What is a literature review?
A literature review is a critical analysis of published sources, or literature, on a particular topic. It is an assessment of the literature and provides a summary, classification, comparison and evaluation. At postgraduate level literature reviews can be incorporated into an article, a research report or thesis. At undergraduate level literature reviews can be a separate stand alone assessment.
The literature review is generally in the format of a standard essay made up of three components: an introduction, a body and a conclusion. It is not a list like an annotated bibliography in which a summary of each source is listed one by one.
Why do we write literature reviews?
At university you may be asked to write a literature review in order to demonstrate your understanding of the literature on a particular topic. You show your understanding by analysing and then synthesising the information to:
- Determine what has already been written on a topic
- Provide an overview of key concepts
- Identify major relationships or patterns
- Identify strengths and weaknesses
- Identify any gaps in the research
- Identify any conflicting evidence
- Provide a solid background to a research paper’s investigation
How to write a literature review
Determine your purpose
Work out what you need to address in the literature review. What are you being asked to do in your literature review? What are you searching the literature to discover? Check your assignment question and your criteria sheet to know what to focus on.
Do an extensive search of the literature
Find out what has been written on the topic.
What kind of literature?
Select appropriate source material: Use a variety of academic or scholarly sources that are relevant, current and authoritative. An extensive review of relevant material will include — books, journal articles, reports, government documents, conference proceedings and web resources. The Library would be the best place to search for your sources.
How many resources?
The number of sources that you will be required to review will depend on what the literature review is for and how advanced you are in your studies. It could be from five sources at first year undergraduate level to more than fifty for a thesis. Your lecturer will advise you on these details.
Note the bibliographical details of your sources
Keep a note of the publication title, date, authors’ names, page numbers and publishers. These details will save you time later.
Read the literature
- Critically read each source, look for the arguments presented rather than for facts.
- Take notes as you read and start to organise your review around themes and ideas.
- Consider using a table, matrix or concept map to identify how the different sources relate to each other.
Analyse the literature you have found
In order for your writing to reflect strong critical analysis, you need to evaluate the sources. For each source you are reviewing ask yourself these questions:
- What are the key terms and concepts?
- How relevant is this article to my specific topic?
- What are the major relationships, trends and patterns?
- How has the author structured the arguments?
- How authoritative and credible is this source?
- What are the differences and similarities between the sources?
- Are there any gaps in the literature that require further study?
Write the review
- Start by writing your thesis statement. This is an important introductory sentence that will tell your reader what the topic is and the overall perspective or argument you will be presenting.
- Like essays, a literature review must have an introduction, a body and a conclusion.
Structure of a literature review
Your introduction should give an outline of
- why you are writing a review, and why the topic is important
- the scope of the review — what aspects of the topic will be discussed
- the criteria used for your literature selection (e.g.. type of sources used, date range)
- the organisational pattern of the review.
Each body paragraph should deal with a different theme that is relevant to your topic. You will need to synthesise several of your reviewed readings into each paragraph, so that there is a clear connection between the various sources. You will need to critically analyse each source for how they contribute to the themes you are researching.
The body could include paragraphs on:
- historical background
- previous studies on the topic
- mainstream versus alternative viewpoints
- principal questions being asked
- general conclusions that are being drawn.
Your conclusion should give a summary of:
- the main agreements and disagreements in the literature
- any gaps or areas for further research
- your overall perspective on the topic.
Checklist for a literature review
- outlined the purpose and scope?
- identified appropriate and credible (academic/scholarly) literature?
- recorded the bibliographical details of the sources?
- analysed and critiqued your readings?
- identified gaps in the literature and research?
- explored methodologies / theories / hypotheses / models?
- discussed the varying viewpoints?
- written an introduction, body and conclusion?
- checked punctuation and spelling?
Literature review structure
The main attribute of a good literature review is that it is well structured.
A good place to start is to look at other theses, but make sure that you are looking at a good example of a thesis (your supervisor may recommend a few for you to look at). When examining these pieces of work, try to identify the structure and see how they have linked their ideas together.
Before you emulate what you have read, be aware that plagiarism extends to copying the structure of others' work, so please acknowledge any influences appropriately. In addition, to assist you in organising your review, see your supervisor or department to identify the format of your thesis, as this can impact the organisation of the literature review (Mauch & Birch, 1998).
The information in the literature review is synthesised, or brought together to form a cohesive whole. Those who read the review should clearly understand the reasons for selecting your research area or question, its relationship to past work, and the central procedures that have been employed by past investigations. In addition, they should know the weaknesses of past studies and how your research contributes to this field in the advancement of knowledge.
Beginning your review
Create a mind map of the concepts that you will discuss in your review, including key words and synonyms.
As you review books and journals, write down the topic words that you have selected. It is suggested that you create a mind map of the all of the terms that apply to your topic before conducting a literature search. This mind map can then be used to guide your literature search as well as making sure that you discuss pertinent concepts in the review itself. See an example mind map.
This mind map and its sections can also be the subsections that you use for storing the results of your research e.g. in Endnote.
Literature review structure
The following is a guide to structuring your literature review based on Newman, Benz, Weis, and McNeil (1997). It is recommended that the literature review forms one separate chapter of your thesis. This is most common when the research problem is defined early on and remains relatively unchanged. However, if the direction of the study changes due to new research findings, then new literature may need to be included in subsequent sections or chapters. Each sub-section of the suggested review structure will be expanded upon separately.
This section is most likely the longest section of the thesis. It includes:
- An introduction
- A review of the past and present literature in relation to your research purpose
- Clarification of the purpose of study
- General hypotheses to be tested.
The review begins with an introduction that discusses the topic, key concepts and terms, and describes the scope and organisation of the review. You can use the two-topic format or the funnel format (see Alternative methods below). Both formats include the identification of key topics that will be covered in the review. In addition, these formats guide the way the review is structured, which makes the writing of the task easier because you can focus on writing one section at a time and keep on track with your review topics.
This section outlines relevant theories that impact your study.
You may find it difficult to find information for this section, especially in new fields of research. Still, even in ground-breaking research, there should be some theoretical foundation upon which your work rests. There may not be a strong link in this case, but it does help if there is some basis for your work, albeit indirect. Whatever topics you include in your review, they must bear some relationship to your focus. Though you may not find literature that specifically relates to your topic you should integrate key points from related studies that to allow you to make inferences and indicate what you expect to happen in your study.
This section is a review of the literature on the instruments or measures you will use as part of your study.
You need to present evidence that supports your choice of instrument over those not chosen. This section should be focused on relevant literature specific to the study. One suggestion is to examine the most current instruments first and work back from there. You need to include reliability and validity estimates and a description of the samples that have received the instrument. When dealing with many variables, it is useful to write a separate section on each variable in the review (Cone & Foster, 1993; Newman et al., 1997).
The summary is a precis of what has been written about in the chapter. It should not be verbose, or a repetition of the entire contents of that chapter, but rather a succinct account of the current state of knowledge on your topic and the instruments used in the study. In addition, there should be a sense that you have explained the background to your study that endorses the decision you have made to study your topic.
Sequence of the review structure
Your review will not only synthesise the literature, but it must present the literature in a logical sequence or order. Your aim is to indicate to the reader an understanding of the problem under investigation. However you organise it, your review should highlight important aspects of the literature; especially areas that you wish to address or improve on. You can organise your review by:
- moving from general concepts to the more specific concepts
- type of research
- or any method that makes sense (Cone & Foster, 1993; Newman et al., 1997)
- Cover studies that examine related independent variables. e.g. “What strategies enhance organisational effectiveness?” You can organise the review according to the strategy type.
- Cover studies that examine related dependent variables. e.g. “Characteristics of adult children of alcoholics”. You could organise the review according to personality studies, drinking patterns, relationship skills, and so on.
- Organise by type of design. The order usually moves from weaker to stronger designs, for example correlational before experimental designs.
- Organise by chronology. Particular theories may develop according to strict chronological changes perhaps due to technology, expansion of theories, or social changes, etc.
- Organise by theoretical premises. This is useful if you are dealing with competing explanations or when different theories contribute to your research question.
- Organise by findings. You may wish to use findings to develop a rationale for your studies. This can be the most difficult way to organise your review.
There is no single best way to organise your chapter, so do not waste precious time looking for it; just write it.
There are other way to organise your review if you find the above suggestions unhelpful. If your thesis is a two-topic thesis, you can use these two variables as your guide for the organisation of the literature review. If your thesis examines many variables, then the funnel-format is the other way to organise your review.
The two-topic format thesis is a thesis that examines the relationship between two variables. This thesis tends to be easier to organise simply because of the lack of variables you need to discuss. This does not mean the review is less extensive or necessarily easier. Examples of two-topic formats are: Does depression relate to quality of life? Does anxiety relate to learning? And so on. The organisation of your review will look something like this: Firstly, an introductory paragraph, a literature review on topic one, a literature review on topic two, a review of the literature linking topics one and two, and finally, a statement of the purpose of the proposed study. In some cases, this may be included in the summary.
Alternatively, the funnel format, which is commonly used in essay writing, may be used to structure your literature review. In this approach you begin by discussing the topic in the most general of terms, and then gradually narrow the focus of the discussion to become closer and closer to the topic or purpose of the present study.
References and further reading
Cone, J. D., & Foster, S. L. (2006).Dissertations and theses from start to finish: Psychology and related fields (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. [Massey Library link]
Mauch, J. E., & Park, N. (2003). Guide to the successful thesis and dissertation: A handbook for students and faculty (5th ed.). New York, NY: Marcel Dekker. [Massey Library link]
Newman, I., Benz, C. R., Weis, D., & McNeil, K. (1997). Theses and dissertations: A guide to writing in the social and physical sciences. Maryland, MA: University Press of America. [Massey Library link]
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Last updated on 5 February, 2018