The Ever-Bountiful Literature Review Table

Are you working on a public health writing project that requires you to find and synthesize information from multiple articles on a particular public health topic? Reviewing and synthesizing sources is a common task for public health researchers and other professionals who need to develop a snapshot of what is known about a particular health challenge or intervention.

While the task may sound simple, the amount of information you are finding can quickly become overwhelming. Developing a literature review table is a particularly useful way to keep track of your sources and take systematic notes.

The Complex Task of Looking for and Keeping Track of Sources

Many things are going on simultaneously when you start looking for sources via PubMed, Web of Science, Google Scholar, and other search engines. As you are doing that, you refine your search and screen titles and abstracts. Then you choose the articles that are most relevant to your task and download PDFs or save them in your Mendeley or Zotero library.

But what do you do next? Maybe you highlight information that you find most intriguing and relevant. Maybe you print out your sources and use an actual yellow marker. Maybe you take notes. Or maybe all that information gets confusing. You lose your sense of direction and purpose and struggle to figure out what is most relevant to your assignment.

This is where the literature review table comes in. It’s a great way to reassert some control over your material, sort it, and extract the information most relevant to your task. Take a look at the template below. You can adjust the column headers in whatever way is must useful to your task.

Remember, the idea is that you are using the table to help you decide what information is most important to your task. The goal is to be selective about the details you include. (See below for links to examples of lit review tables in published articles.)

Table 1: Literature Review Table Template

Author / Year / Citation Study Objective Key Study Methods Key Findings Study Design Limitations



· Information to include: 

  • Who was studied? 
  • How many people were studied?  
  • What was the study design? 
  • Where did the study take place? 
Choose 1-3 findings. 

Work in some specific numbers that will be useful when writing. 


The literature review table is a tool that will help you:

Extract information systematically from your sources: First, the table is a tool to help you extract information in a systematic way. Each column reminds you to look for and record key information such as the size and characteristics of the study population, the research question, the intervention being tested, and the study design. These notes provide context that will help you understand and think critically about the findings of the study and their relevance to the population and public health challenge you are researching.

Evaluate studies side-by-side: Second, the table allows you to see the details of your sources side-by-side, which will help you to see common themes, gaps, and potential new areas of inquiry. When I don’t do a table, I find that notes exist as a vague jumble of information in disparate places. I sometimes print the studies, underline, and take notes in the margins. Other times, I put my notes onto a legal pad or right into my draft. More and more, I have no hard copies. I simply highlight pdfs and then have to remember where they are saved on my laptop. (Are they in Dropbox, in my Mendeley library, or squirreled away somewhere else?) What I can’t see, I quickly forget.

Feel more confident as you begin writing: When I use a table while taking notes, I don’t have to worry about what I might be forgetting. All I need is right there. So the next step, summarizing and analyzing the information, comes much more easily. I write a short introduction providing a brief  overview of my research and decision-making process (why I chose these 5 studies), then I look for key themes and highlight some of the most useful findings. Once, I’ve gotten this far, thinking about the implications of the research, along with methodological strengths and limitations, also comes much more easily.

Be nice to your reader: Third, the table is also a nice thing to do for your readers. When you include your lit review table your document, you are providing them with detailed snapshots of individual studies and allowing them to decide if they want to track down the article to read more.

Lift the “heavy cargo” from your text: Another bonus is that putting details like study methods, statistics, p-values, and study limitations in the table saves your text from having to carry all that weight. You can refer readers to the table and use your text to emphasize the details you think are most important.  I once, for example, was able to cut 10 pages of unnecessary summary out of a literature review draft when I realized that most of the studies I was able to find danced around my research question, but never really answered it. Ten pages became 2 sentences and a note referring readers to the table. This draft was much easier to read than my first. (Roy Peter Clark talked about putting the heavy cargo from studies into a figure or chart in his wonderful book Tell It Like It Is: A Guide to Clear and Honest Writing (2023). It’s a must-read for all public health writers!

Being Strategic About the Information You Put in the Table &  A Note of Caution: Don’t Turn the Table Into an Excuse to Delay Writing

You don’t need to record every detail in each article. It’s easy to get so detail-obsessed that the table becomes a form of procrastination. Instead, focus on the findings that help you understand or answer your research question.

Think of it this way. You want enough detail that you won’t need to go back to the original articles when you write your summary. Use the table to write your summary, then you can skim back through the articles to see if there are additional details you need to add in.

You can also think about it from the perspective of your reader. You are doing them a favor by including enough detail so they won’t need to dig out the original article to get a basic grasp of your topic or follow your summary and analysis. You are providing just enough information to fulfill their basic curiosity and help them decide if it’s worth their while to find and download the article.

Examples of Literature Review Tables in Published Articles

Beard J, Feeley F, Rosen S. Economic and quality-of-life outcomes of antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS in developing countries: a systematic literature review. AIDS Care. 2009 Nov. 2(11): 1343-56. (Tables start on pages 1347 & 1349)

Patmisari E, Huang Y, Orr M, Govindasamy S, Hielscher E, McLaren H.  Supported employment interventions with people who have severe mental illness: Systematic mixed-methods umbrella review. PLoS ONE. 2024 June. E 19(6): e0304527. (Table starts on page 14/37)

Meet Rajesh Gururaghavendran

Check out three posts by Rajesh Gururaghavendran, a recent MPH grad and alumni peer writing coach.

Write Choice describes the trials and tribulations of the determinants and strategies project that all students enrolled in Individual, Community, and Population Health know all too well. He offers great advice about how to work through challenges and the feeling of triumph you will have when you are done. In particular, he reminds students to ask questions and seek support from professors, TAs, and the peer writing coaches.

Common Mistakes in Public Health Writing offers guidance from hard-won experience on avoiding and recovering from these writing perils.

Write Recipe offers pointers for writing and publishing journal articles.

In Rajesh's words:

I have a background in Public Health Dentistry, with specific training and expertise in addressing oral health issues among rural and underserved populations. I am particularly interested in epidemiologic methods, causal inference, non-communicable diseases, and cancer epidemiology. I am presently exploring the use of directed acyclic graphs (DAGs) in applied health research under Dr. Eleanor Murray at BUSPH.

My favorite thing about peer coaching: I am passionate about research, public health writing, and teaching. I like helping fellow students to overcome challenges in their courses and I am happy to see them succeed in their program.

Fun fact: I am a hobby blogger and have recently taken interest in utilizing writing as a means of expressing my thoughts and experiences.

You can email me at:


Write Recipe

By Rajesh Gururaghavendran

One of the most important hallmarks of success in academia is publication. It is the holy grail of all academic and research endeavors. Common queries from students interested in research endeavors usually are about publications. The present blog is an attempt to piece together various pointers for scientific writing that I have accrued over a period of time. There is no specific recipe for successful publications. Kindly bear in mind that these are just pointers and not definitive mantras for successful publications.

A majority of the publications will follow the IMRAD format, which indicates Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. I will trace the critical components in this blogpost using the IMRAD structure.


Know your target audience:

One must consider the target audience that the proposed article is addressed to. The simplest individual in the intended target audience should be able to read and comprehend the introduction. It is preferable to avoid all technical jargon and keep it rather simple.

Identify lacunae:

The introduction section should clearly identify the gaps in the present knowledge in the proposed area of research. There is no point in “re-inventing the wheel” and research endeavors should essentially attempt to generate new knowledge.

Explicitly indicate how your paper fills the lacunae:

Specify how exactly your research work contributes towards filling the knowledge void. One can indicate that there are very few papers or no papers which have explored this aspect of the research topic.

Provide numerical data:

A common man will be able to relate to numbers more easily than vague indicators. This is one of the most critical pointers that I realized during my writing assginments/projects during my first semester. Providing numerical data in terms of the number of individuals affected by the problem will add a lot of clarity to the manuscript. This information should be from authentic sources such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), etc. Data provided should also be as recent as possible, which will lend a lot of relevance and credibility to the manuscript.

Gist of review of literature:

Review of literature is an important component of any research protocol. One must keep in mind that scientific papers do not have a separate section for literature review. Invariably, we will have to integrate the most important papers from review of literature section into the introduction section.

Avoid vague sentences:

Writing vague sentences “This particular problem has a substantial impact on the health of young adults in the US” do not convey any clear information. This can be modified as “A total of XXX deaths have been reported due to this problem among young adults in the US” or “1 in 5 young adults are affected by this problem in the US”.

Clear objectives:

Explicitly indicating the objectives of the present research work is very critical. It provides clarity of thought and a clear purpose in conducting this research. The acronym SMART objectives provides a useful guideline for framing objectives. The stated objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound. FINER criteria also provides a helpful framework and stands for Feasible, Interesting, Novel, Ethical and Relevant. The acronym PICOT, which stands for Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes and Time, is a useful outline for reporting interventions.

Having clear and explicit objectives will set the tone for the rest of the manuscript.

 Maintain flow:

Last but not the least, the introduction section should flow seamlessly from one aspect to the other. There should not be any portions that do not gel with the overall scheme of the introduction. Having the manuscript proofread by your peers, seniors, or juniors will go a long way in addressing this issue.


 Have to be reproducible:

Methods section should be clearly written so that any other researcher should be able to implement the same study in a similar fashion.

Outline statistical analysis:

Clearly indicate what statistical tests were employed and the statistical package that was used for statistical analysis.


Address the objectives:

One must bear in mind that the results should clearly address the objectives laid out in the introduction section. This will provide focus to the researcher to ensure that the objectives are met. Some of the funding agencies will ask for results to be presented for each of the objectives indicated by the researcher. This implies that results section should address all objectives outlined by the investigator.

Assume a neutral tone:

Results section should objectively highlight the results obtained by the investigator. Judgement calls, researcher’s opinions should be avoided in this section.


Compare with previous studies:

Comparison with previous studies and enunciating the probable reasons for similarities/differences are central to discussion. If there are many aspects of the findings, which is often the case, only the main findings of the study can be used for comparison.

Highlight new findings:

New findings in the present study must be highlighted. Research initiatives will usually involve a component or aspect that is new. Findings relevant to these new areas pertaining to the research topic must be highlighted.

Address limitations:

Clear and frank descriptions of limitations must be stated. No study is perfect and there will be some limitations due to practical reasons. Authors should not shy away from addressing these limitations explicitly in the manuscript.

Avenues for further research:

Research, by its very nature, is heuristic and will lead to further questions. Avenues for further research that stem from the findings of the present study must be outlined.

Provide recommendations:

This will involve public health measures that can be implemented to address the health issue being addressed in the paper. This may also involve policy changes, curriculum implications, lobby efforts that can lead to positive changes leading health improvements in populations.

Draw conclusions:

Conclusions that are in line with the objectives outlined must be stated. Some journals ask for conclusions to be stated under a separate sub-heading. The last few paragraphs of the manuscript usually comprise of conclusions.

You can email me at:

Common Mistakes in Public Health Writing

By Rajesh Gururaghavendran

Drafting a research protocol for my postgraduate dissertation posed several challenges other than the impending deadline. We were all scampering to put together a bunch of words that not only made sense, but also attempted to solve a major oral health problem. Internet had just arrived in its nascent stage, and it was a luxury to be able to afford using it. A majority of my work was centered within the premises of the library, trying to sift through hard-bound copies of articles. This was my first shot at formal writing, and I had clearly pressed the panic button!!

Writing is an integral and inseparable part of public health endeavors. As public health professionals, we will be writing for a wide variety of audiences addressing a plethora of public health issues. The present blog is to discuss the most common mistakes that one makes in public health writing.

Not knowing your audience:

One of the most common mistakes made during writing is not knowing or not focusing on our target audience. Does the audience comprise of all public health professionals or will only a specific group of them will be interested in reading your material? Grant applications will be specifically for the funding agency. Sometimes, we will be writing about a public health problem that is addressed to a common man. Each of this audience is different and unique. Writing without being mindful of the needs and requirements of the target audience will make writing vague and non-specific.

Not knowing the context:

Writing can be utilized as a means of communicating information about a serious health issue at hand. Writing assignments will have a different context compared to a press release about the need for vaccination. Based on the context, the nuances of writing will be different. Understanding the context will help the author to get the right content for their message.

Not reading all relevant information/articles:

Review of literature is one of the most underestimated aspects of scientific writing. It is highly preferable to read all the relevant articles before one starts writing. It helps us understand the work that is already accomplished in our area of interest. It also helps us to highlight the most unique and important aspect of our work.

Not reading instructions to authors:

 All writing assignments come with instructions to the authors. Student project assignments have specific instructions. One must familiarize oneself thoroughly with these instructions before embarking on one’s writing journey. This is most often overlooked by students, and it can be a source of frustration over a period of time. There may be word limits, limits on the number of articles to be cited, limits on the number of tables that can be included, limits on color photographs that can be published. Many times, the instructions might also include critical information about publication fees. Turning a blind eye to these details might lead to re-writing the entire draft all over again.

Not highlighting the need for the study:

 One must make a very strong case for our writing, highlighting the new information/knowledge that our work generates. Students often tend to touch very briefly about this aspect in their writing. Not stressing upon the knowledge lacunae that our work addresses underscores the importance of our work and delegates it to the realm of the routine and mundane.

Not focusing on objectives:

Straying away from the objectives outlined in the paper is one of the seminal mistakes in public health writing. Very often, the authors are too keen to share tables with complex statistical analysis and secondary results. One should always fall back on the objectives of the study, which will act as a guiding source for writing. Adding additional information in the write-up can render the paper too cluttered and confusing for the readers.

Not writing about public health implications:

 Any scientific writing will have some important public health inferences. This can be in the form of policy changes, changes in clinical practice, curriculum implications. This involves taking the research findings forwards to bring about meaningful impact on the health of populations. Students tend to miss this critical piece in their public health writing. Including these aspects can increase the value of their scientific work immensely.

Not keeping it simple and sticking to basics:

 Students tend to think that public health writing must be very complicated to make it look important. This is far from truth and effective public health writing usually involves sticking to the basics and keeping the writing very simple. One must finally remember that the target audience should be able to read and comprehend the information being provided by the authors.

Not Proofreading, not proofreading, not proofreading:

 Reading the contents again and again is a very important for effective public health writing. One can take the help of peers, friends, and acquaintances who might be interested in proofreading your write-up. Sharing your work with others will bring in a fresh perspective that can add a lot of value.


There are no shortcuts for effective public health writing, nor are there any magical recipes. One has to be patient and persistent to hone one’s skills in putting across the public health message. Avoiding the pitfalls outlined in this blog will be a step in the right direction in our journey towards effective public health writing.

You can email me at:

Write Choice: Determining the Strategies for “Determinants & Strategies Assignments”

By Rajesh Gururaghavendran

We were told it was coming. We had to be prepared, we had to be ready. We need to get oriented. We had to get sensitized. We had to get primed. In a course without the final crescendo of the quintessential “final exam”, a lot was riding on it. This was our writing project. We had to choose a topic, collect published articles, convert data into information, information into knowledge and finally transform knowledge into wisdom. Piece of cake!! Or so I thought.

As students, we are always looking for something that is unique, different, groundbreaking, mind-blowing and earth-shattering. There is that urge to explore the horizons of knowledge, to push the boundaries of human understanding. Naive and bordering on the insane.

I thought about non-communicable diseases and had an informal chat with the Teaching Assistant (TA). “Its way too broad, what non-communicable disease will you focus on?” was the feedback. Okay. Cancers?

“Its way too broad, what type of cancers?” was the response. Head and neck cancers?

“Its way too broad, which head and neck cancer?”. “Oral cancer” I replied.

“Its way too broad, what about oral cancers?” “Habits” I retorted.

“Its way too broad, which habit that is known to cause oral cancers?” Wow wow wow “Lets just wait!!”

I was looking for other “newer” risk factors and from the depths of my fading labyrinthine memory cells sprang the word “Vaping”.

So, vaping it was. The TA nodded with optimism. Guarded optimism. “Just confirm with the professor once” was the standard generic instructions. “Sure” was my standard generic response. I emailed my professor and had a brief chat before the start of a class. I got the informal approval and was ready to go!! It did seem to be the “write choice”.

Phase 1: Enthusiastic exploration

The first part of the assignment was to write a brief statement about the current status of the issue at hand. I pieced together some information from various “sources” and tried my best to convince the huge audience (read: TA and Professor) that vaping is (the only) problem that we should all concentrate on. I was instructed to include some relevant numbers in the form of statistics in the introduction, to make my paper more relatable. I could relate well with this suggestion, and I obediently complied. My next agenda was to identify determinants for the problem. I got back to my sources and again managed to outline the factors influencing vaping. My second part of the assignment went through with minor edits and suggestions.

Phase 2: Marooned

The last portion of the assignment consisted of identifying interventions suggested or reported on vaping. I checked with my “sources”, and they were all commentaries, surveys, reports, editorials. The gold standard of all research endeavors of Homo Sapiens: “Randomized Controlled Trials” was conspicuous by its absence. I now remembered the faint smile my professor offered after I decided on vaping as the topic of choice for my D&S assignment. Things were clearly getting out of control.

I renewed my search for all sources on vaping. It was like restarting the laptop when it gets hung. Still no progress. I needed 9 interventions and I had one, which was “arguably an intervention” and not “definitely an intervention”.

This clearly called for TA’s intervention. “Just confirm with the professor once” was the standard response and “Sure” was my standard reply.

I launched a detailed explanation/emotional plea to my professor, which was liberally interspersed with words and expressions clearly indicative of my pain and agony. My Professor just replied “There are always articles”. I could see a sly smile behind the weil of the Professor’s personal protective equipment used to restrict the entry of all harmful substances, including the dreaded coronavirus, that is globally popular as the “mouth mask”.

I cursed the idiot (read: me) who first thought of this topic in the first place.

I was marooned.

Phase 3: Light at the end of the tunnel

I cannot recollect who suggested that I can and I should consult “Peer coach”. I liked both the words. Peer: I needed someone to vent all my agony and frustration; coach: I needed a lot of coaching to get this assignment done. I had to wake up the geek within me to book an appointment with the peer coach. My nerves weren’t very conducive to facing the new technological assignment, but I finally managed to get myself an appointment.

The student lounge was bustling with students and teeming with activity. The sunlight gently beaming through the glass windows on a busy afternoon during the fall in New England brightly illuminated the premises. The fresh aroma of coffee wafting through the glass doors of the student lounge hit my already heightened/tensed senses. “Not now” I told myself as I stomped away from the coffee outlet. The small passage led to a broader waiting room which houses the consultation/conference rooms. I meekly peeped into one and announced my name. The peer coach was ready to coach me.

I briefly explained my present precarious position to the peer coach, who just asked for the document. Whoops!! I had not shared the document.

I then took upon the task of sending my document to my peer coach seated right next to me. My laptop would burst out signals containing the encrypted version of my document to a signal tower located somewhere near our premises, which would then throw them to a satellite located millions of miles above us. The same satellite would then beam them back to the earth to the signal tower, which would duly pass them on to my peer coach’s laptop seated just a couple of feet away. Technology: Check. Social distancing: double check.

A fresh pair of eyes is always welcome, and the peer coach was calm and collected. We just had to collect the relevant literature and sort them out. Simple. And so started the humongous process of sorting out the literature. The peer coach immediately inserted a table for the entire assignment. This was specific for interventions and was not the same as the table included in the earlier parts of the assignment. One by one, we started to fill in the cells of the table. We had to enter, check, delete and then reassess our entries. There were many blanks.

We then resorted to the help of Mr/Ms. Google to fill in the empty spaces in our table. The articles looked all too familiar. We had to wade through them and slowly, but surely, we had filled up most of the cells in our table. There were a few empty cells, but I was feeling a lot more confident. I could now breathe.

We found a case study, which fit wonderfully into the individual level of the SEM model. We found a trial conducted among teens that considered age, gender and background variables. My peer coach suggested to consider if this fits into the individual level. And it did!! The most challenging part of the paper was the interpersonal/relationship determinants. There were 2 papers conducted in school and college campuses, which might consider interpersonal/relationship factors, but I was not very sure. Peer coach was kind enough to sift through this article with me and it was a very nuanced, very subtle consideration. At the end of the deliberations, both of us concurred that it does consider the relevant factors. So, in it went!!

Slowly, but surely, we started to fill-in the details for my paper. My peers and peer coach suggested me to visit the librarian for further help. I now had enough material and content to work with a librarian. My one-hour appointment just flew by. My muddled brain managed to blurt out a “thank you so much”. I boarded the shuttle bus still reeling with the flood of information. I managed to reach home and I just slept. System down!!

At the end of the day:

I ended up choosing a topic with very little prior information for a critical assignment. Naive enthusiasm has to be tempered with practical feasibility. During the last phase of my assignment, I realized that there were not many articles on interventions related to the topic. I was marooned in a no-man’s land.

Science progresses by identifying knowledge gaps and identifying strategies to address these gaps. Having considered this fact, we will find ourselves in situations where we have to work with the resources we have, with the literature that is out there, whatever the numbers of published articles are. More often than not, we will hit a dead end, a cul-de-sac. It is important to keep nudging, keep probing, keep nibbling, keep working and just keep at it!!

Appointment with the peer coach gave me the clarity of thought that was so critical for my assignment. The practical approach adopted by the peer coach went a long way in my successful completion of the assignment. Fresh perspective helps.

“There is always the professor” the TA quipped.

“There are always articles” the professor remarked.

“There are always possibilities” the peer coach suggested.

Invaluable lessons!!

Email Rajesh at:

Hone Your Paraphrasing Skills

In a previous blog post, I referred to paraphrasing as an act of creativity and generosity. It’s giving credit for information and ideas you are drawing on in your writing, in your own words. I’m not sure when or where I learned how to do this.

My guess is that I got a lot of practice in my undergraduate papers about English literature. Over multiple classes and a few years, I learned how to summarize plot, character, overarching themes, etc. I also relied on many quotes (as is the norm when writing about literature). But in-between those quotes I learned how to intertwine the information and ideas I took from primary and secondary sources with my own analysis. By the time I started graduate school, I knew how to distil information from other sources into my own sentences and to cite them appropriately.

Sara Mackenzie, Professor Emerita at the University of Washington School of Public Health, explains that some professors expect students to have also gone through a similar “long process of acculturation.” But this is a risky assumption to make. Professor Mackenzie was writing about undergraduate education, but the expectation is even greater for graduate students. Many MPH students start their first semester of graduate school without this accumulated experience. They are U.S. and international students coming from disciplines where they were rarely asked to write. Or they may be used to a completely different type of writing.

The expectation that students already know how to weave information from other sources seamlessly into their writing can set them up for instant anxiety. They are writing academic papers for the first time and learning to incorporate sources, cite those sources, and format their citations and works cited list following a specific format. And they are worried about being accused of plagiarism.

A couple of semesters ago I taught a large class for first-semester MPH students. At least four students in that class of 80, all with advanced training in science and medicine, had never written formal papers that required citations. These students told me and their teaching assistants early in the semester that they were new to writing papers. The TAs met with them and did their best to explain paraphrasing and citation, and we encouraged them to make appointments with peer writing coaches. The students were sincerely trying, yet each one turned in papers where large chunks of direct language from sources ended up in their papers.

The students were confused by my explanation of what was wrong and I was struggling to be clear. What they needed was the ability to see what I was trying to tell them. So, I started exploring programs that detect excessive verbatim text, which is often referred to as unintentional plagiarism. Professors take unintentional plagiarism very seriously and this can lead to accusations of academic dishonesty (even when a student is making an honest effort to learn how to do it correctly).

The good news is that there are several useful online programs students can use to scan their papers for problematic paraphrasing as they write and revise. I will focus on Turnitin Draft Coach, which all BU students can access through Google Docs.

Turnitin is a program that many of you (both professors and students) are already familiar. It provides color-coded similarity reports showing the percent of language in a document wording has been taken verbatim from the source.  Many professors use it to check student work for originality/plagiarism as part of the grading process. Turnitin Draft Coach is different because it is designed specifically for writers to use as they draft and polish their papers.

Draft Coach can also help with grammar and it will check the formatting of citations. Other programs, like Grammarly, also do this on a subscription basis. The Microsoft 365 Word application has a similar feature that is also available to the BU community for free.

You can access Draft Coach by logging into Google Drive via your BU Google account. Open a Google Doc and start writing your paper. (If you are working in Word, upload your draft and open it as a Google Doc.)

  • At the top of the screen select Add-ons, then Turnitin Draft Coach.
  • Draft Coach will open on the right side of your screen. Click on “Similarity” at the top.
  • Next click on “Check Similarity.” The scan may take several minutes so get up and stretch and maybe even take a short walk (you deserve it!)
  • Turnitin will provide a color-coded document showing places where your wording matches up with the wording in another source. This report shows the passage, the source that it matches with, and a proportion.

How to Use the Draft Coach Similarity Report

Once you have the report, you can scan your work to make sure you understand each phrase identified in the report. A score in the 10%-15% range is typical. You will be able to see that titles and simple phrases like “the prevalence of HIV in South Africa is 18.3%” are highlighted. You can decide as you read through the report if you need or want to make changes.

If your score is over 15% then use the color-coded report to return to the sources you are taking verbatim text from and revise to convey the information/analysis in your own words.

Take a look at this example. This student’s original similarity score was 49%. After she revised it was 12%.

Anxious About Starting That Paper For Your MPH Class? Here Are Some Tips For Getting Started


By Amelia Thyen

Try out these timer applications the next time you are struggling to focus while writing!

For me, the hardest part of writing an academic paper is getting my first ideas on a blank page. Even if I am excited to write the paper, I am passionate about my public health topic, and I have a few hours of my day set aside to work on the paper, I still struggle to find the motivation to start writing. Like many of my peers at BUSPH, I tend to be a perfectionist and always strive to write a perfect paper, starting with the first draft. Staring at a blank page is daunting, and it can sometimes be difficult for me to start the writing process for fear that this first draft won’t be perfect. 

If you ever feel this way about writing, know that you are not alone!

One tip that a professor once taught me (shoutout Professor Godley!) is to set a timer for myself and see how much I can get out of my brain and onto the page in just that amount of time. By setting a timer, you give yourself the internal motivation needed to get some ideas down, and you also are able to schedule breaks so that you do not feel overwhelmed. You can start by simply setting a timer on your phone or cooking timer. There are also a few apps and websites that I have found to be extremely helpful for creating that extra push to get writing:

Forest App

The first app that I use to help jumpstart my writing process is called Forest. Upon opening the app, you are prompted to choose an amount of time that you would like to focus for and choose the plant you would like to grow during that time. The plant that you choose will grow while you work, and it will die if you leave the app. I love the idea of growing virtual trees, and I also appreciate that it prevents me from opening up other distracting apps on my phone. If you are like me and can get distracted by scrolling through Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter, this app is for you!

I like to start with the shortest option, just 10 minutes, and use that time to open up the document where I will be writing, pull up the writing prompt and rubric from Blackboard, and open the BU Library website to easily start the research process. These 10 minutes allow me to transition into “writing mode” and prepare me to focus for an extended period of time. Once the 10-minute timer is done and I have grown my first tree, I like to set a longer timer and start getting my ideas on the page.  

The maximum amount of time to set the timer is 120 minutes, but I find this to be unrealistic for my writing style. I like to set multiple 25-minute timers consecutively in a row, and after each timer goes off I get up and stretch, refill my water/coffee, or allow myself to briefly look at my phone for 5 minutes. Then, I set another 25-minute timer and grow my next plant. This app has helped me focus on writing, eliminate the distraction of my phone, and help me manage my time more efficiently. It costs $1.99 in the app store and is definitely worth it for all of the papers that it has motivated me to finish. 

Promo Focus Website

If you are someone who may not be as distracted on your phone, and you want your timer to be accessible from the computer where you are writing, there is a similar timer for web browsers called Promo Focus. This website allows you to set consecutive timers, and automatically schedules breaks in between your working time. You can set the length of time to work as well as the length of time for a break. You can also enable notifications on your web browser to allow the website to notify you when the timer is done. The website also displays how much time is left on the timer in the tab, so you don’t need to go to the actual page to check the time. Although you won’t be able to grow trees for your virtual forest, this website is a great free alternative to the Forest app and can also help motivate you to finish your writing assignments. 

I highly suggest downloading Forest App and or using Promo Focus the next time you have a writing assignment. Public health writing is not easy, but with a little motivation from these timers, you may find it easier to finish your next assignment!

Amelia is a second-year MPH student at BUSPH studying Epidemiology & Biostatistics and pursuing a certificate in Human Rights & Social Justice. She started as a peer coach in the summer of 2022 and has enjoyed reviewing her peer's writing, and making improvements to her own public health writing in the process. After graduation, she hopes to work at the intersection of epidemiological research and communication of public health findings to the general public. 

Four Reasons Why You Should Attend the Library Tutorial on Sept 14 and Get to Know the BUMC Education Librarians

This Wednesday, September 14, the education librarians are offering a Zoom tutorial for students in the School of Public Health from 1:00-1:50 pm. You may think you don’t need their help (you know how use Google or PubMed well enough to always find something when you are looking). Or you may feel shy, like you should be able to do your research on your own. I have worked at BUSPH since 2005, and I can tell you from 17 years of personal experience and student testimonials, that the BUMC librarians are among the most important people you will meet during your MPH, MS, DrPH, or PhD program.

Here are some reasons why you should attend the tutorial, keep the link to the recording handy, and reach out to them for one-on-one assistance.

 First, the BUMC librarians are kind and generous with their time.

Send them an email at and you will likely hear back from them within a few hours. When you write to them, tell them a bit about the topic you want to research and some specifics about the project you are working on. You might even send them a copy of the assignment instructions.

Students always tell the same story, and I’ve experienced it myself. Send them some details about the project you are working on and ask for a meeting. If they know what your topic is, the odds are very strong that they will do some research before you show up for the meeting. Then they will sit with you and patiently show you where and how they found the best sources. And when you forget what they showed you, they will patiently walk you through the search process again.

Second, the librarians honestly enjoy working with public health students.

Public health topics are complicated puzzles. We are never looking for research on one thing, say lung carcinomas. We want to understand health conditions in particular populations in very specific contexts. A general interest on cancer incidence, screening, prevention, and treatment in Tanzania quickly turns into an exploration of the social and economic conditions that shape peoples’ daily lives.

And we rarely stop there, next we are looking at the health system and availability of specialized care or (too often) barriers to care. Looking at the health system turns into an exploration of history, colonialism, and the structural adjustment policies put in place by the World Bank in the 1980s that gutted public investment in health and education. Then we are on to specific populations. Who is at risk? Why are they at risk? What is happening at the local, government, and international level to change the situation? What evidence exists showing that a particular intervention works or is likely to work?

The puzzle is endless, and our librarians are endlessly curious and always willing to help.

 Third, they are always up-to-date on how to navigate the complexities of search engines and search terms

Pubmed and other search engines are always changing in small and large ways. And Google is notoriously secretive about their search algorithms. They know what’s new and they have many tricks for cutting through the inundation of information. Ask them about MeSH terms. They can open new worlds for you.

Fourth, they will help you learn how to use Zotero, Mendeley, and other citation management systems.

They can talk you through the pros and cons of each, help you set up citation watches, walk you through difficulties with Word plug-ins, and more. If you are still doing your citations manually, because Zotero seems to complicated, they won’t laugh at you. Instead they will show you how to save yourself from hours of aggravation.

Just do it. Sign up for the September 14 tutorial and write to them at today.

Writing Across the Life Course

Yesterday, I had the great honor, to participate in a BUSPH Public Health Conversation panel discussion called Teaching Public Health: Writing and Communication. The full recording will be available here in the next couple days.

My main message was that public health professors need to set aside their expectation that students arrive in their classes already knowing how to write public health documents tailored to specific audiences. This is particularly true in graduate programs. Writing is not a competency once mastered and easily reproduced. Rather it is a process and a practice that we engage in over the course of our lives.

The clarity of our writing is often an indicator of what’s going on in the rest of our lives. And it can sometimes fall apart as we learn new information, perspectives, and terminology. Here’s the story I told about my own writing journey.

When I was an undergraduate English major, I clearly remember the feeling of having lost control of my writing. I had so many words and ideas, but for the life of me I could no longer remember how to construct a sentence or use a comma. This happened sometime around my junior year. Before that, in high school and my first couple years of college, the writing had come fairly easily, and I’ll admit that I didn’t try very hard. But my papers were generally satisfactory, if not brilliant.

Then a couple of things happened. I started getting excited by the Elizabeth Gaskell novels I was reading about industrialized Victorian England. I was inspired by several professors (really inspired for the first time) to peer into the past and the present through those teeming fictional worlds. And every time I sat down to write, my ideas, words, and sentences started colliding into one another, splintering off in new directions, reaching beyond what I was easily able to articulate.

I’m sure those papers were extremely challenging for my professors to read. I’m grateful that they were patient, generous readers. They apparently saw the ideas, gave me the benefit of the doubt, and mentored me through the process of regaining my ability to write a coherent sentence with more or less correct punctuation as I worked through the jumble of ideas in my head.

The process was slow and awkward, but I eventually got back on track. I started my masters degree in English literature and eventually completed my PhD. I taught freshman composition throughout graduate school. I learned about the writing process, about writing as a form of learning, and the connection between writing and cognitive development and language acquisition. I was able to look back at my sentence structure meltdown and see it in a new light. My abstract thinking had outpaced my ability to clearly formulate thoughts and information on the page. But with time and practice and patient professors, I caught up.

Then I decided to enroll in an MPH program, and it happened all over again. This time, I wasn’t floundering at the sentence level. Instead, I was bogged down in a sea of technical language and numbers, writing documents I had never heard of before. Hello policy brief and research memo. This time the emotional stakes were higher. I had a PhD in English for goodness sake. I had been a writing teacher and an editor.

And now I was writing papers about HIV in Ghana and forgetting (or maybe not even realizing) that I needed to mention that 2% of the adult population is HIV positive. It could have been demoralizing. But, again, patient professors and my previous experience helped me feel optimistic that with enough time to think, draft, revise, get feedback, and revise again, I would figure out how to write a satisfactory policy brief and literature review.

Most of our students are on similar journeys. And the same is true for us, their professors. Many of us spend our lives sliding back and forth on an emotional continuum of writing confidence and panic. The life-course approach helps us re-imagine our relationship with our writing as we build our knowledge, learn new skills, accumulate experience and feedback, and develop our sense of identity as a writer.

Writing Public Health Abstracts

An abstract is a short summary of a larger work, such as a journal article, research paper, presentation, or poster. Articles in academic journals always start with an abstract and applications to present your work at an academic conference usually entail submitting a 100-300 word description of the project you want to showcase.

The best abstracts engage the reader’s interest, offering spoonfuls of vital information about the core components of your study. What was your objective? Who was your focus population? What did you do? How did you do it?  What did you find? Why is the work useful? Your language should be clear, descriptive, and engaging. Your sentences should be concise.

A well-written abstract offers an intriguing snapshot of your whole project. It’s the thing that will make a reader who is scanning 100 abstracts on PubMed decide to click to the full text. Every word of your abstract should matter. Technical jargon should be minimal, as should abbreviations.

Your abstract stands alone, but beckons readers. If someone only reads your abstract, never sees the full article or report, they should still be able to answer all the questions listed above. But it also calls the reader to fulfill their desire to know more by downloading the PDF of your article, inviting you to present at the conference.

Because your abstract is an overview of your entire document, it may be the last thing you write. But waiting until you are done with the paper can be a mistake because, by that time, you may be short on time or energy and tempted to simply cut and paste.

I have certainly been guilty of remembering the abstract at the last minute, copying key sentences from each section, doing a bit of editing to stay within the word count, and leaving it at that. The result has always been a chunk of disjointed, jargony prose, somewhat informative and minimally engaging. Many of the abstracts on PubMed read like they were written this way. But a copy-and-paste abstract isn’t doing justice to your hard work.

Here are some things you can do to avoid writing your abstract in exhaustion, when you feel like you’ve expended all you have to say. First, and most obvious, don’t wait until the end of the writing process. At the top of your document or in a separate document that you keep open while writing your primary text, type the word abstract in boldface. Below that type headers for the information you know you need to include in the abstract. Then make notes as you go. Even typing two or three words or pasting some key numbers from your results section as you write it can help. Keep adding to it and refining your prose as you go. What you want to avoid is a blank space, a looming deadline, and the sense that you have nothing left to write.

You can also reverse the process and write your abstract before you start writing your manuscript. Doing so may help you figure out exactly what the focus and main message of your document will be. If you intend to present early results from your research at a conference, then you may write the abstract first.


The instructions for writing an abstract vary depending on the conference or journal. It is critical to stay within the prescribed word limit. If you exceed the word limit, your abstract may be not be reviewed, your article may be rejected by a busy editor who doesn’t have time to read manuscripts that don’t adhere to the journal’s published guidelines for authors.

An abstract usually has the following sections. Conference and journal guidelines will tell you the word limit and what format to use. Some will ask you to break the information into sections (as seen below), others will ask you to put the information together in a single paragraph.

  • Background / Objective: What is public health problem you are addressing? What is its scope? What is the purpose of your article / presentation?
  • Methods: What was your study design? How did you collect data? How did you analyze your data?
  • Results: What did you find that is most relevant to the objective stated above?
  • Discussion / Implications / Recommendations: What is the significance of your research? What are the implications for addressing the public health challenge? What next steps do you recommend?

Useful Resources

Suhasini Nagda. 2013. How to Write Scientific Abstracts. Journal of Indian Prosthdontic Society. 13(3): 382-383

Karen McKee. 2022. How to Write a Scientific Abstract for Your Research Article. Wiley Network. Accessed April 13, 2022.

Purdue Owl. Writing Scientific Abstracts. Accessed April 13, 2022