kerosene lamps or candles, which are expensive and can emit dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide [2]. Even when available, the light they produce is not sufficient to read by. Many  children in developing countries are therefore unable to study outside of daylight hours, which negatively affects their potential to succeed at school. To address this problem, an inexpensive, reliable, clean and safe source of reading light has been developed. The portable LED desk lamp presented here …

The excerpt below is from a research project report. Note how the writers refer to the literature to explain their choice of equipment.

In industry, all three of the most common types of agitating equipment are agitated granulators (Summers & Aulton, 2001). Of these, the high-speed mixer granulator, also known as the shear granulator, is the most suitable for the type of granulation required in this project as its short processing time and need for less binding fluid reduce the risk of corrosion (Kumar, Malayalamurthi & Marappan, 2015). The mixer granulator consists of a mixing bowl, made of stainless steel. The agitation of particles is promoted by the presence of the main …

You will also draw heavily on the literature when explaining theory and discussing your results or solution, as in this excerpt from a materials engineering research report.

Figures 5-7 show slightly greater maximum pit depths than the weld zone, which itself has considerably greater maximum pit depths than the parent metal for each test location. This is consistent with previous investigations [3, 5] into the pitting corrosion of welded pipeline steel.

For help with citing and referencing, see the Citing and referencing Library guide.