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Writing: Literature Review Basics
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The Most Important Thing
The best time to write an introduction is AFTER you write the body of your paper.
Well, how do you know what to introduce until after you've figured out what you want to say?
The best time to write an introduction is as one of the last things you do.
Basic Introduction Template
For any other sort of scholarly writing, the following basic structure works well for an introduction:
- What has been said or done on this topic?
- What is the problem with what has been said or done?
- What will you offer to solve the problem? (The answer to this is your thesis statement.)
- How does your solution address necessary change?
Writing an Introduction
The job of an introduction is to preview what you are going to say so the audience knows what is coming. A good introduction starts out generally and works towards a specific statement of what you intend to discuss in your writing.
The introduction explains the focus and establishes the importance of the subject. It discusses what kind of work has been done on the topic and identifies any controversies within the ﬁeld or any recent research which has raised questions about earlier assumptions. It may provide background or history, and it indicates why the topic is important, interesting, problematic, or relevant in some way. It concludes with a purpose or thesis statement. In a stand-alone literature review, this statement will sum up and evaluate the state of the art in this ﬁeld of research; in a review that is an introduction or preparatory to a larger work, such as the Culminating Project, it will suggest how the review ﬁndings will lead to the research the writer proposes to undertake.
In a literature review, an introduction may contain the following:
- A concise definition of a topic under consideration (this may be a descriptive or argumentative thesis, or proposal), as well as the scope of the related literature being investigated. (Example: If the topic under consideration is ‘women’s wartime diaries’, the scope of the review may be limited to published or unpublished works, works in English, works from a particular location, time period, or conflict, etc.)
- The introduction should also note what topics are being included and what are intentional exclusions. (Example: “This review will not explore the diaries of adolescent girls.”)
- A final sentence should signal the list of key topics that will be used to discuss the selected sources.
Many theories have been proposed to explain what motivates human behavior. Although the literature covers a wide variety of such theories, this review will focus on five major themes which emerge repeatedly throughout the literature reviewed. These themes are incorporation of the self-concept into traditional theories of motivation, the influence of rewards on motivation, the increasing importance of internal forces of motivation, autonomy and self-control as sources of motivation, and narcissism as an essential component of motivation. Although the literature presents these themes in a variety of contexts, this paper will primarily focus on their application to self-motivation.
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- How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates
How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates
Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.
What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .
There are five key steps to writing a literature review:
- Search for relevant literature
- Evaluate sources
- Identify themes, debates, and gaps
- Outline the structure
- Write your literature review
A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.
Table of contents
What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.
- Quick Run-through
- Step 1 & 2
When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:
- Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
- Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
- Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
- Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
- Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.
Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.
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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.
- Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
- Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
- Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
- Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)
You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.
Download Word doc Download Google doc
Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .
If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .
Make a list of keywords
Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.
- Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
- Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
- Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth
Search for relevant sources
Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:
- Your university’s library catalogue
- Google Scholar
- Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
- Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
- EconLit (economics)
- Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)
You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.
Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.
You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.
For each publication, ask yourself:
- What question or problem is the author addressing?
- What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
- What are the key theories, models, and methods?
- Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
- What are the results and conclusions of the study?
- How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?
Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.
You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.
Take notes and cite your sources
As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.
It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.
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To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:
- Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
- Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
- Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
- Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
- Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?
This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.
- Most research has focused on young women.
- There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
- But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.
There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).
The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.
Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.
If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.
For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.
If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:
- Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
- Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources
A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.
You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.
Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.
The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.
Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.
As you write, you can follow these tips:
- Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts
In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.
When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !
This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.
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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
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A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .
It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.
There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:
- To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
- To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
- To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
- To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
- To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic
Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.
The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .
A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .
An annotated bibliography is a list of source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a paper .
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Literature Review Tips for the Introduction and Discussion Sections
A literature review is a summary of studies related to a particular area of research. It identifies and summarizes all the relevant research conducted on a particular topic. It is important that your literature review is focused . Therefore, you should choose a limited number of studies that are central to your topic rather than trying to collect a wide range of studies that might not be closely connected.
Literature reviews help you accomplish the following:
- Evaluate past research Collecting relevant resources will help you see what research has already been done. This will also help avoid duplication.
- Identify experts It is important to identify credible researchers who have knowledge in a given field, in order to seek their help if you get stuck with certain aspects of your research.
- Identify key questions Your ultimate aim is to bring something new to the conversation. Collecting resources will help you determine the important questions that need to be addressed.
- Determine methodologies used in past studies Knowing how others have approached a particular topic will give you the opportunity to identify problems and find new ways to research and study a topic. If the reported methodology was successful, you can use it and save time that you would otherwise be spending on optimization.
Presenting Literature Review in the Introduction and Discussion Sections
There are many benefits to presenting literature reviews in the introduction and discussion sections of your manuscripts . However, there are differences in how you can present literature reviews in each section.
What Should be Included in the Literature Review of the Introduction Section?
The literature reviewed in the introduction should:
- Introduce the topic
- Establish the significance of the study
- Provide an overview of the relevant literature
- Establish a context for the study using the literature
- Identify knowledge gaps
- Illustrate how the study will advance knowledge on the topic
As you can see, literature review plays a significant role in the introduction section. However, there are some things that you should avoid doing in this section. These include:
- Elaborating on the studies mentioned in the literature review
- Using studies from the literature review to aggressively support your research
- Directly quoting studies from the literature review
It is important to know how to integrate the literature review into the introduction in an effective way. Although you can mention other studies, they should not be the focus. Instead, focus on using the literature review to aid in setting a foundation for the manuscript.
What Goes in the Literature Review of the Discussion Section?
Literature reviews play an important role in the discussion section of a manuscript . In this section, your findings should be the focus, rather than those of other researchers. Therefore, you should only use the studies mentioned in the literature review as support and evidence for your study.
There are three ways in which you can use literature reviews in the discussion section:
- To Provide Context for Your Study Using studies from the literature review helps to set the foundation for how you will reveal your findings and develop your ideas.
- Compare your Findings to Other Studies You can use previous literature as a backdrop to compare your new findings. This helps describe and also advance your ideas.
- State the Contribution of Your Study In addition to developing your ideas, you can use literature reviews to explain how your study contributes to the field of study.
However, there are three common mistakes that researchers make when including literature reviews in the discussion section. First, they mention all sorts of studies, some of which are not even relevant to the topic under investigation. Second, instead of citing the original article, they cite a related article that mentions the original article. Lastly, some authors cite previous work solely based on the abstract, without even going through the entire paper.
We hope this article helps you effectively present your literature review in both the introduction as well as the discussion section of your manuscript. You can also mention any other tips that will add to this article in the comments section below.
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Introduction to Literature Reviews
Choose a sign-in option, citation and embed code, learning objectives.
At the conclusion of this chapter, you will be able to:
- Identify the purpose of the literature review in the research process;
- Distinguish between different types of literature reviews.
What is a Literature Review?
Pick up nearly any book on research methods and you will find a description of a literature review. At a basic level, the term implies a survey of factual or nonfiction books, articles, and other documents published on a particular subject. Definitions may be similar across the disciplines, with new types and definitions continuing to emerge. Generally speaking, a literature review is a:
- “comprehensive background of the literature within the interested topic area…” ( O’Gorman & MacIntosh, 2015, p. 31 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- “critical component of the research process that provides an in-depth analysis of recently published research findings in specifically identified areas of interest.” ( House, 2018, p. 109 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- “written document that presents a logically argued case founded on a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge about a topic of study” ( Machi & McEvoy, 2012, p. 4 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
As a foundation for knowledge advancement in every discipline, it is an important element of any research project. At the graduate or doctoral level, the literature review is an essential feature of thesis and dissertation, as well as grant proposal writing. That is to say, “A substantive, thorough, sophisticated literature review is a precondition for doing substantive, thorough, sophisticated research…A researcher cannot perform significant research without first understanding the literature in the field.” ( Boote & Beile, 2005, p. 3 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ). It is by this means, that a researcher demonstrates familiarity with a body of knowledge and thereby establishes credibility with a reader. An advanced-level literature review shows how prior research is linked to a new project, summarizing and synthesizing what is known while identifying gaps in the knowledge base, facilitating theory development, closing areas where enough research already exists, and uncovering areas where more research is needed. ( Webster & Watson, 2002, p. xiii [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] )
A graduate-level literature review is a compilation of the most significant previously published research on your topic. Unlike an annotated bibliography or a research paper you may have written as an undergraduate, your literature review will outline, evaluate and synthesize relevant research and relate those sources to your own thesis or research question. It is much more than a summary of all the related literature.
It is a type of writing that demonstrate the importance of your research by defining the main ideas and the relationship between them. A good literature review lays the foundation for the importance of your stated problem and research question.
Literature reviews do the following:
- define a concept
- map the research terrain or scope
- systemize relationships between concepts
- identify gaps in the literature ( Rocco & Plathotnik, 2009, p. 128 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] )
In the context of a research study, the purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate that your research question is meaningful. Additionally, you may review the literature of different disciplines to find deeper meaning and understanding of your topic. It is especially important to consider other disciplines when you do not find much on your topic in one discipline. You will need to search the cognate literature before claiming there is “little previous research” on your topic.
Well developed literature reviews involve numerous steps and activities. The literature review is an iterative process because you will do at least two of them: a preliminary search to learn what has been published in your area and whether there is sufficient support in the literature for moving ahead with your subject. After this first exploration, you will conduct a deeper dive into the literature to learn everything you can about the topic and its related issues.
Literature Review Tutorial
Literature Review Basics
An effective literature review must:
- Methodologically analyze and synthesize quality literature on a topic
- Provide a firm foundation to a topic or research area
- Provide a firm foundation for the selection of a research methodology
- Demonstrate that the proposed research contributes something new to the overall body of knowledge of advances the research field’s knowledge base. ( Levy & Ellis, 2006 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
All literature reviews, whether they are qualitative, quantitative or both, will at some point:
- Introduce the topic and define its key terms
- Establish the importance of the topic
- Provide an overview of the amount of available literature and its types (for example: theoretical, statistical, speculative)
- Identify gaps in the literature
- Point out consistent finding across studies
- Arrive at a synthesis that organizes what is known about a topic
- Discusses possible implications and directions for future research
Types of Literature Reviews
There are many different types of literature reviews, however there are some shared characteristics or features that all share. Remember a comprehensive literature review is, at its most fundamental level, an original work based on an extensive critical examination and synthesis of the relevant literature on a topic. As a study of the research on a particular topic, it is arranged by key themes or findings, which may lead up to or link to the research question. In some cases, the research question will drive the type of literature review that is undertaken.
The following section includes brief descriptions of the terms used to describe different literature review types with examples of each. The included citations are open access, Creative Commons licensed or copyright-restricted.
Guided by an understanding of basic issues rather than a research methodology, the writer of a conceptual literature review is looking for key factors, concepts or variables and the presumed relationship between them. The goal of the conceptual literature review is to categorize and describe concepts relevant to the study or topic and outline a relationship between them, including relevant theory and empirical research.
Examples of a Conceptual Review:
- The formality of learning science in everyday life: A conceptual literature review ( Dohn, 2010 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- Are we asking the right questions? A conceptual review of the educational development literature in higher education ( Amundsen & Wilson, 2012 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
An empirical literature review collects, creates, arranges, and analyzes numeric data reflecting the frequency of themes, topics, authors and/or methods found in existing literature. Empirical literature reviews present their summaries in quantifiable terms using descriptive and inferential statistics.
Examples of an Empirical Review:
- Impediments of e-learning adoption in higher learning institutions of Tanzania: An empirical review ( Mwakyusa & Mwalyagile, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
The purpose of an exploratory review is to provide a broad approach to the topic area. The aim is breadth rather than depth and to get a general feel for the size of the topic area. A graduate student might do an exploratory review of the literature before beginning a more comprehensive one (e.g., synoptic).
Examples of an Exploratory Review:
- University research management: An exploratory literature review ( Schuetzenmeister, 2010 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- An exploratory review of design principles in constructivist gaming learning environments ( Rosario & Widmeyer, 2009 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
This type of literature review is limited to a single aspect of previous research, such as methodology. A focused literature review generally will describe the implications of choosing a particular element of past research, such as methodology in terms of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.
Examples of a Focused Review:
- Language awareness: Genre awareness-a focused review of the literature ( Stainton, 1992 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
An integrative review critiques past research and draws overall conclusions from the body of literature at a specified point in time. As such, it reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way. Most integrative reviews may require the author to adopt a guiding theory, a set of competing models, or a point of view about a topic. For more description of integrative reviews, see Whittemore & Knafl (2005) [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] .
Examples of an Integrative Review:
- Exploring the gap between teacher certification and permanent employment in Ontario: An integrative literature review ( Brock & Ryan, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
A subset of a systematic review, a meta-analysis takes findings from several studies on the same subject and analyzes them using standardized statistical procedures to pool together data. As such, it integrates findings from a large body of quantitative findings to enhance understanding, draw conclusions, and detect patterns and relationships. By gathering data from many different, independent studies that look at the same research question and assess similar outcome measures, data can be combined and re-analyzed, providing greater statistical power than any single study alone. It’s important to note that not every systematic review includes a meta-analysis but a meta-analysis can’t exist without a systematic review of the literature.
Examples of a Meta-Analysis:
- Efficacy of the cooperative learning method on mathematics achievement and attitude: A meta-analysis research ( Capar & Tarim, 2015 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- Gender differences in student attitudes toward science: A meta-analysis of the literature from 1970 to 1991 ( Weinburgh, 1995 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
A narrative or traditional review provides an overview of research on a particular topic that critiques and summarizes a body of literature. Typically broad in focus, these reviews select and synthesize relevant past research into a coherent discussion. Methodologies, findings and limits of the existing body of knowledge are discussed in narrative form. This requires a sufficiently focused research question, and the process may be subject to bias that supports the researcher’s own work.
Examples of a Narrative/Traditional Review:
- Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference ( Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- Good quality discussion is necessary but not sufficient in asynchronous tuition: A brief narrative review of the literature ( Fear & Erikson-Brown, 2014 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
This specific type of literature review is theory-driven and interpretative and is intended to explain the outcomes of a complex intervention program(s).
Examples of a Realist Review:
- Unravelling quality culture in higher education: A realist review ( Bendermacher, Egbrink, Wolfhagen, & Dolmans, 2017 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
This type of review tends to be a non-systematic approach that focuses on breadth of coverage rather than depth. It utilizes a wide range of materials and may not evaluate the quality of the studies as much as count the number. Thus, it aims to identify the nature and extent of research in an area by providing a preliminary assessment of size and scope of available research and may also include research in progress.
Examples of a Scoping Review:
- Interdisciplinary doctoral research supervision: A scoping review ( Vanstone, Hibbert, Kinsella, McKenzie, Pitman, & Lingard, 2013 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
In contrast to an exploratory review, the purpose of a synoptic review is to provide a concise but accurate overview of all material that appears to be relevant to a chosen topic. Both content and methodological material is included. The review should aim to be both descriptive and evaluative as it summarizes previous studies while also showing how the body of literature could be extended and improved in terms of content and method by identifying gaps.
Examples of a Synoptic Review:
- Theoretical framework for educational assessment: A synoptic review ( Ghaicha, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- School effects research: A synoptic review of past efforts and some suggestions for the future ( Cuttance, 1981 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
A rigorous review that follows a strict methodology designed with a presupposed selection of literature reviewed, systematic reviews are undertaken to clarify the state of existing research, evidence, and possible implications that can be drawn. Using comprehensive and exhaustive searching of the published and unpublished literature, searching various databases, reports, and grey literature, these reviews seek to produce transparent and reproducible results that report details of time frame and methods to minimize bias. Generally, these reviews must include teams of at least 2-3 to allow for the critical appraisal of the literature. For more description of systematic reviews, including links to protocols, checklists, workflow processes, and structure see “ A Young Researcher’s Guide to a Systematic Review [https://edtechbooks.org/-oF] “.
Examples of a Systematic Review:
- The potentials of using cloud computing in schools: A systematic literature review ( Hartmann, Braae, Pedersen, & Khalid, 2017 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- The use of research to improve professional practice: a systematic review of the literature ( Hemsley-Brown & Sharp, 2003 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
Umbrella/Overview of Reviews
An umbrella review compiles evidence from multiple systematic reviews into one document. It therefore focuses on broad conditions or problems for which there are competing interventions and highlights reviews that address those interventions and their effects, thereby allowing for recommendations for practice. For a brief discussion see “ Not all literature reviews are the same [https://edtechbooks.org/-xZ] ” (Thomson, 2013).
Examples of an Umbrella/Overview Review:
- Reflective practice in healthcare education: An umbrella review ( Fragknos, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
Why do a Literature Review?
The purpose of the literature review is the same regardless of the topic or research method. It tests your own research question against what is already known about the subject.
First – It’s part of the whole.
Omission of a literature review chapter or section in a graduate-level project represents a serious void or absence of a critical element in the research process.
The outcome of your review is expected to demonstrate that you:
- can systematically explore the research in your topic area
- can read and critically analyze the literature in your discipline and then use it appropriately to advance your own work
- have sufficient knowledge in the topic to undertake further investigation
Second – It’s good for you!
- You improve your skills as a researcher
- You become familiar with the discourse of your discipline and learn how to be a scholar in your field
- You learn through writing your ideas and finding your voice in your subject area
- You define, redefine and clarify your research question for yourself in the process
Third – It’s good for your reader.
Your reader expects you to have done the hard work of gathering, evaluating, and synthesizing the literature. When you do a literature review you:
- Set the context for the topic and present its significance
- Identify what’s important to know about your topic – including individual material, prior research, publications, organizations and authors.
- Demonstrate relationships among prior research
- Establish limitations of existing knowledge
- Analyze trends in the topic’s treatment and gaps in the literature
So, why should you do a literature review?
- To locate gaps in the literature of your discipline
- To avoid reinventing the wheel
- To carry on where others have already been
- To identify other people working in the same field
- To increase your breadth of knowledge in your subject area
- To find the seminal works in your field
- To provide intellectual context for your own work
- To acknowledge opposing viewpoints
- To put your work in perspective
- To demonstrate you can discover and retrieve previous work in the area
Common Literature Review Errors
Graduate-level literature reviews are more than a summary of the publications you find on a topic. As you have seen in this brief introduction, literature reviews are a very specific type of research, analysis, and writing. We will explore these topics more in the next chapters. Some things to keep in mind as you begin your own research and writing are ways to avoid the most common errors seen in the first attempt at a literature review. For a quick review of some of the pitfalls and challenges a new researcher faces when he/she begins work, see “ Get Ready: Academic Writing, General Pitfalls and (oh yes) Getting Started! [https://edtechbooks.org/-GUc] ”.
As you begin your own graduate-level literature review, try to avoid these common mistakes:
- Accepting another researcher’s finding as valid without evaluating methodology and data
- Ignoring contrary findings and alternative interpretations
- Providing findings that are not clearly related to one’s own study or that are too general
- Allowing insufficient time to defining best search strategies and writing
- Reporting rather than synthesizing isolated statistical results
- Choosing problematic or irrelevant keywords, subject headings and descriptors
- Relying too heavily on secondary sources
- Failing to transparently report search methods
- Summarizing rather than synthesizing articles
In conclusion, the purpose of a literature review is three-fold:
- to survey the current state of knowledge or evidence in the area of inquiry,
- to identify key authors, articles, theories, and findings in that area, and
- to identify gaps in knowledge in that research area.
A literature review is commonly done today using computerized keyword searches in online databases, often working with a trained librarian or information expert. Keywords can be combined using the Boolean operators, “and”, “or” and sometimes “not” to narrow down or expand the search results. Once a list of articles is generated from the keyword and subject heading search, the researcher must then manually browse through each title and abstract, to determine the suitability of that article before a full-text article is obtained for the research question.
Literature reviews should be reasonably complete and not restricted to a few journals, a few years, or a specific methodology or research design. Reviewed articles may be summarized in the form of tables and can be further structured using organizing frameworks such as a concept matrix.
A well-conducted literature review should indicate whether the initial research questions have already been addressed in the literature, whether there are newer or more interesting research questions available, and whether the original research questions should be modified or changed in light of findings of the literature review.
The review can also provide some intuitions or potential answers to the questions of interest and/or help identify theories that have previously been used to address similar questions and may provide evidence to inform policy or decision-making ( Bhattacherjee, 2012 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
The purpose of a graduate-level literature review is to summarize in as many words as possible everything that is known about my topic.
A literature review is significant because in the process of doing one, the researcher learns to read and critically assess the literature of a discipline and then uses it appropriately to advance his/her own research.
Read the following abstract and choose the correct type of literature review it represents.
The focus of this paper centers around timing associated with early childhood education programs and interventions using meta-analytic methods. At any given assessment age, a child’s current age equals starting age, plus duration of program, plus years since program ended. Variability in assessment ages across the studies should enable everyone to identify the separate effects of all three time-related components. The project is a meta-analysis of evaluation studies of early childhood education programs conducted in the United States and its territories between 1960 and 2007. The population of interest is children enrolled in early childhood education programs between the ages of 0 and 5 and their control-group counterparts. Since the data come from a meta-analysis, the population for this study is drawn from many different studies with diverse samples. Given the preliminary nature of their analysis, the authors cannot offer conclusions at this point. ( Duncan, Leak, Li, Magnuson, Schindler, & Yoshikawa, 2011 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
In this review, Mary Vorsino writes that she is interested in keeping the potential influences of women pragmatists of Dewey’s day in mind while presenting modern feminist re readings of Dewey. She wishes to construct a narrowly-focused and succinct literature review of thinkers who have donned a feminist lens to analyze Dewey’s approaches to education, learning, and democracy and to employ Dewey’s works in theorizing on gender and education and on gender in society. This article first explores Dewey as both an ally and a problematic figure in feminist literature and then investigates the broader sphere of feminist pragmatism and two central themes within it: (1) valuing diversity, and diverse experiences; and (2) problematizing fixed truths. ( Vorsino, 2015 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
Linda Frederiksen is the Head of Access Services at Washington State University Vancouver. She has a Master of Library Science degree from Emporia State University in Kansas. Linda is active in local, regional and national organizations, projects and initiatives advancing open educational resources and equitable access to information.
Sue F. Phelps is the Health Sciences and Outreach Services Librarian at Washington State University Vancouver. Her research interests include information literacy, accessibility of learning materials for students who use adaptive technology, diversity and equity in higher education, and evidence based practice in the health sciences
Brigham Young University
This content is provided to you freely by EdTech Books.
Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/rapidwriting/lit_rev_intro .
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The structure of a literature review
A literature review should be structured like any other essay: it should have an introduction, a middle or main body, and a conclusion.
The introduction should:
- define your topic and provide an appropriate context for reviewing the literature;
- establish your reasons – i.e. point of view – for
- reviewing the literature;
- explain the organisation – i.e. sequence – of the review;
- state the scope of the review – i.e. what is included and what isn’t included. For example, if you were reviewing the literature on obesity in children you might say something like: There are a large number of studies of obesity trends in the general population. However, since the focus of this research is on obesity in children, these will not be reviewed in detail and will only be referred to as appropriate.
The middle or main body should:
- organise the literature according to common themes;
- provide insight into the relation between your chosen topic and the wider subject area e.g. between obesity in children and obesity in general;
- move from a general, wider view of the literature being reviewed to the specific focus of your research.
The conclusion should:
- summarise the important aspects of the existing body of literature;
- evaluate the current state of the literature reviewed;
- identify significant flaws or gaps in existing knowledge;
- outline areas for future study;
- link your research to existing knowledge.
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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.
Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?
There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.
A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.
Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.
What are the parts of a lit review?
Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.
- An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
- A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
- Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
- Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.
- Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
- Connect it back to your primary research question
How should I organize my lit review?
Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:
- Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
- Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
- Qualitative versus quantitative research
- Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
- Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.
What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?
Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .
As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.
Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:
- It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
- Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
- Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
- Read more about synthesis here.
The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.
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The Literature Review
28 The Literature Review
A literature review is a survey of everything that has been written about a particular topic, theory, or research question. The word “literature” means “sources of information”. The literature will inform you about the research that has already been conducted on your chosen subject. This is important because we do not want to repeat research that has already been done unless there is a good reason for doing so (i.e. there has been a new development in this area or testing a theory with a new population, or even just to see if the research can be reproduced). Literature reviews usually serve as a background for a larger work (e.g. as part of a research proposal), or it may stand on its own. Much more than a simple list of sources, an effective literature review analyzes and synthesizes information about key themes or issues.
Purpose of a literature review
The literature review involves an extensive study of research publications, books and other documents related to the defined problem. The study is important because it advises you, as a researcher, whether the problem you identified has already been solved by other researchers. It also advises you as to the status of the problem, techniques that have been used by other researchers to investigate the problem, and other related details.
A literature review goes beyond the search for information and includes the identification and articulation of relationships between existing literature and your field of research. The literature review enables the researcher to discover what has been already been written about a topic and to understand the relationship between the various contributions. This will enable the researcher to determine the contributions of each sources (books, article, etc.) to the topic. Literature reviews also enable the researcher to identify and (if possible) resolve contradictions, and also determine research gaps and/or unanswered questions.
Even though the nature of the literature review may vary with different types of studies, the basic purposes remain constant and could be summarized as follows:
- Provide a context for your research;
- Justify the research you are proposing;
- Ensure that your proposed research has not been carried out by another person (and if you find it has, then your literature review should specify why replication is necessary);
- Show where your proposed research fits into the existing body of knowledge;
- Enable the researcher to learn from previous theory on the subject;
- Illustrate how the subject has been studied previously;
- Highlight flaws in previous research;
- Outline gaps in previous research;
- Show how your proposed research can add to the understanding and knowledge of the field;
- Help refine, refocus, or even move the topic in a new direction
What is involved in writing a literature review?
- Research – to discover what has been written about the topic;
- Critical Appraisal – to evaluate the literature, determine the relationship between the sources and ascertain what has been done already and what still needs to be done;
- Writing – to explain what you have found
Generally speaking, it is helpful to think of the literature review as a funnel. One starts with a broad examination of the research related to the issue, working down to look at more specific aspects of the issue, which leads to the gap or the specific issue that your research will address.
How to undertake a literature review
The first step in undertaking a literature review is to conduct a library search of academic research that has been done on your topic. This can be done electronically, or if you are within close vicinity to a library, you can go in and use their computers to find electronic and print holdings. You can also use Google Scholar for your search. In some cases, research conducted outside academia can serve as an important research source for your literature review. Indeed, such research can have important practical implications, as opposed to academic research which usually (although not always) tends toward theoretical applications.
However, it is important to understand who funded the research you review, in addition to the perspective and the purpose of the research. This is becoming an issue in Canada as universities and colleges increasingly turn to industry for research funding grants (see How TransAlta used a university-sanctioned research project to lobby for the coal industry ).
As part of this first step there are a few more some things to be thinking about as you review the literature, as follows:
- Who are the various researchers who have studied this topic? Who are the most prolific researchers/writers on this topic? Has a specific researcher or teams of researchers been identified as pioneers or leaders in this field of study?
- How have the various researchers defined key terms that are relevant to your topic? Have the definitions of any of the key terms evolved over time?
- What are the different theories that have been examined and applied to this topic? How, if at all, have the various theories applied to this topic over time evolved?
- What methodologies have been used to study this topic? Have the methodologies evolved over time?
In addition to thinking about these questions, you should be taking notes during this process. It can be helpful to keep these notes in an Excel file. For example, your notes should include the following information:
- If the article is empirical, write down the results of the research study in one or two sentences of your own words. e.g. “people who are between ages 18 – 35 are more likely to own a smart phone than those above or below.” It is also a good idea to make note of the methods, the research design, the number of participants and details on the sample used in the study. Sometimes, you may even want to write down the names of the statistical procedures used to analyze the data or even some of the statistics, depending on your assignment.
- If the article is a review of previous research, look for the main points. It may be helpful to read or skim the whole article, look away, and ask yourself what you felt was the main idea.
- Write down any limitations or gaps you notice, anything that seems to contradict something you read elsewhere, or just anything that you think is important or interesting (Adjei, n.d.)
When reading through your sources, remember that you are looking for the “big picture,” not a collection of random, separate articles (an annotated bibliography). You are also not trying to prove a point (an essay). You are looking for common themes and patterns in the research as a whole. You are also looking to see how the various pieces of research are linked, if at all. As part of this process, you also want to identify research gaps or areas that require further research related your topic (Adjei, n.d.). In this regard, you cannot be expected to be an expert on your topic. A suggestion for finding gaps is to read the conclusion section of the academic journal articles and conference proceedings your search has uncovered. Researchers often identify gaps in the research in their conclusion. They may even suggest areas for future research. However, remember, if a researcher suggested a gap 10 years ago, it is likely that the gap has now been addressed. To find a gap, look at the most recent research your literature review has uncovered (within 2-3 years of the current date). At this point in your search of the literature, you may realize that your research question needs to change or adapt. This is a fairly common occurrence, as when you first develop a research question, you cannot be sure what the status of the research area is, until you undertake your review of the literature related to this topic. Finally, it is worth mentioning that it is very likely you will not include all of the resources you have read in your literature review. If you are asked to include 20 resources in your literature review, for example, expect to read approximately 30.
How to write a literature review
There are three parts to the literature review: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. In the following paragraphs we outline what to include in each of these sections. This section concludes with a variety of resources for you to check out.
- The introduction must identify the topic by briefly discussing the significance of the topic including a statement that outlines the conclusion to be drawn from the literature review.
- If your literature review is part of a larger work, explain the importance of the review to your research question.
- Defend the importance of the topic by giving a broad overview of the scope of the work you are reviewing. For example, if you are interested in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in paramedics, you might provide some stats to prove how much work time is lost by those suffering from PTSD.
- Clarify whether you are looking at the entire history of the field, or just a particular period of time.
- Discuss and assess the research according to specific organizational principles (see examples below), rather than addressing each source separately. Most, if not all, paragraphs should discuss more than one source. Avoid addressing your sources alphabetically as this does not assist in developing the themes or key issues central to your review.
- Compare, contrast, and connect the various pieces of research. Much of the research you are reading should be connected. Or you may notice various themes within the research (i.e. effects of PTSD on sick time, effects of PTSD on families of paramedics, effects of PTSD on overall paramedic wellness, etc.). If you have undertaken a thorough review of the literature, you should start to see the bigger picture of how the research on this topic has evolved over time, who the main researchers are on this topic, how the methods and theories related to this topic have changed (if at all), over time.
- Summarize the works you are reviewing. Just as in any written assignment, use logical organization and clear transitions. Spend more time on the researchers and bodies of research that are considered most important in the field and/or that are most relevant.
Based upon your research, suggest where the research in the field will or should go next. If you are proposing your own research study, show how you will contribute to the field and fill in any gaps. The conclusion would also be a good place to defend the importance of the topic, now that you have demonstrated the current state of thinking in the field.
Other resources to help you write a literature review
In conclusion, there is a plethora of resources, both here and online, that provide information on how to write a literature review. For example, check out these three, very helpful YouTube videos prepared by a professor at the University of Maryland, in the U.S.A:
- The Literature Review, Part 1
- The Literature Review, Part 2
- The Literature Review, Part 3
Table 5.1 also provides some suggested organizational techniques, as well as instances when you might use these various techniques. The table also provides a writing sample to demonstrate the writing technique.
And remember, most university and college libraries also have valuable information on literature reviews. Here is the link to one such website: JIBC Literature Review information [PDF]
Acceptable sources for literature reviews
There are a few acceptable sources for literature reviews, and I will list these in order from what will be considered most acceptable to less acceptable sources for your literature review assignments, as follows:
- Peer reviewed journal articles;
- Edited academic books;
- Articles in professional journals;
- Statistical data from government websites;
- Website material from professional associations (use sparingly and carefully);
The following sections will explain and provide examples of these various sources.
Peer reviewed journal articles (papers)
A peer reviewed journal article is a paper that has been submitted to a scholarly journal, accepted, and published. Peer review journal papers go through a rigorous, blind review process of peer review. What this means is that two to three experts in the area of research featured in the paper have reviewed and accepted the paper for publication. The names of the author(s) who are seeking to publish the research have been removed (blind review), so as to minimize any bias towards the authors of the research. Albeit, sometimes a savvy reviewer can discern who has done the research based upon previous publications, etc. This blind review process can be long (often 12 to 18 months) that may involve many back and forth edits on the behalf of the researchers, as they work to address the edits and concerns of the peers who reviewed their paper. Often, reviewers will reject the paper for a variety of reasons, such as unclear or questionable methods, lack of contribution to the field, etc. Because peer reviewed journal articles have gone through a rigorous process of review, they are considered to be the premier source for research. Peer reviewed journal articles should serve as the foundation for your literature review.
The following website will provide more information on peer-reviewed journal articles: Evaluating Information Sources: What Is A Peer-Reviewed Article? Make sure you watch the little video on the upper left-hand side of your screen, in addition to reading the material.
Edited academic books
An edited academic book is a collection of scholarly scientific papers written by different authors. The works are original papers, not published elsewhere (Wikipedia, 2018). The papers within the text also go through a process of review; however, the review is often not a blind review because the authors have been invited to contribute to the book. Consequently, edited academic books are fine to use for your literature review, but you also want to ensure that your literature review contains mostly peer reviewed journal papers.
Articles in professional journals.
Articles from professional journals should be used with caution, as far as it relates to a source for your literature review. This is because articles in trade journals are not usually peer reviewed, even though they may appear as such. A good way to find out is to read the “About us” section of the professional journal. They should state there if the papers are peer reviewed. You can also google the name of the journal and add peer reviewed to the search and you should be able to find out that way.
Statistical data from governmental websites.
Governmental websites can be excellent sources for statistical data. For examples, Statistics Canada collects and publishes data related to the economy, society, and the environment.
Website material from professional associations
Material from other websites can also serve as a source for statistics that you may need for your literature review. As you want to justify the value of the research you are interested in, you might make use of a professional association´s website to learn how many members they have, for example. As a hypothetical example, you might want to demonstrate, as part of the introduction to your literature review, why more research on the topic of PTSD in police officers is important. You could use peer reviewed journal articles to determine the prevalence of PTSD in police officers in Canada in the last ten years and then use the Ontario Police Officers´ Association website to determine the approximate number of police officers employed in the Province of Ontario over the last ten years. This might help you create an approximation of how many police officers could be suffering with PTSD in Ontario. That number could potentially help to justify a research grand down the road. But again, this type of website-based material should be used with caution and sparingly.
- This chapter has been adapted from Unit 2: Literature Review in Research Methods by Joseph K. Adjei. © Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License .
The Literature Review by Valerie A. Sheppard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.