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Writing a Literature Review

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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.

Introduction:

  • 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.

Conclusion:

  • 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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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

  • 5. The Literature Review
  • Purpose of Guide
  • Design Flaws to Avoid
  • Independent and Dependent Variables
  • Glossary of Research Terms
  • Reading Research Effectively
  • Narrowing a Topic Idea
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  • Academic Writing Style
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  • Common Grammar Mistakes
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  • Footnotes or Endnotes?
  • Further Readings
  • Generative AI and Writing
  • USC Libraries Tutorials and Other Guides
  • Bibliography

A literature review surveys prior research published in books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have used in researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within existing scholarship about the topic.

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . Fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

Importance of a Good Literature Review

A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories . A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might:

  • Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations,
  • Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates,
  • Depending on the situation, evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research, or
  • Usually in the conclusion of a literature review, identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date.

Given this, the purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
  • Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important].

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2011; Knopf, Jeffrey W. "Doing a Literature Review." PS: Political Science and Politics 39 (January 2006): 127-132; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012.

Types of Literature Reviews

It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally among scholars that become part of the body of epistemological traditions within the field.

In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews. Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.

Argumentative Review This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply embedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].

Integrative Review Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication. This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.

Historical Review Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

Methodological Review A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels [i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques], how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

Systematic Review This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. The goal is to deliberately document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem . Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?" This type of literature review is primarily applied to examining prior research studies in clinical medicine and allied health fields, but it is increasingly being used in the social sciences.

Theoretical Review The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

NOTE : Most often the literature review will incorporate some combination of types. For example, a review that examines literature supporting or refuting an argument, assumption, or philosophical problem related to the research problem will also need to include writing supported by sources that establish the history of these arguments in the literature.

Baumeister, Roy F. and Mark R. Leary. "Writing Narrative Literature Reviews."  Review of General Psychology 1 (September 1997): 311-320; Mark R. Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature." Educational Researcher 36 (April 2007): 139-147; Petticrew, Mark and Helen Roberts. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006; Torracro, Richard. "Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples." Human Resource Development Review 4 (September 2005): 356-367; Rocco, Tonette S. and Maria S. Plakhotnik. "Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions." Human Ressource Development Review 8 (March 2008): 120-130; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  Thinking About Your Literature Review

The structure of a literature review should include the following in support of understanding the research problem :

  • An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review,
  • Division of works under review into themes or categories [e.g. works that support a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative approaches entirely],
  • An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others,
  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.

The critical evaluation of each work should consider :

  • Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
  • Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
  • Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
  • Validity -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

II.  Development of the Literature Review

Four Basic Stages of Writing 1.  Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues? 2.  Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored. 3.  Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic. 4.  Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.

Consider the following issues before writing the literature review: Clarify If your assignment is not specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions: 1.  Roughly how many sources would be appropriate to include? 2.  What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)? 3.  Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue? 4.  Should I evaluate the sources in any way beyond evaluating how they relate to understanding the research problem? 5.  Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history? Find Models Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The bibliography or reference section of sources you've already read, such as required readings in the course syllabus, are also excellent entry points into your own research. Narrow the Topic The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, but you'll make the act of reviewing easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the USC Libraries Catalog for recent books about the topic and review the table of contents for chapters that focuses on specific issues. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text. Consider Whether Your Sources are Current Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.

III.  Ways to Organize Your Literature Review

Chronology of Events If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union. By Publication Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies. Thematic [“conceptual categories”] A thematic literature review is the most common approach to summarizing prior research in the social and behavioral sciences. Thematic reviews are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time, although the progression of time may still be incorporated into a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it would still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The difference in this example between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: themes related to the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point being made. Methodological A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

Other Sections of Your Literature Review Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. However, only include what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship about the research problem.

Here are examples of other sections, usually in the form of a single paragraph, you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:

  • Current Situation : Information necessary to understand the current topic or focus of the literature review.
  • Sources Used : Describes the methods and resources [e.g., databases] you used to identify the literature you reviewed.
  • History : The chronological progression of the field, the research literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Selection Methods : Criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed [i.e., scholarly] sources.
  • Standards : Description of the way in which you present your information.
  • Questions for Further Research : What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

IV.  Writing Your Literature Review

Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.

Use Evidence A literature review section is, in this sense, just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid. Be Selective Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information, but that are not key to understanding the research problem, can be included in a list of further readings . Use Quotes Sparingly Some short quotes are appropriate if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, is not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for using your own words in reviewing the literature. Summarize and Synthesize Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work and the work of others. Keep Your Own Voice While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording. Use Caution When Paraphrasing 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. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.

V.  Common Mistakes to Avoid

These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.

  • Sources in your literature review do not clearly relate to the research problem;
  • You do not take sufficient time to define and identify the most relevant sources to use in the literature review related to the research problem;
  • Relies exclusively on secondary analytical sources rather than including relevant primary research studies or data;
  • Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
  • Does not describe the search procedures that were used in identifying the literature to review;
  • Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in chi-squared or meta-analytic methods; and,
  • Only includes research that validates assumptions and does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature.

Cook, Kathleen E. and Elise Murowchick. “Do Literature Review Skills Transfer from One Course to Another?” Psychology Learning and Teaching 13 (March 2014): 3-11; Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . London: SAGE, 2011; Literature Review Handout. Online Writing Center. Liberty University; Literature Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012; Randolph, Justus J. “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review." Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation. vol. 14, June 2009; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016; Taylor, Dena. The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Literature Review. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra.

Writing Tip

Break Out of Your Disciplinary Box!

Thinking interdisciplinarily about a research problem can be a rewarding exercise in applying new ideas, theories, or concepts to an old problem. For example, what might cultural anthropologists say about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? In what ways might geographers view the need for better distribution of social service agencies in large cities than how social workers might study the issue? You don’t want to substitute a thorough review of core research literature in your discipline for studies conducted in other fields of study. However, particularly in the social sciences, thinking about research problems from multiple vectors is a key strategy for finding new solutions to a problem or gaining a new perspective. Consult with a librarian about identifying research databases in other disciplines; almost every field of study has at least one comprehensive database devoted to indexing its research literature.

Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Just Review for Content!

While conducting a review of the literature, maximize the time you devote to writing this part of your paper by thinking broadly about what you should be looking for and evaluating. Review not just what scholars are saying, but how are they saying it. Some questions to ask:

  • How are they organizing their ideas?
  • What methods have they used to study the problem?
  • What theories have been used to explain, predict, or understand their research problem?
  • What sources have they cited to support their conclusions?
  • How have they used non-textual elements [e.g., charts, graphs, figures, etc.] to illustrate key points?

When you begin to write your literature review section, you'll be glad you dug deeper into how the research was designed and constructed because it establishes a means for developing more substantial analysis and interpretation of the research problem.

Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1 998.

Yet Another Writing Tip

When Do I Know I Can Stop Looking and Move On?

Here are several strategies you can utilize to assess whether you've thoroughly reviewed the literature:

  • Look for repeating patterns in the research findings . If the same thing is being said, just by different people, then this likely demonstrates that the research problem has hit a conceptual dead end. At this point consider: Does your study extend current research?  Does it forge a new path? Or, does is merely add more of the same thing being said?
  • Look at sources the authors cite to in their work . If you begin to see the same researchers cited again and again, then this is often an indication that no new ideas have been generated to address the research problem.
  • Search Google Scholar to identify who has subsequently cited leading scholars already identified in your literature review [see next sub-tab]. This is called citation tracking and there are a number of sources that can help you identify who has cited whom, particularly scholars from outside of your discipline. Here again, if the same authors are being cited again and again, this may indicate no new literature has been written on the topic.

Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2016; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

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Literature Reviews

Steps in the literature review process.

  • What is a literature review?
  • Define your research question
  • Determine inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • Choose databases and search
  • Review Results
  • Synthesize Results
  • Analyze Results
  • Librarian Support
  • You may need to some exploratory searching of the literature to get a sense of scope, to determine whether you need to narrow or broaden your focus
  • Identify databases that provide the most relevant sources, and identify relevant terms (controlled vocabularies) to add to your search strategy
  • Finalize your research question
  • Think about relevant dates, geographies (and languages), methods, and conflicting points of view
  • Conduct searches in the published literature via the identified databases
  • Check to see if this topic has been covered in other discipline's databases
  • Examine the citations of on-point articles for keywords, authors, and previous research (via references) and cited reference searching.
  • Save your search results in a citation management tool (such as Zotero, Mendeley or EndNote)
  • De-duplicate your search results
  • Make sure that you've found the seminal pieces -- they have been cited many times, and their work is considered foundational 
  • Check with your professor or a librarian to make sure your search has been comprehensive
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of individual sources and evaluate for bias, methodologies, and thoroughness
  • Group your results in to an organizational structure that will support why your research needs to be done, or that provides the answer to your research question  
  • Develop your conclusions
  • Are there gaps in the literature?
  • Where has significant research taken place, and who has done it?
  • Is there consensus or debate on this topic?
  • Which methodological approaches work best?
  • For example: Background, Current Practices, Critics and Proponents, Where/How this study will fit in 
  • Organize your citations and focus on your research question and pertinent studies
  • Compile your bibliography

Note: The first four steps are the best points at which to contact a librarian. Your librarian can help you determine the best databases to use for your topic, assess scope, and formulate a search strategy.

Videos Tutorials about Literature Reviews

This 4.5 minute video from Academic Education Materials has a Creative Commons License and a British narrator.

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the literature review will examine

3 Literature Review

Charitianne Williams

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to do the following:

  • Understand the purpose and function of a literature review.
  • Structure a literature review according to basic genre expectations.
  • Synthesize ideas from multiple sources using a synthesis matrix.
  • Choose between narrative or parenthetical citation and direct quoting, or paraphrase with intent and purpose.

I. Introduction

The purpose of a literature review is just that—it reviews. This means that literature reviews examine a text after it was produced, with all the benefits that hindsight allows a reader. In popular culture, we commonly review movies, restaurants, vacation spots, products, etc. In those reviews, you look back at the single thing you are reviewing and your experience with it. You focus on the strengths and weaknesses of your experience and judge the experience as positive or negative while recommending or not recommending the place or product and explaining why.

An academic literature review does something different, although some of the skills and strategies you use remain the same. The job of a literature review is to examine a collection of research or scholarship (not a single thing or text) on a given topic and show how that scholarship fits together. Literature reviews summarize, describe, evaluate, and synthesize the work of other authors and researchers while looking for common trends/patterns, themes, inconsistencies, and gaps in this previous research. The main strategy writers of a literature review use is synthesis.

SYNTHESIS: the combination of ideas and elements to form a complete system or theory.

A good metaphor for synthesis is cooking! Imagine the ingredients for a loaf of bread laid out on a kitchen cabinet. Each ingredient—eggs, milk, flour, sugar, salt, yeast—have their own purpose and can be combined in different ways to form food other than bread. Knowing all of those individual attributes that make an egg an egg, or the difference between yeast and flour, is what makes you a chef. When you combine all these ingredients according to the recipe, you get something different than all the ingredients on their own: and most of us would rather eat a slice of bread than a spoonful of flour. The product of synthesis is like bread. Synthesis takes a list of ingredients and makes them into something more than the ingredients alone.

The images show ingredients, followed by a recipe, and then all put together for bread. These images are meant to compare the baking process to synthesis in writing.

Usually, the writers of a literature review will start with a question that they want to answer through informed and research-based evidence gathered while reading others’ work on related topics. The “thesis” or controlling idea of a literature review may be that same question ( “This review seeks to answer…” ) or it may be a statement describing the reviewed research. The thesis reflects the purpose of the literature review as a genre and is different from the thesis you will write for the research paper that argues a claim or asserts a new idea.

Example 3.1: Look at this thesis statement taken from the introduction of a literature review in environmental psychology on the relationship between “nature sounds” and restorative environments:

From this example, we can learn many things about literature reviews:

  • They are explicit and focused on their topic. The opening states an observable truth about the current research ( emphasizes nature ), is followed by a general condition ( positive psychological experiences) within that research, and then finally focuses on describing how a particular outcome is achieved (listening to nature sounds is restorative).
  • They seek to pre vent or eliminate misunderstanding. Note the use of specialized key terms, exacting transitional phrases, and meaningful verbs in the thesis such as “ restorative environments,” “in particular,” and “ generate .”
  • They seek to forward understanding. In other words, literature reviews examine and link together evidence described and validated in the research of others so a reader can learn how a field is developing. ( Research seems to agree that nature sounds can relieve stress and fatigue–this review will examine that conclusion so readers can understand/ build on how and why.)

Moving from the beginning to the very end of the literature review, we can also learn many things about literature reviews from the sources used. Think of each text listed in the References section of a literature review as contributing pieces to a gigantic puzzle.

Example 3.2: Look at the first three articles listed in the References for the article excerpted above:

Abbott, L. C., Taff, D., Newman, P., Benfield, J. A., and Mowen, A. J. (2016). The influence of natural sounds on attention restoration. J. Park Recreation Adm. 34, 5–15. doi: 10.18666/JPRA-2016-V34-I3-6893

Aletta, F., and Kang, J. (2019). Promoting healthy and supportive acoustic environments: going beyond the quietness. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 16:4988. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244988

Aletta, F., Oberman, T., and Kang, J. (2018). Associations between positive health-related effects and soundscapes perceptual constructs: a systematic review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 15:2392. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15112392

None of these sources are exactly the same. One focuses on sound and attention, the next two on sound and health, and none of them are quite the same as sound and restoration —but they are all pieces of the puzzle that give a full understanding of how sound and restorative environments relate.

As the author of the literature review, it is your job to join the pieces together, giving your reader a complete picture of what researchers know about your topic.

Literature reviews are an indispensable tool for researchers. Instead of having to read dozens of articles on a topic, a researcher could instead read a literature review that synthesizes what is known and puts each piece of scholarship into conversation with the others. This could be not only quicker, but also more valuable.

Have you heard the saying that the whole is more than the sum of its parts? The knowledge constructed by a well-written literature review often outweighs the knowledge constructed by simply reading each article in the References section on its own because the author of a literature review processes and analyzes the information for the reader.

Literature reviews occur in two general forms—as a background section in a scholarly work or as a stand-alone genre in and of itself. In both situations, the basic purpose and structure of the literature review is similar: it is the length and the scope that varies. For example, consider the previous chapter, the Proposal. In most proposals, you will want to convince your audience that you are informed on the background of your topic—a literature review is how you would do that. Since a proposal is commonly a short text, you do not have the space to summarize every piece of research. You must select an important set and synthesize that information into a small section signaling your expertise.

On the other hand, consider a professional journal intended to keep its readers up to date on new technologies and findings in a specific field or career. New ideas and discoveries are emerging every day, and it can be difficult to stay on top of all of these new findings, understand how they fit together, and also keep track of your own career responsibilities! A magazine might hire an author to read all the new research on a specific topic and synthesize it into a single article, a state-of-the-art review, so that practitioners in a field can read a single 25-page article instead of 100 25-page articles.

More Resources 3.1: Literature Reviews

II. Rhetorical Considerations: Voice

Using the scholarship of other writers and researchers is one of the things that differentiates academic writing from other types of writing. Using others’ scholarship in a meaningful way that creates new knowledge without mischaracterizing the original findings takes effort, attention, and usually several rounds of revision and rewriting. One of the issues is voice , which refers to the attitude and tone of a text—think of it as what the text “sounds like” in your head as you read it. Voice is an important element of cohesion , or what some people think of as “flow.” Creating a consistent voice in the mind of your reader helps them fit all the information in a text together in the way the author intends. Check out this advice from APAstyle.org about academic style and voice.

Think back to your annotated bibliography and how you created your summaries. You probably used key terms from the original authors’ texts, but because you had to take whole articles and restate the meaning in a short paragraph, there wasn’t room to just repeat the words of the original author. So you had to write the summaries in your voice . If you used those key terms correctly and in ways similar to original authors, those key terms probably did not interfere with cohesiveness and voice. However, in the literature review, you have many more voices to synthesize than you did to summarize in the annotated bibliography. Maintaining a consistent and cohesive voice will be challenging. An important way to maintain voice is through paraphrasing, discussed later in this chapter.

More Resources 3.2: Transitions

Another important way to maintain cohesion is through the use of metadiscourse (see Chapter 2) and transitional phrases. See this link for the use and meaning of transitional phrases, sometimes called signposts .

III. The Literature Review Across the Disciplines

Example 3.3: Academic and Professional Examples

Structure of Literature Reviews

While the details vary across disciplines, all literature reviews tend to have similar basic structure. The introduction of a literature review informs the reader on the topic by defining key terms, citing key researchers or research periods in the field, and introducing the main focus of the review in a descriptive thesis statement. The introduction also explains the organization of the review. In a literature review, you organize your discussion of the research by topic or theme— not article or author. This is in direct contrast to the annotated bibliography, which is often the first step in the writing process for a literature review.

In the annotated bibliography, you organize your entries in alphabetical order by authors’ last names. Each annotation is directly connected to a single text. A literature review is connected to a collection of texts, and therefore must be organized in a way that reflects this.

Example 3.4: Let’s examine the full paragraph that the thesis statement we analyzed earlier came from:

A systematic review by Aletta et al. (2018) has identified links between positive urban soundscapes (which may also include nature sounds) and health and well-being, including stress recovery. Given the emphasis on nature w ithin restorative environments (see Hartig et al., 2014 ), the present narrative literature review focuses on evidence for positive psychological experiences of nature sounds and soundscapes specifically, and in particular how listening to these can generate perceptions and outcomes of restoration from stress and fatigue. This review has five key objectives, summarized in Figure 1 [in the article] . First, it explores literature regarding the impact of nature sounds on perceptions and experiences of wider natural environments. Second, it examines evidence regarding cognitive and affective appraisals of nature sounds and their contributions to overall perceptions of restorative environments. Third, literature regarding restorative outcomes in response to nature sounds is assessed. Fourth, the relevance of key restoration theories to this top ic is examined and areas where these theories are limited are identified. Fifth, a possible new theoretical area of interest—semantic associations with nature—is discussed and exemplified by recent acoustics research (Ratcliffe, 2021, emphasis added).

Notice how the thesis statement (in bold ) is followed by an explicit description of the five key objectives—which correspond to the titles (usually called headings ) of the five major sections of the body of the literature review. The introduction basically outlines the body of the literature review to make it easier for a researcher to find the specific information they are looking for. What follows each of these headings is an analysis and synthesis of the topic described in the heading—which is what we mean when we say a literature review is organized by topic.

Example 3.5: See how the body sections of a literature review synthesize research and evidence in relation to a focused topic. Read this example taken from a literature review in another discipline, nursing.

The introduction states that the review’s purpose is to understand the issues facing nurses in situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers found several themes in the research that all contributed to nurses’ experiences. This paragraph describes one of those themes which the authors label “Professional collegiality”:

3.2.2. Professional collegiality

Professional camaraderie amongst nursing colleagues working during a pandemic was high (Ives et al., 2009, Kim, 2018, Liu a nd Liehr , 2009). Nurses acknowledged the importance of caring for their co-workers and in sharing the load. Some nurses associated the experience with working on a battlefield, whereby they worked together as a team protecting one another (Chung et al., 20 05, Kang et al., 2018, Liu and Liehr , 2009). Appreciation of their nursing colleagues was demonstrated through sharing their experiences, willingness to work together and encouraging a team spirit (Shih et al., 2007, Chung et al., 2005, Chiang et al., 2007 ). (Ratcliffe, 2021, p.4)

In this single paragraph, there are seven different research articles cited, and some of them are cited twice. There is no way to write a coherent paragraph summarizing seven different research articles at once—instead, the authors of this paragraph reviewed what the researchers said about collegiality, found where their findings pointed in the same direction, and put those connections into their own words. This is the importance of the review’s body section: it is here where you really dig into the content, meaning, and implications of the scholarship you are discussing.

The end of a literature review looks different from the one- or two-paragraph conclusion we are used to in other texts. The end is often made up of multiple sections, each with a slightly different purpose, although all are probably recognizable to you. A “Discussion” section is almost always present, where the author summarizes the most important findings of each section. In most cases, the “Discussion” section does not contain new information, but ties the different body sections together in ways that provide a deeper analysis.

The end of a literature review may also contain an “Implications for Future Research” or “Resolution” after the Discussion—sometimes this final section is even called “Conclusion.” What this last section looks like is often dependent upon the type of review you are writing, and whether the review is standing alone as a complete text or part of a larger project.

In any situation, across all disciplines, it is important to understand how your literature review is meant to inform the reader and what kind of review is appropriate for the context, in order to decide how you should structure the beginning and end of your review.

Types of Literature Reviews

There are different types of literature reviews, although in undergraduate study the Traditional or Narrative Review is most common. Narrative reviews are somewhat exploratory in their content—in a narrative review you are synthesizing the results of specific texts selected for their connection to your topic. Narrative reviews almost always end with a section describing areas for future research if they are a stand-alone text, or a section describing why the author’s research is so needed if part of a larger research article. The chart below outlines the key differences between three major literature review types. Notice that each type has a slightly different purpose. You might think about which type best fits your project as you read.

Table 3.1: Types of Literature Reviews

More Resources 3.3: Literature Review Structures

IV. Research Strategies: Developing a Methodology

Systematic and scoping reviews should always contain a Research Methodology that explains to your reader exactly how you found the research you are reviewing. Often Narrative Reviews will also contain a research methodology, although it will be slightly different since they are not comprehensive reviews, meaning, they do not attempt to find all the research on a topic—by design, they cover only a specific portion. Even if you are not required to write up your methodology, you need clear research strategies to find the appropriate scholarship for your literature review.

Example 3.6: Check out this excerpt from the methods sections from a psychology literature review. Note how the authors clearly describe what types of sources they’ll be using as well as their steps throughout the research process.

Drawing on individual case studies, archival reports, correlational studies, and laboratory and field experiments, this monograph scrutinizes a sequence of events during which confessions may be obtained from criminal suspects and used as evidence. First, we examine the pre-interrogation interview, a process by which police …( Kassin and Gudjonsson , 2004, p.33)

Example 3.7: Here is another example from the field of education. In it the authors describe two separate searches they performed to gather the literature—the first search used key terms they decided upon before reading any scholarship, and the second search used the terms that they found were common to that first set of texts (see more about key terms here and in the Annotated Bibliography chapter).

We conducted two rounds of literature searches, utilizing the following databases: World CAT (general search), EB SCO Academic Search Complete, EBSCO Education Source, and Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts (ProQuest). In the first round, we searched using every possible combination of the following terms: ‘race,’ ‘language teaching,’ ‘ethnicity,’ ‘language p edagogy,’ ‘Whiteness,’ ‘racialized,’ ‘antiracism,’ and ‘ nativeness .’ For the second round of our literature search, we searched using terms that we saw emerging from the literature such as ‘racial identities of language learners,’ ‘racial identities of lan guage teachers,’ ‘language varieties and language teaching,’ ‘race and language teacher education,’ ‘race and educational policy,’ ‘race and language programs,’ and ‘race and language curriculum’ and also repeated our earlier searches in order to keep the literature updated. (Von Esch et al., 2020, p. 392)

No matter the type of research (see a description of qualitative vs. quantitative research ), the specific genres (see descriptions of academic research genres ), or the time frame (see a discussion on the importance of publication date ) you use for your review, it is important to think through the options, make a decision, and incorporate all your research knowledge—use of key terms, use of subject filters, use of specialized databases, etc.—into a coherent and meaningful process that results in the best scholarship for your inquiry and review.

Here’s a video to help you get started on using databases for research:

Library Referral: Connecting the Conversation with Scholarly Sources and Beyond​

(by Annie R. Armstrong)

Research involves drawing from numerous voices from a range of source types. The sources you choose to include in your conversation are context-specific and might vary depending on your topic or the parameters of your assignment. Review your assignment description and talk to your instructor about guidelines. While most research papers emphasize scholarly sources, expertise isn’t always equated with scholarliness and you might want to branch out. For example, a research paper focusing on exploitation of Native American land and communities by the mining industry should make some attempt to include sources generated by the communities under discussion, especially if their point of view is not represented in the peer-reviewed, scholarly sources you’ve found. Think about who the stakeholders are as related to various aspects of your topic and how you can tap into their voices through available resources. You may want to consult a librarian about this.

The chart below summarizes the breadth of source types available through library websites versus the open web:

Table 3.2: Scholarly Sources and Beyond

V. Reading Strategies: Intertextuality and Graphic Organizers

Typically we think of reading as something we do to learn the content of a text—and this is absolutely true! But true understanding means knowing the relationships between and impact of separate but related topics, which might mean understanding how different texts—generally focused on one topic—overlap or differ.

Intertextuality refers to the connections that exist between texts. Intertextuality as a reading strategy means looking for the connections between the text you are reading and others you have already read; anticipating connections with other texts that you have not yet read, but plan to; as well as connections to whole disciplines, fields, and social phenomena. Reading for intertextuality means looking for opportunities to connect texts with each other, and keeping track of those connections in a productive way.

This means note-taking is essential to intertextual reading. Once you have thought carefully about why you are reading a text, what types of information to look for, and what you will do with that information, you can better decide how to keep track of that information. In regards to literature reviews, one type of graphic organizer dominates: the Synthesis Matrix.

The synthesis matrix is a way to keep track of the themes, concepts, and patterns that are emerging from your reading—NOT all the individual content of each article. This is important, yes, and you will need the citations, but literature reviews move one step further into the topic than simply identifying the pieces. You will need to synthesize.

If you have an annotated bibliography of sources already, it is the perfect way to start your synthesis matrix. An annotated bibliography is often the first step in preparing for a literature review, and is quite similar to an ingredient list, if we are using the metaphor from the introduction. (For a detailed description of how to write an annotated bibliography, see Chapter 1 ).

In your annotations, you will have selected the most important information that text supplies in relation to your topic. For an example, let’s take the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s statement “ Students’ Right to Their Own Language ,” which contains two annotated bibliographies. The second uses more recent sources and looks most like the annotated bibliographies you will write as a student, so let’s start there.

Example 3.8: Here are three annotations from that bibliography. As you read, take notice of the different highlighted colors. Phrases italicized and highlighted green identify ideas related to linguistic identity , phrases bolded and highlighted in blue identify concepts related to grammar analysis , and phrases underlined and highlighted orange identify groups and ideas related to educational objectives :

Fought, Carmen. Chicano English in Context. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Based primarily on data collected from adolescent and young adult native speakers in Los Angeles , this book is a comprehensive sociolinguistic study of language and language change in Latino/a communities. It provides the basics of Chicano English (CE) structure (phonology, syntax, and semantics) and its connection to the social and cultural identity of its speakers, along with detailed analyses of particular sociolinguistic variables. Emphasis is given to the historical, social, and linguistic contexts of CE. In addition, the differences between native and non-native CE speakers are covered. A final chapter discusses the future of research on CE.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States . London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

The author examines linguistic facts about the structure and function of language , explores commonly held myths about language, and develops a model of “the language subordination process.” Then, using a case-study approach, she applies the model to specific institutional practices (e.g., in education, news media, business) to show how false assumptions about language lead to language subordination. The author analyzes specific groups and individuals (speakers of African American English, Southern U.S. English, and the foreign-language accent of Latinos and Asian Americans) and discusses why and how some embrace linguistic assimilation while others resist it.

Nero, Shondel J. Englishes in Contact: Anglophone Caribbean Students in an Urban College. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2001.

This qualitative study of four anglophone Caribbean students at a New York City college offers an in-depth examination of the students’ written and spoken language and the challenges faced by both students and teachers as such students acquire academic literacy. Case studies of the four participants include excerpts from tape-recorded interviews, which reflect their linguistic self-perception, and sociolinguistic and educational experiences in their home countries and in New York City. Samples of their college writing over four semesters are represented and analyzed on morphosyntactic and discourse levels to determine the patterns that emerge when Creole English speakers attempt to write Standard Written English. Related issues such as language and identity , language attitudes, and educational responses to ethnolinguistic diversity are also discussed.

Once you have identified a concept like “language and identity” for your literature review, you can start getting “intertextual”! Review your other annotated sources and your new sources for their discussion of language and identity, as well as parallel concepts—what else do researchers address when they discuss language and identity? What do they discuss instead? Go back to the methods you used to come up with key terms for your literature search—the same strategies now apply to your reading. Also look for “umbrella” concepts, patterns in methodologies—anything that emerges while you read intertextually, focusing on the text in front of you while also remembering all the others you read before. Look for the themes in your annotated bibliography and keep track of the page numbers where these themes appear—plan to go back to those pages several times as you write your literature review.

This is a different type of reading than you did for the annotated bibliography, and might mean you go back and reread your sources several times in this new way—don’t think of this as just repeating labor you have already performed. This is new work, designed to uncover new things in the research. Re-reading articles multiple times is something all serious writers do, and something you should do, too. It isn’t redundant, it is recur sive .

Table 3.3: Synthesis Matrix for Individuals’ Choices in Linguistic Identity

Put your sources into conversations around your themes, as shown in the table above. Notice that the top row names the themes covered in that column, put into original wording similar, but not identical, to the wording in the annotated bibliographies. Not every source will address every topic—not every article is the same. The last row starts to describe what is happening in each column across the whole collection of texts. In this way, your synthesis matrix takes the ingredient list provided by the annotated bibliography and makes it into a recipe for your final product—the literature review.

More Resources 3.4: Synthesis Matrix

VI. Writing Strategies: Citation, Quotation, and Paraphrase

Citation is when you use the work of other authors in your writing and mark that portion of your writing so your reader understands what idea is being “borrowed.” Citation also tells your reader where they could find that original idea in the original text, and how your text fits together with the web of other texts related to your topic: in other words, citations help create intertextuality. A citation placed in your sentences should refer directly to the full bibliographic information in your Works Cited or References page.

As you read in Chapter 1, there are different styles of citation including AMA, APA, CMS, and MLA. You can refer back to that chapter for a more detailed explanation of each. In this section, we’ll cover the basics that are common to citation practices. Most academic styles use the original author’s last name as the central part of the in-text citation, since References pages usually list cited works alphabetically by last name, but some use footnotes or endnotes instead, listing works in the order they were cited. It is important to know which academic style you are using for your literature review so that you can make the right choice.

In-text citation takes one of two forms: parenthetical or narrative. In a narrative citation the author of the original work is mentioned in the sentence.

Example 3.9: Here’s an example taken from the introduction of the same literature review discussed in the Research Strategies: Developing a Methodology section of this chapter.

Several pieces offered a comprehensive review of the historical literature on the formation of Black English as a construct in the context of slavery and Jim Crow, and the historical teaching of Black English within the U .S. context, including Wheeler ( 2016 ) and Alim and Baugh (2007). Wheeler (2016) equated Standard English with ‘White’ English and challenged its hegemony in dialectically diverse classrooms. She named the “racism inherent in [fostering] bidialectalism [th rough teaching]” (p. 380), arguing that we are acknowledging that the only way for African-Americans to be upwardly mobile was to learn how to speak ‘White’ English. Alim (2010) , explained, “By uncritically presenting language varieties as ‘equal’ but diff ering in levels of ‘appropriateness,’ language and Dialect Awareness programs run the risk of silently legitimizing ‘Standard English’” (p. 215)…. Current work addressing AAVE studies has been shifting focus to translingualism and to promoting such pedag ogies as code-meshing (Young, Barrett, Young Rivera and Lovejoy, 2014) and translanguaging (García & Wei, García and Wei, 2014) , embedded in a critical analysis of the racial logics underpinning the denigration of some languages. This work, combined with e xtensive examinations of the connections between race, language, teaching, and identity ( e.g. Flores & Rosa, 2015; Alim et al., 2016 ), has laid a foundation for a raciolinguistics approach to teaching, which we return to later in this article. (Von Esch et al., 2020, p. 399, emphasis added .)

In the first sentence, we see two narrative citations just before the period. These citations state the authors’ names as a part of the sentence, and put the publication date of the articles in parenthesis. It makes sense to use a narrative citation in the topic sentence, since most of the paragraph is a synthesis of Wheeler and Alim’s research. The second sentence starts with Wheeler’s name in the subject position, and the fourth sentence starts with Alim’s name in the subject position—both are narrative citations, a form chosen by the author to emphasize the importance and similarities in the two articles.

In the last two sentences, we see parenthetical citations. The citation information is in parenthesis within the sentences, which focuses the reader on the ideas, not the research itself. Imagine you were reading this article out loud—you would most certainly say the narrative citations “Wheeler” and “Alim”; you might choose not to say “Young, Barrett, Young-Rivera, & Lovejoy, 2014,” though, and no one listening to you would notice the omission. This is the most important difference between narrative and parenthetical citation—narrative draws attention to the researchers, while parenthetical allows a focus on ideas. In academic writing, you often have reason to use both, but it is important to note that using parenthetical citation is less disruptive to your voice—it keeps a reader focused on the ideas you are explaining.

Usually you are citing a type of quotation in your text (although different disciplines have other situations that they cite). Direct quotation and paraphrase are usually what we talk about when we talk about using resources in your writing, although summary is cited as well.

Direct quotation is when you take the original words of one author and place them in your own text. When you quote in your own writing, you mark the copied text—usually with quotation marks “” around the text and a citation afterwards. Quoting is useful when the original author is an important authority on a topic or if you want to define/describe another’s point of view in a way that leaves no room for misinterpretation.

In a literature review, a direct quote will almost always be accompanied by a narrative citation. But direct quoting can cause some issues in your own text, such as a sudden shift in voice and a loss of cohesion; the potential for misunderstanding and misrepresentation, since the quote has been separated from its original context; and wordiness —quotes can take up too much space both in terms of the quote itself, and of the explanation and context you must provide for the introduced idea. For these reasons, literature reviews do not contain much direct quoting.

Paraphrasing is a way to accomplish similar goals to direct quoting without causing the same problems. Paraphrasing is when you use only the original author’s key terms and ideas, but your own words. Paraphrasing still contains a citation afterwards that directs the reader to the full bibliographic information in your Works Cited, but does not require quotation marks since the language is yours. Paraphrase may be longer or shorter than the original author’s text, and uses both narrative and parenthetical citation. Paraphrase also allows you to cite more than one piece of research containing the same idea in a single sentence, such as the last sentence in the example paragraph above. This kind of citation string is important to literature reviews because it clearly identifies patterns and trends in research findings.

Key Takeaways

  • Literature reviews are a synthesis of what other researchers have discovered on your topic. Think of reviews as “the big picture.”
  • Taking so much information from other sources can get confusing–use section headings to keep your review organized and clear.
  • Diverse citation, quotation, and paraphrasing techniques are necessary to help your reader understand where the ideas are coming from, AND to help make the ideas “stick together.”
  • Keeping all the new knowledge you are learning from your sources organized is hard! Take notes using citations and use a graphic organizer to keep yourself on track.

Fernandez, Lord, H., Halcomb, E., Moxham, L., Middleton, R., Alananzeh, I., & Ellwood, L. (2020). Implications for COVID-19: A systematic review of nurses’ experiences of working in acute care hospital settings during a respiratory pandemic. International Journal of Nursing Studies , 111. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2020.103637

Kassin, S. M., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (2004). The psychology of confessions. Psychological Science in the Public Interest , 5 (2), 33–67. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1529-1006.2004.00016.x

National Council of Teachers of English. (2018, June 16). Students’ right to their own language (with bibliography) . Conference on College Composition and Communication. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/srtolsummary

NEIU Libraries. (2020). “How should I search in a database?”  YouTube . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fgBF0EuH_o

Ratcliffe, E. (2021). Summary Flowchart [Image]. Frontiers in Psychology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.570563/full#B3

Ratcliffe, E. (2021). Sound and soundscape in restorative natural environments: A narrative literature review. Frontiers in Psychology , 12 . https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.570563

Sasaki. K. (2022). Synthesis and Recipes [Image].

Von Esch, K., Motha, S., & Kubota, R. (2020). Race and language teaching. Language Teaching, 53 (4), 391-421. doi:10.1017/S0261444820000269

Writing for Inquiry and Research Copyright © 2023 by Charitianne Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Literature Reviews

What this handout is about.

This handout will explain what literature reviews are and offer insights into the form and construction of literature reviews in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Introduction

OK. You’ve got to write a literature review. You dust off a novel and a book of poetry, settle down in your chair, and get ready to issue a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as you leaf through the pages. “Literature review” done. Right?

Wrong! The “literature” of a literature review refers to any collection of materials on a topic, not necessarily the great literary texts of the world. “Literature” could be anything from a set of government pamphlets on British colonial methods in Africa to scholarly articles on the treatment of a torn ACL. And a review does not necessarily mean that your reader wants you to give your personal opinion on whether or not you liked these sources.

What is a literature review, then?

A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes information in a particular subject area within a certain time period.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper is likely to contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.

Why do we write literature reviews?

Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone. For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field. For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

Who writes these things, anyway?

Literature reviews are written occasionally in the humanities, but mostly in the sciences and social sciences; in experiment and lab reports, they constitute a section of the paper. Sometimes a literature review is written as a paper in itself.

Let’s get to it! What should I do before writing the literature review?

If your assignment is not very specific, seek clarification from your instructor:

  • Roughly how many sources should you include?
  • What types of sources (books, journal articles, websites)?
  • Should you summarize, synthesize, or critique your sources by discussing a common theme or issue?
  • Should you evaluate your sources?
  • Should you provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history?

Find models

Look for other literature reviews in your area of interest or in the discipline and read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or ways to organize your final review. You can simply put the word “review” in your search engine along with your other topic terms to find articles of this type on the Internet or in an electronic database. The bibliography or reference section of sources you’ve already read are also excellent entry points into your own research.

Narrow your topic

There are hundreds or even thousands of articles and books on most areas of study. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the material. Your instructor will probably not expect you to read everything that’s out there on the topic, but you’ll make your job easier if you first limit your scope.

Keep in mind that UNC Libraries have research guides and to databases relevant to many fields of study. You can reach out to the subject librarian for a consultation: https://library.unc.edu/support/consultations/ .

And don’t forget to tap into your professor’s (or other professors’) knowledge in the field. Ask your professor questions such as: “If you had to read only one book from the 90’s on topic X, what would it be?” Questions such as this help you to find and determine quickly the most seminal pieces in the field.

Consider whether your sources are current

Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. In the sciences, for instance, treatments for medical problems are constantly changing according to the latest studies. Information even two years old could be obsolete. However, if you are writing a review in the humanities, history, or social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be what is needed, because what is important is how perspectives have changed through the years or within a certain time period. Try sorting through some other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to consider what is currently of interest to scholars in this field and what is not.

Strategies for writing the literature review

Find a focus.

A literature review, like a term paper, is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organized. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. No. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together. Do they present one or different solutions? Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory? Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate? Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.

Convey it to your reader

A literature review may not have a traditional thesis statement (one that makes an argument), but you do need to tell readers what to expect. Try writing a simple statement that lets the reader know what is your main organizing principle. Here are a couple of examples:

The current trend in treatment for congestive heart failure combines surgery and medicine. More and more cultural studies scholars are accepting popular media as a subject worthy of academic consideration.

Consider organization

You’ve got a focus, and you’ve stated it clearly and directly. Now what is the most effective way of presenting the information? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc., that your review needs to include? And in what order should you present them? Develop an organization for your review at both a global and local level:

First, cover the basic categories

Just like most academic papers, literature reviews also must contain at least three basic elements: an introduction or background information section; the body of the review containing the discussion of sources; and, finally, a conclusion and/or recommendations section to end the paper. The following provides a brief description of the content of each:

  • Introduction: Gives a quick idea of the topic of the literature review, such as the central theme or organizational pattern.
  • Body: Contains your discussion of sources and is organized either chronologically, thematically, or methodologically (see below for more information on each).
  • Conclusions/Recommendations: Discuss what you have drawn from reviewing literature so far. Where might the discussion proceed?

Organizing the body

Once you have the basic categories in place, then you must consider how you will present the sources themselves within the body of your paper. Create an organizational method to focus this section even further.

To help you come up with an overall organizational framework for your review, consider the following scenario:

You’ve decided to focus your literature review on materials dealing with sperm whales. This is because you’ve just finished reading Moby Dick, and you wonder if that whale’s portrayal is really real. You start with some articles about the physiology of sperm whales in biology journals written in the 1980’s. But these articles refer to some British biological studies performed on whales in the early 18th century. So you check those out. Then you look up a book written in 1968 with information on how sperm whales have been portrayed in other forms of art, such as in Alaskan poetry, in French painting, or on whale bone, as the whale hunters in the late 19th century used to do. This makes you wonder about American whaling methods during the time portrayed in Moby Dick, so you find some academic articles published in the last five years on how accurately Herman Melville portrayed the whaling scene in his novel.

Now consider some typical ways of organizing the sources into a review:

  • Chronological: If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials above according to when they were published. For instance, first you would talk about the British biological studies of the 18th century, then about Moby Dick, published in 1851, then the book on sperm whales in other art (1968), and finally the biology articles (1980s) and the recent articles on American whaling of the 19th century. But there is relatively no continuity among subjects here. And notice that even though the sources on sperm whales in other art and on American whaling are written recently, they are about other subjects/objects that were created much earlier. Thus, the review loses its chronological focus.
  • By publication: Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on biological studies of sperm whales if the progression revealed a change in dissection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.
  • By trend: A better way to organize the above sources chronologically is to examine the sources under another trend, such as the history of whaling. Then your review would have subsections according to eras within this period. For instance, the review might examine whaling from pre-1600-1699, 1700-1799, and 1800-1899. Under this method, you would combine the recent studies on American whaling in the 19th century with Moby Dick itself in the 1800-1899 category, even though the authors wrote a century apart.
  • Thematic: Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For instance, the sperm whale review could focus on the development of the harpoon for whale hunting. While the study focuses on one topic, harpoon technology, it will still be organized chronologically. The only difference here between a “chronological” and a “thematic” approach is what is emphasized the most: the development of the harpoon or the harpoon technology.But more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. For instance, a thematic review of material on sperm whales might examine how they are portrayed as “evil” in cultural documents. The subsections might include how they are personified, how their proportions are exaggerated, and their behaviors misunderstood. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.
  • Methodological: A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” of the researcher or writer. For the sperm whale project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of whales in American, British, and French art work. Or the review might focus on the economic impact of whaling on a community. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed. Once you’ve decided on the organizational method for the body of the review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out. They should arise out of your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period. A thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue.

Sometimes, though, you might need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. Put in only what is necessary. Here are a few other sections you might want to consider:

  • Current Situation: Information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
  • History: The chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Methods and/or Standards: The criteria you used to select the sources in your literature review or the way in which you present your information. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.

Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

Begin composing

Once you’ve settled on a general pattern of organization, you’re ready to write each section. There are a few guidelines you should follow during the writing stage as well. Here is a sample paragraph from a literature review about sexism and language to illuminate the following discussion:

However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to fill in pronouns that agreed with gender-neutral antecedents such as “writer,” “pedestrian,” and “persons.” The students were asked to describe any image they had when writing the sentence. Hamilton found that people imagined 3.3 men to each woman in the masculine “generic” condition and 1.5 men per woman in the unbiased condition. Thus, while ambient sexism accounted for some of the masculine bias, sexist language amplified the effect. (Source: Erika Falk and Jordan Mills, “Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense,” Women and Language19:2).

Use evidence

In the example above, the writers refer to several other sources when making their point. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.

Be selective

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review’s focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.

Use quotes sparingly

Falk and Mills do not use any direct quotes. That is because the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Notice that Falk and Mills do quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. But if you find yourself wanting to put in more quotes, check with your instructor.

Summarize and synthesize

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. The authors here recapitulate important features of Hamilton’s study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study’s significance and relating it to their own work.

Keep your own voice

While the literature review presents others’ ideas, your voice (the writer’s) should remain front and center. Notice that Falk and Mills weave references to other sources into their own text, but they still maintain their own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with their own ideas and their own words. The sources support what Falk and Mills are saying.

Use caution when paraphrasing

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. In the preceding example, Falk and Mills either directly refer in the text to the author of their source, such as Hamilton, or they provide ample notation in the text when the ideas they are mentioning are not their own, for example, Gastil’s. For more information, please see our handout on plagiarism .

Revise, revise, revise

Draft in hand? Now you’re ready to revise. Spending a lot of time revising is a wise idea, because your main objective is to present the material, not the argument. So check over your review again to make sure it follows the assignment and/or your outline. Then, just as you would for most other academic forms of writing, rewrite or rework the language of your review so that you’ve presented your information in the most concise manner possible. Be sure to use terminology familiar to your audience; get rid of unnecessary jargon or slang. Finally, double check that you’ve documented your sources and formatted the review appropriately for your discipline. For tips on the revising and editing process, see our handout on revising drafts .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Anson, Chris M., and Robert A. Schwegler. 2010. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers , 6th ed. New York: Longman.

Jones, Robert, Patrick Bizzaro, and Cynthia Selfe. 1997. The Harcourt Brace Guide to Writing in the Disciplines . New York: Harcourt Brace.

Lamb, Sandra E. 1998. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook , 5th ed. New York: Longman.

Troyka, Lynn Quittman, and Doug Hesse. 2016. Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers , 11th ed. London: Pearson.

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What is a literature review?

A literature review is an integrated analysis -- not just a summary-- of scholarly writings and other relevant evidence related directly to your research question.  That is, it represents a synthesis of the evidence that provides background information on your topic and shows a association between the evidence and your research question.

A literature review may be a stand alone work or the introduction to a larger research paper, depending on the assignment.  Rely heavily on the guidelines your instructor has given you.

Why is it important?

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.
  • Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies.

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1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.

Your literature review should be guided by your central research question.  The literature represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, interpreted and analyzed by you in a synthesized way.

  • Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow.  Is it manageable?
  • Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.
  • If you have the opportunity, discuss your topic with your professor and your class mates.

2. Decide on the scope of your review

How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover? 

  • This may depend on your assignment.  How many sources does the assignment require?

3. Select the databases you will use to conduct your searches.

Make a list of the databases you will search. 

Where to find databases:

  • use the tabs on this guide
  • Find other databases in the Nursing Information Resources web page
  • More on the Medical Library web page
  • ... and more on the Yale University Library web page

4. Conduct your searches to find the evidence. Keep track of your searches.

  • Use the key words in your question, as well as synonyms for those words, as terms in your search. Use the database tutorials for help.
  • Save the searches in the databases. This saves time when you want to redo, or modify, the searches. It is also helpful to use as a guide is the searches are not finding any useful results.
  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.
  • Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.
  • Check with your professor, or a subject expert in the field, if you are missing any key works in the field.
  • Ask your librarian for help at any time.
  • Use a citation manager, such as EndNote as the repository for your citations. See the EndNote tutorials for help.

Review the literature

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions.
  • Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited? If so, how has it been analyzed?

Tips: 

  • Review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.
  • Create a matrix of the studies for easy analysis, and synthesis, across all of the studies.
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Frequently asked questions

What is the purpose of a literature review.

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.

Frequently asked questions: Academic writing

A rhetorical tautology is the repetition of an idea of concept using different words.

Rhetorical tautologies occur when additional words are used to convey a meaning that has already been expressed or implied. For example, the phrase “armed gunman” is a tautology because a “gunman” is by definition “armed.”

A logical tautology is a statement that is always true because it includes all logical possibilities.

Logical tautologies often take the form of “either/or” statements (e.g., “It will rain, or it will not rain”) or employ circular reasoning (e.g., “she is untrustworthy because she can’t be trusted”).

You may have seen both “appendices” or “appendixes” as pluralizations of “ appendix .” Either spelling can be used, but “appendices” is more common (including in APA Style ). Consistency is key here: make sure you use the same spelling throughout your paper.

The purpose of a lab report is to demonstrate your understanding of the scientific method with a hands-on lab experiment. Course instructors will often provide you with an experimental design and procedure. Your task is to write up how you actually performed the experiment and evaluate the outcome.

In contrast, a research paper requires you to independently develop an original argument. It involves more in-depth research and interpretation of sources and data.

A lab report is usually shorter than a research paper.

The sections of a lab report can vary between scientific fields and course requirements, but it usually contains the following:

  • Title: expresses the topic of your study
  • Abstract: summarizes your research aims, methods, results, and conclusions
  • Introduction: establishes the context needed to understand the topic
  • Method: describes the materials and procedures used in the experiment
  • Results: reports all descriptive and inferential statistical analyses
  • Discussion: interprets and evaluates results and identifies limitations
  • Conclusion: sums up the main findings of your experiment
  • References: list of all sources cited using a specific style (e.g. APA)
  • Appendices: contains lengthy materials, procedures, tables or figures

A lab report conveys the aim, methods, results, and conclusions of a scientific experiment . Lab reports are commonly assigned in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The abstract is the very last thing you write. You should only write it after your research is complete, so that you can accurately summarize the entirety of your thesis , dissertation or research paper .

If you’ve gone over the word limit set for your assignment, shorten your sentences and cut repetition and redundancy during the editing process. If you use a lot of long quotes , consider shortening them to just the essentials.

If you need to remove a lot of words, you may have to cut certain passages. Remember that everything in the text should be there to support your argument; look for any information that’s not essential to your point and remove it.

To make this process easier and faster, you can use a paraphrasing tool . With this tool, you can rewrite your text to make it simpler and shorter. If that’s not enough, you can copy-paste your paraphrased text into the summarizer . This tool will distill your text to its core message.

Revising, proofreading, and editing are different stages of the writing process .

  • Revising is making structural and logical changes to your text—reformulating arguments and reordering information.
  • Editing refers to making more local changes to things like sentence structure and phrasing to make sure your meaning is conveyed clearly and concisely.
  • Proofreading involves looking at the text closely, line by line, to spot any typos and issues with consistency and correct them.

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 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.

Avoid citing sources in your abstract . There are two reasons for this:

  • The abstract should focus on your original research, not on the work of others.
  • The abstract should be self-contained and fully understandable without reference to other sources.

There are some circumstances where you might need to mention other sources in an abstract: for example, if your research responds directly to another study or focuses on the work of a single theorist. In general, though, don’t include citations unless absolutely necessary.

An abstract is a concise summary of an academic text (such as a journal article or dissertation ). It serves two main purposes:

  • To help potential readers determine the relevance of your paper for their own research.
  • To communicate your key findings to those who don’t have time to read the whole paper.

Abstracts are often indexed along with keywords on academic databases, so they make your work more easily findable. Since the abstract is the first thing any reader sees, it’s important that it clearly and accurately summarizes the contents of your paper.

In a scientific paper, the methodology always comes after the introduction and before the results , discussion and conclusion . The same basic structure also applies to a thesis, dissertation , or research proposal .

Depending on the length and type of document, you might also include a literature review or theoretical framework before the methodology.

Whether you’re publishing a blog, submitting a research paper , or even just writing an important email, there are a few techniques you can use to make sure it’s error-free:

  • Take a break : Set your work aside for at least a few hours so that you can look at it with fresh eyes.
  • Proofread a printout : Staring at a screen for too long can cause fatigue – sit down with a pen and paper to check the final version.
  • Use digital shortcuts : Take note of any recurring mistakes (for example, misspelling a particular word, switching between US and UK English , or inconsistently capitalizing a term), and use Find and Replace to fix it throughout the document.

If you want to be confident that an important text is error-free, it might be worth choosing a professional proofreading service instead.

Editing and proofreading are different steps in the process of revising a text.

Editing comes first, and can involve major changes to content, structure and language. The first stages of editing are often done by authors themselves, while a professional editor makes the final improvements to grammar and style (for example, by improving sentence structure and word choice ).

Proofreading is the final stage of checking a text before it is published or shared. It focuses on correcting minor errors and inconsistencies (for example, in punctuation and capitalization ). Proofreaders often also check for formatting issues, especially in print publishing.

The cost of proofreading depends on the type and length of text, the turnaround time, and the level of services required. Most proofreading companies charge per word or page, while freelancers sometimes charge an hourly rate.

For proofreading alone, which involves only basic corrections of typos and formatting mistakes, you might pay as little as $0.01 per word, but in many cases, your text will also require some level of editing , which costs slightly more.

It’s often possible to purchase combined proofreading and editing services and calculate the price in advance based on your requirements.

There are many different routes to becoming a professional proofreader or editor. The necessary qualifications depend on the field – to be an academic or scientific proofreader, for example, you will need at least a university degree in a relevant subject.

For most proofreading jobs, experience and demonstrated skills are more important than specific qualifications. Often your skills will be tested as part of the application process.

To learn practical proofreading skills, you can choose to take a course with a professional organization such as the Society for Editors and Proofreaders . Alternatively, you can apply to companies that offer specialized on-the-job training programmes, such as the Scribbr Academy .

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You can find all the citation styles and locales used in the Scribbr Citation Generator in our publicly accessible repository on Github .

How to Write a Literature Review

What is a literature review.

  • What Is the Literature
  • Writing the Review

A literature review is much more than an annotated bibliography or a list of separate reviews of articles and books. It is a critical, analytical summary and synthesis of the current knowledge of a topic. Thus it should compare and relate different theories, findings, etc, rather than just summarize them individually. In addition, it should have a particular focus or theme to organize the review. It does not have to be an exhaustive account of everything published on the topic, but it should discuss all the significant academic literature and other relevant sources important for that focus.

This is meant to be a general guide to writing a literature review: ways to structure one, what to include, how it supplements other research. For more specific help on writing a review, and especially for help on finding the literature to review, sign up for a Personal Research Session .

The specific organization of a literature review depends on the type and purpose of the review, as well as on the specific field or topic being reviewed. But in general, it is a relatively brief but thorough exploration of past and current work on a topic. Rather than a chronological listing of previous work, though, literature reviews are usually organized thematically, such as different theoretical approaches, methodologies, or specific issues or concepts involved in the topic. A thematic organization makes it much easier to examine contrasting perspectives, theoretical approaches, methodologies, findings, etc, and to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of, and point out any gaps in, previous research. And this is the heart of what a literature review is about. A literature review may offer new interpretations, theoretical approaches, or other ideas; if it is part of a research proposal or report it should demonstrate the relationship of the proposed or reported research to others' work; but whatever else it does, it must provide a critical overview of the current state of research efforts. 

Literature reviews are common and very important in the sciences and social sciences. They are less common and have a less important role in the humanities, but they do have a place, especially stand-alone reviews.

Types of Literature Reviews

There are different types of literature reviews, and different purposes for writing a review, but the most common are:

  • Stand-alone literature review articles . These provide an overview and analysis of the current state of research on a topic or question. The goal is to evaluate and compare previous research on a topic to provide an analysis of what is currently known, and also to reveal controversies, weaknesses, and gaps in current work, thus pointing to directions for future research. You can find examples published in any number of academic journals, but there is a series of Annual Reviews of *Subject* which are specifically devoted to literature review articles. Writing a stand-alone review is often an effective way to get a good handle on a topic and to develop ideas for your own research program. For example, contrasting theoretical approaches or conflicting interpretations of findings can be the basis of your research project: can you find evidence supporting one interpretation against another, or can you propose an alternative interpretation that overcomes their limitations?
  • Part of a research proposal . This could be a proposal for a PhD dissertation, a senior thesis, or a class project. It could also be a submission for a grant. The literature review, by pointing out the current issues and questions concerning a topic, is a crucial part of demonstrating how your proposed research will contribute to the field, and thus of convincing your thesis committee to allow you to pursue the topic of your interest or a funding agency to pay for your research efforts.
  • Part of a research report . When you finish your research and write your thesis or paper to present your findings, it should include a literature review to provide the context to which your work is a contribution. Your report, in addition to detailing the methods, results, etc. of your research, should show how your work relates to others' work.

A literature review for a research report is often a revision of the review for a research proposal, which can be a revision of a stand-alone review. Each revision should be a fairly extensive revision. With the increased knowledge of and experience in the topic as you proceed, your understanding of the topic will increase. Thus, you will be in a better position to analyze and critique the literature. In addition, your focus will change as you proceed in your research. Some areas of the literature you initially reviewed will be marginal or irrelevant for your eventual research, and you will need to explore other areas more thoroughly. 

Examples of Literature Reviews

See the series of Annual Reviews of *Subject* which are specifically devoted to literature review articles to find many examples of stand-alone literature reviews in the biomedical, physical, and social sciences. 

Research report articles vary in how they are organized, but a common general structure is to have sections such as:

  • Abstract - Brief summary of the contents of the article
  • Introduction - A explanation of the purpose of the study, a statement of the research question(s) the study intends to address
  • Literature review - A critical assessment of the work done so far on this topic, to show how the current study relates to what has already been done
  • Methods - How the study was carried out (e.g. instruments or equipment, procedures, methods to gather and analyze data)
  • Results - What was found in the course of the study
  • Discussion - What do the results mean
  • Conclusion - State the conclusions and implications of the results, and discuss how it relates to the work reviewed in the literature review; also, point to directions for further work in the area

Here are some articles that illustrate variations on this theme. There is no need to read the entire articles (unless the contents interest you); just quickly browse through to see the sections, and see how each section is introduced and what is contained in them.

The Determinants of Undergraduate Grade Point Average: The Relative Importance of Family Background, High School Resources, and Peer Group Effects , in The Journal of Human Resources , v. 34 no. 2 (Spring 1999), p. 268-293.

This article has a standard breakdown of sections:

  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Some discussion sections

First Encounters of the Bureaucratic Kind: Early Freshman Experiences with a Campus Bureaucracy , in The Journal of Higher Education , v. 67 no. 6 (Nov-Dec 1996), p. 660-691.

This one does not have a section specifically labeled as a "literature review" or "review of the literature," but the first few sections cite a long list of other sources discussing previous research in the area before the authors present their own study they are reporting.

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  • Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide
  • Introduction

Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide — Introduction

  • Getting Started
  • How to Pick a Topic
  • Strategies to Find Sources
  • Evaluating Sources & Lit. Reviews
  • Tips for Writing Literature Reviews
  • Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites
  • Citation Resources
  • Other Academic Writings

What are Literature Reviews?

So, what is a literature review? "A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries." Taylor, D.  The literature review: A few tips on conducting it . University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre.

Goals of Literature Reviews

What are the goals of creating a Literature Review?  A literature could be written to accomplish different aims:

  • To develop a theory or evaluate an existing theory
  • To summarize the historical or existing state of a research topic
  • Identify a problem in a field of research 

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1997). Writing narrative literature reviews .  Review of General Psychology , 1 (3), 311-320.

What kinds of sources require a Literature Review?

  • A research paper assigned in a course
  • A thesis or dissertation
  • A grant proposal
  • An article intended for publication in a journal

All these instances require you to collect what has been written about your research topic so that you can demonstrate how your own research sheds new light on the topic.

Types of Literature Reviews

What kinds of literature reviews are written?

Narrative review: The purpose of this type of review is to describe the current state of the research on a specific topic/research and to offer a critical analysis of the literature reviewed. Studies are grouped by research/theoretical categories, and themes and trends, strengths and weakness, and gaps are identified. The review ends with a conclusion section which summarizes the findings regarding the state of the research of the specific study, the gaps identify and if applicable, explains how the author's research will address gaps identify in the review and expand the knowledge on the topic reviewed.

  • Example : Predictors and Outcomes of U.S. Quality Maternity Leave: A Review and Conceptual Framework:  10.1177/08948453211037398  

Systematic review : "The authors of a systematic review use a specific procedure to search the research literature, select the studies to include in their review, and critically evaluate the studies they find." (p. 139). Nelson, L. K. (2013). Research in Communication Sciences and Disorders . Plural Publishing.

  • Example : The effect of leave policies on increasing fertility: a systematic review:  10.1057/s41599-022-01270-w

Meta-analysis : "Meta-analysis is a method of reviewing research findings in a quantitative fashion by transforming the data from individual studies into what is called an effect size and then pooling and analyzing this information. The basic goal in meta-analysis is to explain why different outcomes have occurred in different studies." (p. 197). Roberts, M. C., & Ilardi, S. S. (2003). Handbook of Research Methods in Clinical Psychology . Blackwell Publishing.

  • Example : Employment Instability and Fertility in Europe: A Meta-Analysis:  10.1215/00703370-9164737

Meta-synthesis : "Qualitative meta-synthesis is a type of qualitative study that uses as data the findings from other qualitative studies linked by the same or related topic." (p.312). Zimmer, L. (2006). Qualitative meta-synthesis: A question of dialoguing with texts .  Journal of Advanced Nursing , 53 (3), 311-318.

  • Example : Women’s perspectives on career successes and barriers: A qualitative meta-synthesis:  10.1177/05390184221113735

Literature Reviews in the Health Sciences

  • UConn Health subject guide on systematic reviews Explanation of the different review types used in health sciences literature as well as tools to help you find the right review type
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Literature Review - what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done

  • Strategies to Find Sources

Evaluating Literature Reviews and Sources

Reading critically, tips to evaluate sources.

  • Tips for Writing Literature Reviews
  • Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites
  • Citation Resources
  • Other Academic Writings
  • Useful Resources

A good literature review evaluates a wide variety of sources (academic articles, scholarly books, government/NGO reports). It also evaluates literature reviews that study similar topics. This page offers you a list of resources and tips on how to evaluate the sources that you may use to write your review.

  • A Closer Look at Evaluating Literature Reviews Excerpt from the book chapter, “Evaluating Introductions and Literature Reviews” in Fred Pyrczak’s Evaluating Research in Academic Journals: A Practical Guide to Realistic Evaluation , (Chapter 4 and 5). This PDF discusses and offers great advice on how to evaluate "Introductions" and "Literature Reviews" by listing questions and tips. First part focus on Introductions and in page 10 in the PDF, 37 in the text, it focus on "literature reviews".
  • Tips for Evaluating Sources (Print vs. Internet Sources) Excellent page that will guide you on what to ask to determine if your source is a reliable one. Check the other topics in the guide: Evaluating Bibliographic Citations and Evaluation During Reading on the left side menu.

To be able to write a good Literature Review, you need to be able to read critically. Below are some tips that will help you evaluate the sources for your paper.

Reading critically (summary from How to Read Academic Texts Critically)

  • Who is the author? What is his/her standing in the field.
  • What is the author’s purpose? To offer advice, make practical suggestions, solve a specific problem, to critique or clarify?
  • Note the experts in the field: are there specific names/labs that are frequently cited?
  • Pay attention to methodology: is it sound? what testing procedures, subjects, materials were used?
  • Note conflicting theories, methodologies and results. Are there any assumptions being made by most/some researchers?
  • Theories: have they evolved overtime?
  • Evaluate and synthesize the findings and conclusions. How does this study contribute to your project?

Useful links:

  • How to Read a Paper (University of Waterloo, Canada) This is an excellent paper that teach you how to read an academic paper, how to determine if it is something to set aside, or something to read deeply. Good advice to organize your literature for the Literature Review or just reading for classes.

Criteria to evaluate sources:

  • Authority : Who is the author? what is his/her credentials--what university he/she is affliliated? Is his/her area of expertise?
  • Usefulness : How this source related to your topic? How current or relevant it is to your topic?
  • Reliability : Does the information comes from a reliable, trusted source such as an academic journal?

Useful site - Critically Analyzing Information Sources (Cornell University Library)

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Topic Guide - Developing Your Research Study

  • Purpose of Guide
  • Flaws to Avoid
  • Independent and Dependent Variables
  • Glossary of Research Terms
  • Reading Research Effectively
  • Narrowing a Topic Idea
  • Broadening a Topic Idea
  • Extending the Timeliness of a Topic Idea
  • Academic Writing Style
  • Choosing a Title
  • Making an Outline
  • Paragraph Development
  • APA 7th Edition
  • Executive Summary
  • The C.A.R.S. Model
  • Background Information
  • The Research Problem/Question
  • Theoretical Framework

Importance of a Good Literature Review

Types of Literature Reviews

Structure and Writing Style

Writing tip, another writing tip, yet another writing tip.

  • Citation Tracking
  • Content Alert Services
  • Evaluating Sources
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Tiertiary Sources
  • What Is Scholarly vs. Popular?
  • Qualitative Methods
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Using Non-Textual Elements
  • Limitations of the Study
  • 10. Proofreading Your Paper
  • Writing Concisely
  • Common Grammar Mistakes
  • Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Footnotes or Endnotes?
  • Further Readings
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Types of Structured Group Activities
  • Group Project Survival Skills
  • Multiple Book Review Essay
  • Reviewing Collected Works
  • Writing a Case Study
  • Writing a Research Proposal
  • Bibliography

A literature review surveys books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory; thereby, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of the works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within a larger field of study.

Some more thoroughly detailed sources to follow for developing a literature review would be  Conducting Research Literature Reviews  and/or Doing a Literature Review by Chris Hart — both of which are located in our Squires Library collection.

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews : From the Internet to Paper . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1998.

Hart, Chris.  Doing a literature review : releasing the social science research imagination    London: SAGE, 2005

A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in many disciplines, a literature review has an organizational pattern and combines both a summary and a synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories . A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, whereas a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might:

  • Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations,
  • Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates,
  • Depending on the situation, evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research, or
  • Usually in the conclusion of a literature review, identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date.

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
  • Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
  • Reveal conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research. This is often directly related to the gap(s) revealed .
  • Locate your own research idea(s) / intent within the context of existing literature [very important].

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews : From the Internet to Paper. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006 The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success . 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, California : Corwin, 2016.

It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally that become part of the lore of field.

In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews. Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.

Argumentative Review This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply imbedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].

Integrative Review Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication. This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.

Historical Review Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

Methodological Review A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels [i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques], how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

Systematic Review This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. The goal is to deliberately document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem . Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?" This type of literature review is primarily applied to examining prior research studies in clinical medicine and allied health fields, but it is increasingly being used in the social sciences.

Theoretical Review The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

Baumeister, Roy F. and Mark R. Leary. "Writing Narrative Literature Reviews."  Review of General Psychology 1 (September 1997): 311-320; Mark R. Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature." Educational Researcher 36 (April 2007): 139-147; Petticrew, Mark and Helen Roberts. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006; Torracro, Richard. "Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples." Human Resource Development Review 4 (September 2005): 356-367; Rocco, Tonette S. and Maria S. Plakhotnik. "Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions." Human Ressource Development Review 8 (March 2008): 120-130; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

I.  Thinking About Your Literature Revie w

The structure of a literature review should include the following :

  • An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review,
  • Division of works under review into themes or categories [e.g. works that support a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative approaches entirely],
  • An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others,
  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.

The critical evaluation of each work should consider :

  • Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
  • Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
  • Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
  • Value -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

II.  Development of the Literature Review

Four Stages 1.  Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues? 2.  Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored. 3.  Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic. 4.  Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.

This video can be of assistance as it provides direction for literature review planning, processing, and writing -  Video Additionally, the speaker on the previous video, did one on   Literature Review Basics: 7 Major Mistakes To Avoid —  however, beware, this video is so thorough, that it is 1 hr in length.  Either plan an hour or split the time up to view the content in portions.

Address the following matters prior to writing the literature review: Clarify If your assignment is not very specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions:  

1.  Roughly how many sources should I include?

2.  What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)?

3.  Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue?

5.  Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history

6.   Should the literature review address the theoretical framework (theory applied to the intended study)?

Find Models Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to attain a sense of the various themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The reference section of sources you have already read are also excellent entry points into your own research. Narrow the Topic The narrower the topic of your study, the easier it will be to limit the source content types you need to read in order to develop a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, This is often because a limitation placed on the years of publications referenced. You will make your job easier if you first limit the scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the general area pertaining to the topic and review the abstracts, which can provide direction. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text. Consider Whether Your Sources are Current Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.

III.  Ways to Organize Your Literature Review

Chronology of Events If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union. By Publication Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies. Thematic [“conceptual categories”] Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it will still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The only difference here between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note however that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made. Methodological A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

Other Sections of Your Literature Review Once you have decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you but include only what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship framework.

Here are examples of other sections you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:

  • Current Situation : information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
  • History : the chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Selection Methods : the criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.
  • Standards : the way in which you present your information.
  • Questions for Further Research : What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

IV.  Writing Your Literature Review

Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.

Use Evidence A literature review section is, in this sense, similar to other academic research papers. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid. Be Selective Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information but that are not key to understanding the research problem can often be included in a "further readings" section of the literature review. This should be within your instructor's guidelines, as not all want you to provide such as list. Use Quotes Sparingly Some short quotes are okay if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Lastly, it isn't out of the ordinary to find that an author has stated something that you want to reiterate but in the perfect phasing and you can find that a paraphrase will simply not do it as well. When you do quote, always assure that you provide the complete citation [name(s), year, page# / para#] ( if you are not yet familiar, the "para#) is when you are using an online source that is without page numbers - you then list the paragraph the quote came from. ) Lastly, do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for your own summary and interpretation of the literature.  Summarize and Synthesize Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work. Keep Your Own Voice While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording. Use Caution When Paraphrasing 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. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work. [name, year]

V.  Common Mistakes to Avoid

These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.

  • Sources in your literature review do not clearly relate to the research problem;
  • Not a sufficient amount of time was taken to define and identify the most relevant sources to use in the literature review related to the research problem;
  • The literature review relies exclusively on secondary analytical sources rather than including relevant primary research studies and/or data;
  • Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
  • Does not describe the search procedures that were used in identifying the literature to review;
  • Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in chi-squared or meta-analytic methods; and,
  • Only includes research that validates assumptions and does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature.

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews : From the Internet to Paper . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1998. Hart, Chris.  Doing a literature review : releasing the social science research imagination    London: SAGE, 2005 Video —  Literature Review Basics: 7 Major Mistakes To Avoid

Break out of Your Disciplinary Box! 

Thinking interdisciplinarily about a research problem can be a rewarding exercise in applying new ideas, theories, or concepts to an old problem. For example, what might cultural anthropologists say about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? In what ways might geographers view the need for better distribution of social service agencies in large cities than how social workers might study the issue? You don’t want to substitute a thorough review of core research literature in your discipline for studies conducted in other fields of study. However, thinking about research problems from multiple vectors is a key strategy for finding new solutions to a problem or gaining a new perspective. Consult with a librarian about identifying research databases in other disciplines; almost every field of study has at least one comprehensive database devoted to indexing its research literature.

Menken, S. B. J., (Ed.). An introduction to interdisciplinary research: Theory and practice . Amsterdam : Amsterdam University Press, 2016.

Don't Just Review for Content!

While conducting a review of the literature, maximize the time you devote to writing this part of your paper by thinking broadly about what you should be looking for and evaluating. Review not just what scholars are saying, but how are they saying it. Some questions to ask:

  • How are they organizing their ideas?
  • What methods have they used to study the problem?
  • What theories have been used to explain, predict, or understand their research problem?
  • What sources have they cited to support their conclusions?
  • How have they used non-textual elements [e.g., charts, graphs, figures, etc.] to illustrate key points?

When you begin to write your literature review section, you'll be glad you dug deeper into how the research was designed and constructed because it establishes a means for developing more substantial analysis and interpretation of the research problem.

Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1 998.

When Do I Know I Can Stop Looking and Move On?

Here are several strategies you can utilize to assess whether you've thoroughly reviewed the literature:

  • Look for repeating patterns in the research findings . If the same thing is being said, just by different people, then this likely demonstrates that the research problem has hit a conceptual dead end. At this point consider: Does your study extend current research?  Does it forge a new path? Or, does is merely add more of the same thing being said?
  • Look at sources the authors cite to in their work . If you begin to see the same researchers cited again and again, then this is often an indication that no new ideas have been generated to address the research problem.
  • Search  Google Scholar to identify who has subsequently cited leading scholars already identified in your literature review. This is called citation tracking and there are a number of sources that can help you identify who has cited whom, particularly scholars from outside of your discipline. Here again, if the same authors are being cited again and again, this may indicate no new literature has been written on the topic.

Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

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Literature Review: Conducting & Writing

  • Sample Literature Reviews
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  • Finding "The Literature"
  • Organizing/Writing
  • Chicago: Notes Bibliography

Sample Lit Reviews from Communication Arts

Have an exemplary literature review.

  • Literature Review Sample 1
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  • Literature Review Sample 3

Have you written a stellar literature review you care to share for teaching purposes?

Are you an instructor who has received an exemplary literature review and have permission from the student to post?

Please contact Britt McGowan at [email protected] for inclusion in this guide. All disciplines welcome and encouraged.

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Assessments

La Trobe University Library

Introduction

  • Five steps to completing assessments
  • Instruction words
  • Case studies
  • Reflective writing
  • Annotated bibliographies

Literature reviews

  • Presentations
  • Group assessment tasks

A literature review is a research task that finds, evaluates and discusses information on a particular topic. You need to analyse multiple texts, and discuss key ideas that you find in the reading.

A literature review may also identify gaps for further research. It is not a process of summarising texts separately – that is done in an annotated bibliography .

A good literature review should:

  • be well researched, planned and structured
  • discuss a relevant issue, problem or practice that relates to your subject
  • explain why your chosen topic is important
  • identify key ideas or themes in the literature
  • synthesise these findings into thematic paragraphs, using sufficient citations and correct referencing
  • demonstrate your understanding of the topic and develop your knowledge and evidence-based practice.

Literature reviews differ across disciplines, so use your assessment instructions and marking criteria as your ultimate guide.

7 steps for writing a literature review

1. analyse the task.

Read the assessment instructions and marking rubric carefully. Note how many sources you need to include in your literature review and any guidelines on selecting the literature.

Choose a topic that interests you. A topic that is important to you will help you stay focused.

2. Establish a clear research question

A good research question will help you narrow down your topic so that it is manageable. If your question is too broad, you may be overwhelmed by the reading. If it is too narrow, you won’t find enough literature.

3. Search for relevant literature

Use keywords from your research question to begin searching .

In the research question "What factors impact student learning when on nursing placement?", the keywords are: student, learning, nursing and placement.

4. Read and review the literature, and take notes

When reading the literature, consider the following:

  • Is the article relevant to your topic? For journal articles, read the abstract. For other sources, scan quickly and discard if you can’t see anything useful.
  • Who is the author/s and what is their expertise?
  • Is the source credible and scholarly ? Use any evaluation tools provided by your subject.
  • What is the main topic and what themes are discussed?

Pay attention to important information, such as the abstract, introduction, headings/subheadings, graphs/tables and conclusion.

Take notes using the  Cornell method  or a note-taking grid. Keeping notes that help you remember the content and relevance of each source is vital for writing a literature review.

  • Example note-taking grid for a literature review [Word - 14KB]

5. Identify common themes or areas for further research

It's important to understand the relationships between the sources you've read. Look out for:

  • themes:  what questions, ideas or topics recur across the literature? Where do authors agree or disagree?
  • areas for further research:  what is missing from the literature? Are there any weaknesses?

6. Plan the structure of the literature review

Before you start writing, plan how your literature review will be organised.

Literature reviews are usually organised thematically, meaning they discuss one theme after another. You can also organise your ideas chronologically (from past to present) or by methodology (e.g. comparing findings from qualitative and quantitative research).

7. Write, edit, proofread, submit

It's easy to get lost in the reading and not leave enough time for polishing your writing. Use the Assessment Planner to make a clear study plan that includes time for writing, editing and proofreading.

Structure of a literature review

The introduction should include:

  • context or background : give a brief summary of the context for your research question and explain why it is important
  • purpose (thesis statement): state the purpose of the literature review. This is a statement generated from the research question
  • scope (roadmap):  outline the specific themes the literature review will focus on and give the reader a sense of how your writing is organised.

Each body paragraph focuses on a specific theme and draws on several pieces of literature. 

Paragraphs should include:

  • topic sentence:  start with the theme of the paragraph
  • synthesis of evidence:  make connections between multiple sources by comparing and contrasting their views. Use summaries, paraphrases and quotes , and don't forget to properly reference your sources
  • analysis or evaluation: add your own interpretation of the findings and comment on any strengths, weaknesses, gaps or areas for further research in the literature
  • link:  end the paragraph by either linking back to your main topic or to the following paragraph.

Conclusions should include:

  • restate the purpose of the review
  • summary of the main findings : remind your reader of the main points. Make sure you paraphrase your ideas, so you don’t use the same wording as elsewhere in the literature review
  • implications of the findings: suggest how the findings might be important for practice in your field
  • areas for further research : provide suggestions for future research to address the problem, issue or question.

The conclusion is followed by a Reference list or Bibliography. Consult the Style notes  page of the  Academic Referencing Tool  for examples.

For complete sample literature reviews with further annotations, see the Word and PDF documents below.

  • Example Literature Review - Allied Health [PDF 245KB]
  • Example Literature Review - Allied Health [Word 69KB]
  • Example Literature Review - Education [PDF 283KB]
  • Example Literature Review - Education [Word 104KB]

Further resources

  • Using a reading to choose a research topic worksheet
  • Manchester Academic Phrasebank - Phrases for academic writing and reporting on research
  • Turn a stack of papers into a literature review: Useful tool for beginners (Journal article)

Pathfinder link

Still have questions? Do you want to talk to an expert? Peer Learning Advisors or Academic Skills and Language Advisors  are available.

Cant R., Ryan, C., Hughes, L., Luders, E., & Cooper, S. (2021). What helps, what hinders? Undergraduate nursing students’ perceptions of clinical placements based on a thematic synthesis of literature. SAGE Open Nursing, 7, 1-20.  https://doi.org/10.1177/23779608211035845 Adapted and used under CC BY-NC 4.0 license

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Writing Research Papers

  • Writing a Literature Review

When writing a research paper on a specific topic, you will often need to include an overview of any prior research that has been conducted on that topic.  For example, if your research paper is describing an experiment on fear conditioning, then you will probably need to provide an overview of prior research on fear conditioning.  That overview is typically known as a literature review.  

Please note that a full-length literature review article may be suitable for fulfilling the requirements for the Psychology B.S. Degree Research Paper .  For further details, please check with your faculty advisor.

Different Types of Literature Reviews

Literature reviews come in many forms.  They can be part of a research paper, for example as part of the Introduction section.  They can be one chapter of a doctoral dissertation.  Literature reviews can also “stand alone” as separate articles by themselves.  For instance, some journals such as Annual Review of Psychology , Psychological Bulletin , and others typically publish full-length review articles.  Similarly, in courses at UCSD, you may be asked to write a research paper that is itself a literature review (such as, with an instructor’s permission, in fulfillment of the B.S. Degree Research Paper requirement). Alternatively, you may be expected to include a literature review as part of a larger research paper (such as part of an Honors Thesis). 

Literature reviews can be written using a variety of different styles.  These may differ in the way prior research is reviewed as well as the way in which the literature review is organized.  Examples of stylistic variations in literature reviews include: 

  • Summarization of prior work vs. critical evaluation. In some cases, prior research is simply described and summarized; in other cases, the writer compares, contrasts, and may even critique prior research (for example, discusses their strengths and weaknesses).
  • Chronological vs. categorical and other types of organization. In some cases, the literature review begins with the oldest research and advances until it concludes with the latest research.  In other cases, research is discussed by category (such as in groupings of closely related studies) without regard for chronological order.  In yet other cases, research is discussed in terms of opposing views (such as when different research studies or researchers disagree with one another).

Overall, all literature reviews, whether they are written as a part of a larger work or as separate articles unto themselves, have a common feature: they do not present new research; rather, they provide an overview of prior research on a specific topic . 

How to Write a Literature Review

When writing a literature review, it can be helpful to rely on the following steps.  Please note that these procedures are not necessarily only for writing a literature review that becomes part of a larger article; they can also be used for writing a full-length article that is itself a literature review (although such reviews are typically more detailed and exhaustive; for more information please refer to the Further Resources section of this page).

Steps for Writing a Literature Review

1. Identify and define the topic that you will be reviewing.

The topic, which is commonly a research question (or problem) of some kind, needs to be identified and defined as clearly as possible.  You need to have an idea of what you will be reviewing in order to effectively search for references and to write a coherent summary of the research on it.  At this stage it can be helpful to write down a description of the research question, area, or topic that you will be reviewing, as well as to identify any keywords that you will be using to search for relevant research.

2. Conduct a literature search.

Use a range of keywords to search databases such as PsycINFO and any others that may contain relevant articles.  You should focus on peer-reviewed, scholarly articles.  Published books may also be helpful, but keep in mind that peer-reviewed articles are widely considered to be the “gold standard” of scientific research.  Read through titles and abstracts, select and obtain articles (that is, download, copy, or print them out), and save your searches as needed.  For more information about this step, please see the Using Databases and Finding Scholarly References section of this website.

3. Read through the research that you have found and take notes.

Absorb as much information as you can.  Read through the articles and books that you have found, and as you do, take notes.  The notes should include anything that will be helpful in advancing your own thinking about the topic and in helping you write the literature review (such as key points, ideas, or even page numbers that index key information).  Some references may turn out to be more helpful than others; you may notice patterns or striking contrasts between different sources ; and some sources may refer to yet other sources of potential interest.  This is often the most time-consuming part of the review process.  However, it is also where you get to learn about the topic in great detail.  For more details about taking notes, please see the “Reading Sources and Taking Notes” section of the Finding Scholarly References page of this website.

4. Organize your notes and thoughts; create an outline.

At this stage, you are close to writing the review itself.  However, it is often helpful to first reflect on all the reading that you have done.  What patterns stand out?  Do the different sources converge on a consensus?  Or not?  What unresolved questions still remain?  You should look over your notes (it may also be helpful to reorganize them), and as you do, to think about how you will present this research in your literature review.  Are you going to summarize or critically evaluate?  Are you going to use a chronological or other type of organizational structure?  It can also be helpful to create an outline of how your literature review will be structured.

5. Write the literature review itself and edit and revise as needed.

The final stage involves writing.  When writing, keep in mind that literature reviews are generally characterized by a summary style in which prior research is described sufficiently to explain critical findings but does not include a high level of detail (if readers want to learn about all the specific details of a study, then they can look up the references that you cite and read the original articles themselves).  However, the degree of emphasis that is given to individual studies may vary (more or less detail may be warranted depending on how critical or unique a given study was).   After you have written a first draft, you should read it carefully and then edit and revise as needed.  You may need to repeat this process more than once.  It may be helpful to have another person read through your draft(s) and provide feedback.

6. Incorporate the literature review into your research paper draft.

After the literature review is complete, you should incorporate it into your research paper (if you are writing the review as one component of a larger paper).  Depending on the stage at which your paper is at, this may involve merging your literature review into a partially complete Introduction section, writing the rest of the paper around the literature review, or other processes.

Further Tips for Writing a Literature Review

Full-length literature reviews

  • Many full-length literature review articles use a three-part structure: Introduction (where the topic is identified and any trends or major problems in the literature are introduced), Body (where the studies that comprise the literature on that topic are discussed), and Discussion or Conclusion (where major patterns and points are discussed and the general state of what is known about the topic is summarized)

Literature reviews as part of a larger paper

  • An “express method” of writing a literature review for a research paper is as follows: first, write a one paragraph description of each article that you read. Second, choose how you will order all the paragraphs and combine them in one document.  Third, add transitions between the paragraphs, as well as an introductory and concluding paragraph. 1
  • A literature review that is part of a larger research paper typically does not have to be exhaustive. Rather, it should contain most or all of the significant studies about a research topic but not tangential or loosely related ones. 2   Generally, literature reviews should be sufficient for the reader to understand the major issues and key findings about a research topic.  You may however need to confer with your instructor or editor to determine how comprehensive you need to be.

Benefits of Literature Reviews

By summarizing prior research on a topic, literature reviews have multiple benefits.  These include:

  • Literature reviews help readers understand what is known about a topic without having to find and read through multiple sources.
  • Literature reviews help “set the stage” for later reading about new research on a given topic (such as if they are placed in the Introduction of a larger research paper). In other words, they provide helpful background and context.
  • Literature reviews can also help the writer learn about a given topic while in the process of preparing the review itself. In the act of research and writing the literature review, the writer gains expertise on the topic .

Downloadable Resources

  • How to Write APA Style Research Papers (a comprehensive guide) [ PDF ]
  • Tips for Writing APA Style Research Papers (a brief summary) [ PDF ]
  • Example APA Style Research Paper (for B.S. Degree – literature review) [ PDF ]

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

  • Writing Research Paper Videos
  • UCSD Library Psychology Research Guide: Literature Reviews

External Resources

  • Developing and Writing a Literature Review from N Carolina A&T State University
  • Example of a Short Literature Review from York College CUNY
  • How to Write a Review of Literature from UW-Madison
  • Writing a Literature Review from UC Santa Cruz  
  • Pautasso, M. (2013). Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review. PLoS Computational Biology, 9 (7), e1003149. doi : 1371/journal.pcbi.1003149

1 Ashton, W. Writing a short literature review . [PDF]     

2 carver, l. (2014).  writing the research paper [workshop]. , prepared by s. c. pan for ucsd psychology.

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Approaching literature review for academic purposes: The Literature Review Checklist

Debora f.b. leite.

I Departamento de Ginecologia e Obstetricia, Faculdade de Ciencias Medicas, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas, SP, BR

II Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Pernambuco, PE, BR

III Hospital das Clinicas, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Pernambuco, PE, BR

Maria Auxiliadora Soares Padilha

Jose g. cecatti.

A sophisticated literature review (LR) can result in a robust dissertation/thesis by scrutinizing the main problem examined by the academic study; anticipating research hypotheses, methods and results; and maintaining the interest of the audience in how the dissertation/thesis will provide solutions for the current gaps in a particular field. Unfortunately, little guidance is available on elaborating LRs, and writing an LR chapter is not a linear process. An LR translates students’ abilities in information literacy, the language domain, and critical writing. Students in postgraduate programs should be systematically trained in these skills. Therefore, this paper discusses the purposes of LRs in dissertations and theses. Second, the paper considers five steps for developing a review: defining the main topic, searching the literature, analyzing the results, writing the review and reflecting on the writing. Ultimately, this study proposes a twelve-item LR checklist. By clearly stating the desired achievements, this checklist allows Masters and Ph.D. students to continuously assess their own progress in elaborating an LR. Institutions aiming to strengthen students’ necessary skills in critical academic writing should also use this tool.

INTRODUCTION

Writing the literature review (LR) is often viewed as a difficult task that can be a point of writer’s block and procrastination ( 1 ) in postgraduate life. Disagreements on the definitions or classifications of LRs ( 2 ) may confuse students about their purpose and scope, as well as how to perform an LR. Interestingly, at many universities, the LR is still an important element in any academic work, despite the more recent trend of producing scientific articles rather than classical theses.

The LR is not an isolated section of the thesis/dissertation or a copy of the background section of a research proposal. It identifies the state-of-the-art knowledge in a particular field, clarifies information that is already known, elucidates implications of the problem being analyzed, links theory and practice ( 3 - 5 ), highlights gaps in the current literature, and places the dissertation/thesis within the research agenda of that field. Additionally, by writing the LR, postgraduate students will comprehend the structure of the subject and elaborate on their cognitive connections ( 3 ) while analyzing and synthesizing data with increasing maturity.

At the same time, the LR transforms the student and hints at the contents of other chapters for the reader. First, the LR explains the research question; second, it supports the hypothesis, objectives, and methods of the research project; and finally, it facilitates a description of the student’s interpretation of the results and his/her conclusions. For scholars, the LR is an introductory chapter ( 6 ). If it is well written, it demonstrates the student’s understanding of and maturity in a particular topic. A sound and sophisticated LR can indicate a robust dissertation/thesis.

A consensus on the best method to elaborate a dissertation/thesis has not been achieved. The LR can be a distinct chapter or included in different sections; it can be part of the introduction chapter, part of each research topic, or part of each published paper ( 7 ). However, scholars view the LR as an integral part of the main body of an academic work because it is intrinsically connected to other sections ( Figure 1 ) and is frequently present. The structure of the LR depends on the conventions of a particular discipline, the rules of the department, and the student’s and supervisor’s areas of expertise, needs and interests.

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Interestingly, many postgraduate students choose to submit their LR to peer-reviewed journals. As LRs are critical evaluations of current knowledge, they are indeed publishable material, even in the form of narrative or systematic reviews. However, systematic reviews have specific patterns 1 ( 8 ) that may not entirely fit with the questions posed in the dissertation/thesis. Additionally, the scope of a systematic review may be too narrow, and the strict criteria for study inclusion may omit important information from the dissertation/thesis. Therefore, this essay discusses the definition of an LR is and methods to develop an LR in the context of an academic dissertation/thesis. Finally, we suggest a checklist to evaluate an LR.

WHAT IS A LITERATURE REVIEW IN A THESIS?

Conducting research and writing a dissertation/thesis translates rational thinking and enthusiasm ( 9 ). While a strong body of literature that instructs students on research methodology, data analysis and writing scientific papers exists, little guidance on performing LRs is available. The LR is a unique opportunity to assess and contrast various arguments and theories, not just summarize them. The research results should not be discussed within the LR, but the postgraduate student tends to write a comprehensive LR while reflecting on his or her own findings ( 10 ).

Many people believe that writing an LR is a lonely and linear process. Supervisors or the institutions assume that the Ph.D. student has mastered the relevant techniques and vocabulary associated with his/her subject and conducts a self-reflection about previously published findings. Indeed, while elaborating the LR, the student should aggregate diverse skills, which mainly rely on his/her own commitment to mastering them. Thus, less supervision should be required ( 11 ). However, the parameters described above might not currently be the case for many students ( 11 , 12 ), and the lack of formal and systematic training on writing LRs is an important concern ( 11 ).

An institutional environment devoted to active learning will provide students the opportunity to continuously reflect on LRs, which will form a dialogue between the postgraduate student and the current literature in a particular field ( 13 ). Postgraduate students will be interpreting studies by other researchers, and, according to Hart (1998) ( 3 ), the outcomes of the LR in a dissertation/thesis include the following:

  • To identify what research has been performed and what topics require further investigation in a particular field of knowledge;
  • To determine the context of the problem;
  • To recognize the main methodologies and techniques that have been used in the past;
  • To place the current research project within the historical, methodological and theoretical context of a particular field;
  • To identify significant aspects of the topic;
  • To elucidate the implications of the topic;
  • To offer an alternative perspective;
  • To discern how the studied subject is structured;
  • To improve the student’s subject vocabulary in a particular field; and
  • To characterize the links between theory and practice.

A sound LR translates the postgraduate student’s expertise in academic and scientific writing: it expresses his/her level of comfort with synthesizing ideas ( 11 ). The LR reveals how well the postgraduate student has proceeded in three domains: an effective literature search, the language domain, and critical writing.

Effective literature search

All students should be trained in gathering appropriate data for specific purposes, and information literacy skills are a cornerstone. These skills are defined as “an individual’s ability to know when they need information, to identify information that can help them address the issue or problem at hand, and to locate, evaluate, and use that information effectively” ( 14 ). Librarian support is of vital importance in coaching the appropriate use of Boolean logic (AND, OR, NOT) and other tools for highly efficient literature searches (e.g., quotation marks and truncation), as is the appropriate management of electronic databases.

Language domain

Academic writing must be concise and precise: unnecessary words distract the reader from the essential content ( 15 ). In this context, reading about issues distant from the research topic ( 16 ) may increase students’ general vocabulary and familiarity with grammar. Ultimately, reading diverse materials facilitates and encourages the writing process itself.

Critical writing

Critical judgment includes critical reading, thinking and writing. It supposes a student’s analytical reflection about what he/she has read. The student should delineate the basic elements of the topic, characterize the most relevant claims, identify relationships, and finally contrast those relationships ( 17 ). Each scientific document highlights the perspective of the author, and students will become more confident in judging the supporting evidence and underlying premises of a study and constructing their own counterargument as they read more articles. A paucity of integration or contradictory perspectives indicates lower levels of cognitive complexity ( 12 ).

Thus, while elaborating an LR, the postgraduate student should achieve the highest category of Bloom’s cognitive skills: evaluation ( 12 ). The writer should not only summarize data and understand each topic but also be able to make judgments based on objective criteria, compare resources and findings, identify discrepancies due to methodology, and construct his/her own argument ( 12 ). As a result, the student will be sufficiently confident to show his/her own voice .

Writing a consistent LR is an intense and complex activity that reveals the training and long-lasting academic skills of a writer. It is not a lonely or linear process. However, students are unlikely to be prepared to write an LR if they have not mastered the aforementioned domains ( 10 ). An institutional environment that supports student learning is crucial.

Different institutions employ distinct methods to promote students’ learning processes. First, many universities propose modules to develop behind the scenes activities that enhance self-reflection about general skills (e.g., the skills we have mastered and the skills we need to develop further), behaviors that should be incorporated (e.g., self-criticism about one’s own thoughts), and each student’s role in the advancement of his/her field. Lectures or workshops about LRs themselves are useful because they describe the purposes of the LR and how it fits into the whole picture of a student’s work. These activities may explain what type of discussion an LR must involve, the importance of defining the correct scope, the reasons to include a particular resource, and the main role of critical reading.

Some pedagogic services that promote a continuous improvement in study and academic skills are equally important. Examples include workshops about time management, the accomplishment of personal objectives, active learning, and foreign languages for nonnative speakers. Additionally, opportunities to converse with other students promotes an awareness of others’ experiences and difficulties. Ultimately, the supervisor’s role in providing feedback and setting deadlines is crucial in developing students’ abilities and in strengthening students’ writing quality ( 12 ).

HOW SHOULD A LITERATURE REVIEW BE DEVELOPED?

A consensus on the appropriate method for elaborating an LR is not available, but four main steps are generally accepted: defining the main topic, searching the literature, analyzing the results, and writing ( 6 ). We suggest a fifth step: reflecting on the information that has been written in previous publications ( Figure 2 ).

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First step: Defining the main topic

Planning an LR is directly linked to the research main question of the thesis and occurs in parallel to students’ training in the three domains discussed above. The planning stage helps organize ideas, delimit the scope of the LR ( 11 ), and avoid the wasting of time in the process. Planning includes the following steps:

  • Reflecting on the scope of the LR: postgraduate students will have assumptions about what material must be addressed and what information is not essential to an LR ( 13 , 18 ). Cooper’s Taxonomy of Literature Reviews 2 systematizes the writing process through six characteristics and nonmutually exclusive categories. The focus refers to the reviewer’s most important points of interest, while the goals concern what students want to achieve with the LR. The perspective assumes answers to the student’s own view of the LR and how he/she presents a particular issue. The coverage defines how comprehensive the student is in presenting the literature, and the organization determines the sequence of arguments. The audience is defined as the group for whom the LR is written.
  • Designating sections and subsections: Headings and subheadings should be specific, explanatory and have a coherent sequence throughout the text ( 4 ). They simulate an inverted pyramid, with an increasing level of reflection and depth of argument.
  • Identifying keywords: The relevant keywords for each LR section should be listed to guide the literature search. This list should mirror what Hart (1998) ( 3 ) advocates as subject vocabulary . The keywords will also be useful when the student is writing the LR since they guide the reader through the text.
  • Delineating the time interval and language of documents to be retrieved in the second step. The most recently published documents should be considered, but relevant texts published before a predefined cutoff year can be included if they are classic documents in that field. Extra care should be employed when translating documents.

Second step: Searching the literature

The ability to gather adequate information from the literature must be addressed in postgraduate programs. Librarian support is important, particularly for accessing difficult texts. This step comprises the following components:

  • Searching the literature itself: This process consists of defining which databases (electronic or dissertation/thesis repositories), official documents, and books will be searched and then actively conducting the search. Information literacy skills have a central role in this stage. While searching electronic databases, controlled vocabulary (e.g., Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH, for the PubMed database) or specific standardized syntax rules may need to be applied.

In addition, two other approaches are suggested. First, a review of the reference list of each document might be useful for identifying relevant publications to be included and important opinions to be assessed. This step is also relevant for referencing the original studies and leading authors in that field. Moreover, students can directly contact the experts on a particular topic to consult with them regarding their experience or use them as a source of additional unpublished documents.

Before submitting a dissertation/thesis, the electronic search strategy should be repeated. This process will ensure that the most recently published papers will be considered in the LR.

  • Selecting documents for inclusion: Generally, the most recent literature will be included in the form of published peer-reviewed papers. Assess books and unpublished material, such as conference abstracts, academic texts and government reports, are also important to assess since the gray literature also offers valuable information. However, since these materials are not peer-reviewed, we recommend that they are carefully added to the LR.

This task is an important exercise in time management. First, students should read the title and abstract to understand whether that document suits their purposes, addresses the research question, and helps develop the topic of interest. Then, they should scan the full text, determine how it is structured, group it with similar documents, and verify whether other arguments might be considered ( 5 ).

Third step: Analyzing the results

Critical reading and thinking skills are important in this step. This step consists of the following components:

  • Reading documents: The student may read various texts in depth according to LR sections and subsections ( defining the main topic ), which is not a passive activity ( 1 ). Some questions should be asked to practice critical analysis skills, as listed below. Is the research question evident and articulated with previous knowledge? What are the authors’ research goals and theoretical orientations, and how do they interact? Are the authors’ claims related to other scholars’ research? Do the authors consider different perspectives? Was the research project designed and conducted properly? Are the results and discussion plausible, and are they consistent with the research objectives and methodology? What are the strengths and limitations of this work? How do the authors support their findings? How does this work contribute to the current research topic? ( 1 , 19 )
  • Taking notes: Students who systematically take notes on each document are more readily able to establish similarities or differences with other documents and to highlight personal observations. This approach reinforces the student’s ideas about the next step and helps develop his/her own academic voice ( 1 , 13 ). Voice recognition software ( 16 ), mind maps ( 5 ), flowcharts, tables, spreadsheets, personal comments on the referenced texts, and note-taking apps are all available tools for managing these observations, and the student him/herself should use the tool that best improves his/her learning. Additionally, when a student is considering submitting an LR to a peer-reviewed journal, notes should be taken on the activities performed in all five steps to ensure that they are able to be replicated.

Fourth step: Writing

The recognition of when a student is able and ready to write after a sufficient period of reading and thinking is likely a difficult task. Some students can produce a review in a single long work session. However, as discussed above, writing is not a linear process, and students do not need to write LRs according to a specific sequence of sections. Writing an LR is a time-consuming task, and some scholars believe that a period of at least six months is sufficient ( 6 ). An LR, and academic writing in general, expresses the writer’s proper thoughts, conclusions about others’ work ( 6 , 10 , 13 , 16 ), and decisions about methods to progress in the chosen field of knowledge. Thus, each student is expected to present a different learning and writing trajectory.

In this step, writing methods should be considered; then, editing, citing and correct referencing should complete this stage, at least temporarily. Freewriting techniques may be a good starting point for brainstorming ideas and improving the understanding of the information that has been read ( 1 ). Students should consider the following parameters when creating an agenda for writing the LR: two-hour writing blocks (at minimum), with prespecified tasks that are possible to complete in one section; short (minutes) and long breaks (days or weeks) to allow sufficient time for mental rest and reflection; and short- and long-term goals to motivate the writing itself ( 20 ). With increasing experience, this scheme can vary widely, and it is not a straightforward rule. Importantly, each discipline has a different way of writing ( 1 ), and each department has its own preferred styles for citations and references.

Fifth step: Reflecting on the writing

In this step, the postgraduate student should ask him/herself the same questions as in the analyzing the results step, which can take more time than anticipated. Ambiguities, repeated ideas, and a lack of coherence may not be noted when the student is immersed in the writing task for long periods. The whole effort will likely be a work in progress, and continuous refinements in the written material will occur once the writing process has begun.

LITERATURE REVIEW CHECKLIST

In contrast to review papers, the LR of a dissertation/thesis should not be a standalone piece or work. Instead, it should present the student as a scholar and should maintain the interest of the audience in how that dissertation/thesis will provide solutions for the current gaps in a particular field.

A checklist for evaluating an LR is convenient for students’ continuous academic development and research transparency: it clearly states the desired achievements for the LR of a dissertation/thesis. Here, we present an LR checklist developed from an LR scoring rubric ( 11 ). For a critical analysis of an LR, we maintain the five categories but offer twelve criteria that are not scaled ( Figure 3 ). The criteria all have the same importance and are not mutually exclusive.

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First category: Coverage

1. justified criteria exist for the inclusion and exclusion of literature in the review.

This criterion builds on the main topic and areas covered by the LR ( 18 ). While experts may be confident in retrieving and selecting literature, postgraduate students must convince their audience about the adequacy of their search strategy and their reasons for intentionally selecting what material to cover ( 11 ). References from different fields of knowledge provide distinct perspective, but narrowing the scope of coverage may be important in areas with a large body of existing knowledge.

Second category: Synthesis

2. a critical examination of the state of the field exists.

A critical examination is an assessment of distinct aspects in the field ( 1 ) along with a constructive argument. It is not a negative critique but an expression of the student’s understanding of how other scholars have added to the topic ( 1 ), and the student should analyze and contextualize contradictory statements. A writer’s personal bias (beliefs or political involvement) have been shown to influence the structure and writing of a document; therefore, the cultural and paradigmatic background guide how the theories are revised and presented ( 13 ). However, an honest judgment is important when considering different perspectives.

3. The topic or problem is clearly placed in the context of the broader scholarly literature

The broader scholarly literature should be related to the chosen main topic for the LR ( how to develop the literature review section). The LR can cover the literature from one or more disciplines, depending on its scope, but it should always offer a new perspective. In addition, students should be careful in citing and referencing previous publications. As a rule, original studies and primary references should generally be included. Systematic and narrative reviews present summarized data, and it may be important to cite them, particularly for issues that should be understood but do not require a detailed description. Similarly, quotations highlight the exact statement from another publication. However, excessive referencing may disclose lower levels of analysis and synthesis by the student.

4. The LR is critically placed in the historical context of the field

Situating the LR in its historical context shows the level of comfort of the student in addressing a particular topic. Instead of only presenting statements and theories in a temporal approach, which occasionally follows a linear timeline, the LR should authentically characterize the student’s academic work in the state-of-art techniques in their particular field of knowledge. Thus, the LR should reinforce why the dissertation/thesis represents original work in the chosen research field.

5. Ambiguities in definitions are considered and resolved

Distinct theories on the same topic may exist in different disciplines, and one discipline may consider multiple concepts to explain one topic. These misunderstandings should be addressed and contemplated. The LR should not synthesize all theories or concepts at the same time. Although this approach might demonstrate in-depth reading on a particular topic, it can reveal a student’s inability to comprehend and synthesize his/her research problem.

6. Important variables and phenomena relevant to the topic are articulated

The LR is a unique opportunity to articulate ideas and arguments and to purpose new relationships between them ( 10 , 11 ). More importantly, a sound LR will outline to the audience how these important variables and phenomena will be addressed in the current academic work. Indeed, the LR should build a bidirectional link with the remaining sections and ground the connections between all of the sections ( Figure 1 ).

7. A synthesized new perspective on the literature has been established

The LR is a ‘creative inquiry’ ( 13 ) in which the student elaborates his/her own discourse, builds on previous knowledge in the field, and describes his/her own perspective while interpreting others’ work ( 13 , 17 ). Thus, students should articulate the current knowledge, not accept the results at face value ( 11 , 13 , 17 ), and improve their own cognitive abilities ( 12 ).

Third category: Methodology

8. the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used in the field are identified and their advantages and disadvantages are discussed.

The LR is expected to distinguish the research that has been completed from investigations that remain to be performed, address the benefits and limitations of the main methods applied to date, and consider the strategies for addressing the expected limitations described above. While placing his/her research within the methodological context of a particular topic, the LR will justify the methodology of the study and substantiate the student’s interpretations.

9. Ideas and theories in the field are related to research methodologies

The audience expects the writer to analyze and synthesize methodological approaches in the field. The findings should be explained according to the strengths and limitations of previous research methods, and students must avoid interpretations that are not supported by the analyzed literature. This criterion translates to the student’s comprehension of the applicability and types of answers provided by different research methodologies, even those using a quantitative or qualitative research approach.

Fourth category: Significance

10. the scholarly significance of the research problem is rationalized.

The LR is an introductory section of a dissertation/thesis and will present the postgraduate student as a scholar in a particular field ( 11 ). Therefore, the LR should discuss how the research problem is currently addressed in the discipline being investigated or in different disciplines, depending on the scope of the LR. The LR explains the academic paradigms in the topic of interest ( 13 ) and methods to advance the field from these starting points. However, an excess number of personal citations—whether referencing the student’s research or studies by his/her research team—may reflect a narrow literature search and a lack of comprehensive synthesis of ideas and arguments.

11. The practical significance of the research problem is rationalized

The practical significance indicates a student’s comprehensive understanding of research terminology (e.g., risk versus associated factor), methodology (e.g., efficacy versus effectiveness) and plausible interpretations in the context of the field. Notably, the academic argument about a topic may not always reflect the debate in real life terms. For example, using a quantitative approach in epidemiology, statistically significant differences between groups do not explain all of the factors involved in a particular problem ( 21 ). Therefore, excessive faith in p -values may reflect lower levels of critical evaluation of the context and implications of a research problem by the student.

Fifth category: Rhetoric

12. the lr was written with a coherent, clear structure that supported the review.

This category strictly relates to the language domain: the text should be coherent and presented in a logical sequence, regardless of which organizational ( 18 ) approach is chosen. The beginning of each section/subsection should state what themes will be addressed, paragraphs should be carefully linked to each other ( 10 ), and the first sentence of each paragraph should generally summarize the content. Additionally, the student’s statements are clear, sound, and linked to other scholars’ works, and precise and concise language that follows standardized writing conventions (e.g., in terms of active/passive voice and verb tenses) is used. Attention to grammar, such as orthography and punctuation, indicates prudence and supports a robust dissertation/thesis. Ultimately, all of these strategies provide fluency and consistency for the text.

Although the scoring rubric was initially proposed for postgraduate programs in education research, we are convinced that this checklist is a valuable tool for all academic areas. It enables the monitoring of students’ learning curves and a concentrated effort on any criteria that are not yet achieved. For institutions, the checklist is a guide to support supervisors’ feedback, improve students’ writing skills, and highlight the learning goals of each program. These criteria do not form a linear sequence, but ideally, all twelve achievements should be perceived in the LR.

CONCLUSIONS

A single correct method to classify, evaluate and guide the elaboration of an LR has not been established. In this essay, we have suggested directions for planning, structuring and critically evaluating an LR. The planning of the scope of an LR and approaches to complete it is a valuable effort, and the five steps represent a rational starting point. An institutional environment devoted to active learning will support students in continuously reflecting on LRs, which will form a dialogue between the writer and the current literature in a particular field ( 13 ).

The completion of an LR is a challenging and necessary process for understanding one’s own field of expertise. Knowledge is always transitory, but our responsibility as scholars is to provide a critical contribution to our field, allowing others to think through our work. Good researchers are grounded in sophisticated LRs, which reveal a writer’s training and long-lasting academic skills. We recommend using the LR checklist as a tool for strengthening the skills necessary for critical academic writing.

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

Leite DFB has initially conceived the idea and has written the first draft of this review. Padilha MAS and Cecatti JG have supervised data interpretation and critically reviewed the manuscript. All authors have read the draft and agreed with this submission. Authors are responsible for all aspects of this academic piece.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We are grateful to all of the professors of the ‘Getting Started with Graduate Research and Generic Skills’ module at University College Cork, Cork, Ireland, for suggesting and supporting this article. Funding: DFBL has granted scholarship from Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) to take part of her Ph.D. studies in Ireland (process number 88881.134512/2016-01). There is no participation from sponsors on authors’ decision to write or to submit this manuscript.

No potential conflict of interest was reported.

1 The questions posed in systematic reviews usually follow the ‘PICOS’ acronym: Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes, Study design.

2 In 1988, Cooper proposed a taxonomy that aims to facilitate students’ and institutions’ understanding of literature reviews. Six characteristics with specific categories are briefly described: Focus: research outcomes, research methodologies, theories, or practices and applications; Goals: integration (generalization, conflict resolution, and linguistic bridge-building), criticism, or identification of central issues; Perspective: neutral representation or espousal of a position; Coverage: exhaustive, exhaustive with selective citations, representative, central or pivotal; Organization: historical, conceptual, or methodological; and Audience: specialized scholars, general scholars, practitioners or policymakers, or the general public.

COMMENTS

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