how to write literature review

1.04 How to write a literature review


What is a literature review?

The aim of a literature review is to show your reader (your tutor) that you have read, and have a good grasp of, the main published work concerning a particular topic or question in your field. This work may be in any format, including online sources. It may be a separate assignment, or one of the introductory sections of a report, dissertation or thesis. In the latter cases in particular, the review will be guided by your research objective or by the issue or thesis you are arguing and will provide the framework for your further work.

It is very important to note that your review should not be simply a description of what others have published in the form of a set of summaries, but should take the form of a critical discussion, showing insight and an awareness of differing arguments, theories and approaches. It should be a synthesis and analysis of the relevant published work, linked at all times to your own purpose and rationale.

According to Caulley (1992) of La Trobe University, the literature review should:

• compare and contrast different authors’ views on an issue
• group authors who draw similar conclusions
• criticise aspects of methodology
• note areas in which authors are in disagreement
• highlight exemplary studies
• highlight gaps in research
• show how your study relates to previous studies
• show how your study relates to the literature in general
• conclude by summarising what the literature says

The purposes of the review are:

• to define and limit the problem you are working on
• to place your study in an historical perspective
• to avoid unnecessary duplication
• to evaluate promising research methods
• to relate your findings to previous knowledge and suggest further research

A good literature review, therefore, is critical of what has been written, identifies areas of controversy, raises questions and identifies areas which need further research.

Structure of the literature review

The overall structure of your review will depend largely on your own thesis or research area. What you will need to do is to group together and compare and contrast the varying opinions of different writers on certain topics. What you must not do is just describe what one writer says, and then go on to give a general overview of another writer, and then another, and so on. Your structure should be dictated instead by topic areas, controversial issues or by questions to which there are varying approaches and theories. Within each of these sections, you would then discuss what the different literature argues, remembering to link this to your own purpose.

Linking words are important. If you are grouping together writers with similar opinions, you would use words or phrases such as:

similarly, in addition, also, again

More importantly, if there is disagreement, you need to indicate clearly that you are aware of this by the use of linkers such as:

however, on the other hand, conversely, nevertheless

At the end of the review you should include a summary of what the literature implies, which again links to your hypothesis or main question.

You first need to decide what you need to read. In many cases you will be given a booklist or directed towards areas of useful published work. Make sure you use this help. With dissertations, and particularly theses, it will be more down to you to decide. It is important, therefore, to try and decide on the parameters of your research. What exactly are your objectives and what do you need to find out? In your review, are you looking at issues of theory, methodology, policy, quantitive research, or what? Before you start reading it may be useful to compile a list of the main areas and questions involved, and then read with the purpose of finding out about or answering these. Unless something comes up which is particularly important, stick to this list, as it is very easy to get sidetracked, particularly on the internet.

A good literature review needs a clear line of argument. You therefore need to use the critical notes and comments you made whilst doing your reading to express an academic opinion. Make sure that:

• you include a clear, short introduction which gives an outline of the review, including the main topics covered and the order of the arguments, with a brief rationale for this.

• there is always a clear link between your own arguments and the evidence uncovered in your reading. Include a short summary at the end of each section.
Use quotations if appropriate.

• you always acknowledge opinions which do not agree with your thesis. If you ignore opposing viewpoints, your argument will in fact be weaker.

Your review must be written in a formal, academic style. Keep your writing clear and concise, avoiding colloquialisms and personal language. You should always aim to be objective and respectful of others’ opinions; this is not the place for emotive language or strong personal opinions. If you thought something was rubbish, use words such as "inconsistent", "lacking in certain areas" or "based on false assumptions"! (See Guide 1.21)

When introducing someone’s opinion, don’t use "says", but instead an appropriate verb which more accurately reflects this viewpoint, such as "argues", "claims" or "states". Use the present tense for general opinions and theories, or the past when referring to specific research or experiments:

Although Trescothick (2001) argues that attack is the best form of defence, Boycott (1969) claims that.

In a field study carried out amongst the homeless of Sydney, Warne (1999) found that.

And remember at all times to avoid plagiarising your sources. Always separate your source opinions from your own hypothesis. making sure you consistently reference the literature you are referring to. When you are doing your reading and making notes, it might be an idea to use different colours to distinguish between your ideas and those of others. (See Guide 1.13).

Here is a final checklist, courtesy of the University of Melbourne:

Selection of Sources

Have you indicated the purpose of the review?
Are the parameters of the review reasonable?
Why did you include some of the literature and exclude others?
Which years did you exclude?
Have you emphasised recent developments?
Have you focussed on primary sources with only selective use of secondary sources?
Is the literature you have selected relevant?
Is your bibliographic data complete?

Critical Evaluation of the Literature

Have you organised your material according to issues?
Is there a logic to the way you organised the material?
Does the amount of detail included on an issue relate to its importance?
Have you been sufficiently critical of design and methodological issues?
Have you indicated when results were conflicting or inconclusive and discussed possible reasons?
Have you indicated the relevance of each reference to your research?

Has your summary of the current literature contributed to the reader’s understanding of the problems?
Does the design of your research reflect the methodological implications of the literature review?

The literature review will be judged in the context of your completed research.
The review needs to further the reader’s understanding of the problem and whether it provides a rationale for your research.

Links to further resources on writing dissertations

How to Do a Literature Review

Some people might think of a literature review as reading a book and then giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down. Nope, not so. A literature review is a review of various pieces of literature on one topic, ranging from series of books to shorter pieces like pamphlets. Sometimes, the literary review is a part of a larger research paper. Its purpose is to prevent duplication of efforts, resolve conflicts, and point the way for further research.

Steps Edit

Method One of Three:
Before Writing Edit

Clarify your professor’s requirements. Some instructors may ask you to do a literature review and not get more specific than that. Or, maybe they did and you were playing Plants vs Zombies. Either way, knowing precisely what your professor is looking for is the first step to getting that A.

  • How many sources should you include? Does he/she want a specific number of each type? Do they have to be at least semi-current?
  • In discussing your themes, are you just summarizing or critiquing? Some reviews require a thesis, some may not.
  • Should you offer your opinion on your sources?
  • Do you need to provide background information, such as definitions or histories, to aid in your audience’s understanding?
  • Is there a page or word requirement?

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Narrow your topic. Get as narrow as you possibly can while still having the amount of sources necessary. Studying birth order may lead you to dozens of books; studying birth order of same-sex siblings will make your search for sources much quicker and more manageable.

  • Get current. If you are writing a review in the humanities, history, or social sciences, you can afford to be less concerned with timing (in fact, changing opinions throughout history may be an aspect of your paper). But if you are writing a literary review for the sciences, say, on treating diabetes, information from 5 years ago could already be obsolete. Sort through current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. [1]

Find a focus. Unfortunately, you are not just gathering sources and summing up what they have to say. You should be considering what themes and ideas connect your sources together. Think of these books as your group of friends all arguing on the same topic. What are they all assuming? How are they the same and how are they different?

  • Read between the lines. You’re not necessarily looking for explicit content. Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? Are your sources all prescribing to one specific theory? Do you see trends being revealed? This will help you structure your paper immensely, zeroing in on what will give your paper purpose.

Construct your thesis. Now that you’ve found your focus, it’s time to construct a thesis statement. You may be thinking that literature reviews don’t have thesis statements. That’s both partly true and false: They have theses, but they’re quite different. Your thesis statement will not necessarily argue for a position or an opinion; rather, it will argue for a particular perspective on the material. [1]

  • For example, “Current trends in [topic] are A, B, and C,” or “The X Theory is assumed by most sources from 1985 on.” Stating something like this begs a few questions, making your review more interesting and meaningful: How will trends change in the future? What if the assumed theories are wrong?
  • Again, this is not new information. You are not analyzing the material and coming up with your own, fresh perspective on it. You are simply acting like a computer–noting patterns, holes, and assumptions all your sources are taking.

Assess your sources. You can have the best of intentions and a form of prose that convinces the staunchest of skeptics, but if your sources aren’t viable, that’s it. Finito. Make sure your sources are evaluated on a number of levels.

  • What are the author’s credentials? How are their arguments supported (narratives, statistics, historical findings, etc.)?
  • Is the author’s perspective unbiased and objective? Are they ignoring any data to make their points seem stronger?
  • How persuasive are they? Do any of their points leave a bit to be desired?
  • Does their work lead to a greater understanding of the subject? [2]

Start with a solid introduction. As with everything, first impressions matter. Your intro should give a quick idea of the topic of your review, be it thematically or by organizational pattern.

  • Help the reader along by letting them know what kind of ride they’re in for. If you are employing a thesis statement, place it toward the end of your introductory paragraph. At the end, your reader should be anticipating getting into the evidence and bulk of your paper.

Organize the body. Here is the part where you have the most options. You have a number of sources and, since they’re all on the same topic, they probably have loads in common. Choose whichever way seems the most natural to you for your specific focus.

  • Arrange it chronologically. If you are dealing with varying opinions by era or changing trends over time, chronological organization may make the most sense.
  • Arrange it by publication. This organizational method fares well if each publication has a different stance. If there is a natural progression (radical to conservative, for example) between the sources, this works swimmingly.
  • Arrange it by trend. If you are noticing patterns in your sources, arranging them by the trends they suggest may be the most obvious structure. Certain sources may, together, suggest one pattern that shifts over time, region, or other variable.
  • Arrange it thematically. This highly depends on your thesis statement and what sources you have chosen. If you are choosing a focus that is more abstract (“Colonialism is depicted as evil,” for example), the subsections may be arranged on the different methods employed to put the theme across.

Come to a clear conclusion. The closing paragraph needs to wrap up your paper, reiterate what was said in the intro, and discuss what you’ve drawn so far from your studies.

  • You may make your conclusion suggestive. Where might the discussion proceed if someone else picked it up where you left off? What are the consequences of the patterns and holes in today’s sources?

Use evidence. Feel free to combine multiple sources into your own words to make an argument. You are using your own words backed up by the works of professionals.

  • However, use quotes sparingly. The survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. [1] Some short ones are fine, sure, but all in all, it should be written by you.

Keep your own voice. No, you are not presenting information that sprang up from the wonders of your own mind, but you should still start and end each paragraph with your own words. Your voice should remain front and center.

  • When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. [1] Then, relate it to the context of your review.
  • Some professors may require that you evaluate the sources and conclude which pieces add the greatest contribution to the field. If yours is keen on this, determine your take in the introduction and string it throughout your paper.

Review the guidelines. Some professors like their papers a certain way. Make sure yours not only meets content guidelines but meets formatting guidelines, too.

  • Does your instructor require APA formatting? What should your margins be? Headers, footers, footnotes, and page numbers? How do they want your name, headings, and subheadings? How do they want your works cited page?

Check for coherent flow and transitions. It’s best to stick to clear and concise writing and it’s not always easy to nail that on the first try. Go back over your work and rephrase whatever was left ambiguous or wordy.

  • With everything said as clear as day, does it flow together? Do you transition well not only from paragraph to paragraph, but from sentence to sentence? Be sure your evidence lines up with the support and your arrangement of sources flows logically.
  • Eliminate useless jargon or slang. You may have grown an entirely new vocabulary during this endeavor, but your professor has not. Write a paper that can be read by the masses. Don’t make it overly esoteric.

Proofread your work. You’ve got the hard part down. Now all you need to do is go over it for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Take a break between writing and proofreading–your brain may be a bit saturated. Jump back at it when you’re ready.

  • It’s best to have someone else go over your work, too. You may have read it so many times you can no longer see you lapsed into Portuguese absent-mindedly. A different set of eyes can locate mistakes you may not have seen, ask questions you didn’t realize were left unaddressed, or seek clarification on the foggier points.

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Learn how to write a review of literature.

What is a review of literature?

The format of a review of literature may vary from discipline to discipline and from assignment to assignment.

A review may be a self-contained unit — an end in itself — or a preface to and rationale for engaging in primary research. A review is a required part of grant and research proposals and often a chapter in theses and dissertations.

Generally, the purpose of a review is to analyze critically a segment of a published body of knowledge through summary, classification, and comparison of prior research studies, reviews of literature, and theoretical articles.

Writing the introduction

In the introduction, you should:

  • Define or identify the general topic, issue, or area of concern, thus providing an appropriate context for reviewing the literature.
  • Point out overall trends in what has been published about the topic; or conflicts in theory, methodology, evidence, and conclusions; or gaps in research and scholarship; or a single problem or new perspective of immediate interest.
  • Establish the writer’s reason (point of view) for reviewing the literature; explain the criteria to be used in analyzing and comparing literature and the organization of the review (sequence); and, when necessary, state why certain literature is or is not included (scope).

Writing the body

In the body, you should:

  • Group research studies and other types of literature (reviews, theoretical articles, case studies, etc.) according to common denominators such as qualitative versus quantitative approaches, conclusions of authors, specific purpose or objective, chronology, etc.
  • Summarize individual studies or articles with as much or as little detail as each merits according to its comparative importance in the literature, remembering that space (length) denotes significance.
  • Provide the reader with strong "umbrella" sentences at beginnings of paragraphs, "signposts" throughout, and brief "so what" summary sentences at intermediate points in the review to aid in understanding comparisons and analyses.

Writing the conclusion

In the conclusion, you should:

  • Summarize major contributions of significant studies and articles to the body of knowledge under review, maintaining the focus established in the introduction.
  • Evaluate the current "state of the art" for the body of knowledge reviewed, pointing out major methodological flaws or gaps in research, inconsistencies in theory and findings, and areas or issues pertinent to future study.
  • Conclude by providing some insight into the relationship between the central topic of the literature review and a larger area of study such as a discipline, a scientific endeavor, or a profession.

To learn more about literature reviews, take a look at our workshop on Writing Literature Reviews of Published Research.

Last updated: August 29, 2014

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