How to Write a Literature Review
What is a literature review?
Written in essay style, a literature review (Lit Review) describes, classifies, and evaluates the sources of information published on a given topic. A Lit Review is not just a list of books/articles. It’s a review of a collection of research published by accredited scholars and researchers that is relevant to a research question. “Non-scholarly” sources, i.e., those you don’t want to reference, include but are not limited to magazines, newspapers, web sites, and non-published material. The Lit Review does not have to be exhaustive; the objective is not to list as many relevant books, articles, and reports as possible. The idea of the Lit Review is not to provide a summary of all the published work that relates to your research, but a survey (summary and evaluation) of the most relevant and significant work.
A Lit Review is a critical look at the existing research that is significant to the work you are carrying out. It’s not just a summary. While you do need to summarize your relevant research, you must also:
• evaluate this work,
• show the relationships between different works, and
• demonstrate how it relates to your work.
A Lit Review is about the existing literature on your subject and provides background for your own research findings or commentary. How much sense does your research make if you don’t provide background to the reader about past research conducted by others?
What is the value of a literature review?
A Lit Review provides your reader with a survey of the professional publications available on your topic. It demonstrates that you have not only thoroughly researched your topic but also carefully examined and critically evaluated the range of relevant sources. In writing the Lit 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.
A Lit Review:
• places the paper within the context of known research on the subject; focuses one’s own research topic.
• provides thorough knowledge of previous studies; introduces seminal works.
• indicates timely nature of one’s research, if applicable.
• suggests previously unused or underused methodologies, designs, quantitative, and qualitative strategies.
• identifies gaps in previous studies; identifies flawed methodologies and/or theoretical approaches; avoids replication of mistakes.
• identifies possible trends or patterns in the literature.
• helps the researcher avoid repetition of earlier research.
• determines whether past studies agree or disagree; identifies controversy in the literature.
• tests assumptions; may help counter preconceived ideas and remove unconscious bias.
What is the “literature” in a literature review?
The “literature” is the collection of books and journal articles, government documents, and other scholarly works you found to be relevant to your research topic.
• Journal articles: An excellent source for a Lit Review. These are good especially for up-to-date information. They are frequently used in Lit Reviews because they offer a relatively concise, up-to-date format for research, and because all reputable journals are refereed or peer-reviewed, i.e., editors publish only the most relevant and reliable research that has been reviewed by other experts in the field.
• Books: Generally, a good source for a Lit Review. Books tend to be less up-to-date as it takes longer for a book to be published than for a journal article. Textbooks are unlikely to be useful for including in your Lit Review as they are intended for teaching, not for research, but they do offer a good starting point from which to find better, more detailed sources.
• Conference proceedings: A good source for a Lit Review. These can be useful in providing the latest research or research that has not been published. They are also helpful in providing information on which people are currently involved in which research areas, and so can be helpful in tracking down other work by the same researchers.
• Government/corporate reports: A good source for a Lit Review. Many government departments and corporations commission or carry out research. Their published findings can provide a useful source of information, depending on your field of study.
• Newspapers: Not a good source for a Lit Review. Since newspapers are generally intended for a general (not specialized) audience, the information they provide will be of no use for your Lit Review. Journalists are generally not scholars, i.e., experts on the topic on which they are writing, and thus newspaper articles are not scholarly sources.
• Theses and dissertations: Can be a good source for a Lit Review. These can be useful sources of information. However there are disadvantages: 1) they can be difficult to obtain since they are not always published but are generally only available from the library shelf or through interlibrary loan; 2) the student who carried out the research may not be an experienced researcher and therefore you might have to treat their findings with more caution than published research. Note: Some dissertations are available from the DuBois Library databases.
• Web sites: Never a good source for a Lit Review. The fastest-growing source of information is on the Internet. It is impossible to characterize the information available but here are some hints about using electronic sources: 1) bear in mind that anyone can post information on the Internet so the quality may not be reliable, and 2) the information you find may be intended for a general audience and so may not be suitable for inclusion in your Lit Review (information for a general audience is usually less detailed and less scholarly). Note: This section does not refer to scholarly articles located on the DuBois Library databases. Databases are not web sites.
• Magazines: Not a good source for a Lit Review. Magazines intended for a general audience, e.g., Time, Us, National Enquirer, will not be useful in providing the sort of information you need. Specialized magazines may be more useful (for example business magazines for management students), but usually magazines are not useful for your research except as a starting point by providing news or general information about new discoveries, policies, etc. that you can further research in more specialized sources.
How is a literature review different from an annotated bibliography?
A Lit Review is written in the style of an expository essay; it has an introduction, body, and conclusion, and it is organized around a controlling idea or thesis. Compare this to an annotated Works Cited list, which is simply an alphabetized list of sources accompanied by summaries and evaluations (annotations). While a single source appears just once in an annotated Works Cited list, it may be referred to numerous times in a Lit Review, depending upon its importance in the field or relationship to other sources. Finally, a Lit Review includes its own in-text citations and Works Cited list.
How is a literature review different from a traditional research paper?
A Lit Review may stand alone as a self-contained unit or be part of a research paper (such as a chapter in an honors thesis). Whereas the main body of a research paper focuses on the subject of your research, the Lit Review focuses on your sources. Put another way, in the research paper you use expert sources to support the discussion of your thesis; in a Lit Review, you discuss the sources themselves.
What are the characteristics of a literature review?
Among the characteristics you should expect to see in any Lit Review are these:
• A Lit Review MUST have a Works Cited list that includes all references cited in the Lit Review. Do not list sources in the Works Cited list that are not directly cited in the Lit Review.
• A Lit Review is organized by subtopic, NOT by individual source. In a typical Lit Review, you may cite several references in the same paragraph and may cite the same reference in more than one paragraph if that source addresses more than one of the subtopics in the Lit Review.
• Typically, discussion of each source is quite brief. The contribution you make is organizing the ideas from the sources into a cogent argument or narrative that includes your perspectives.
• You should focus on citing the material that originates with each reference. This may require a careful reading of the reference. If the reference author refers to another source whose ideas are relevant or interesting, you are better off tracking down and using that reference. Citing a source that you haven’t read directly is called “grandfathering,” and it is not permitted. Never cite a source you haven’t read.
How is a literature review structured?
The Lit Review is not just a descriptive list of the material available or a set of summaries. Demonstrate that you gained a thorough knowledge of the subject area being studied. A Lit Review should NOT be organized as a narrative of your own research process. A Lit Review that says essentially “First I found this source, then I found this one ….” is NOT acceptable. Therefore, like any expository essay, a Lit Review should have an introduction, body, and conclusion:
The introduction should contain your research question (thesis statement), an explanation of its significance, and any other background information setting the context of your research.
The body paragraphs contain your summative, comparative, and evaluative comments on the sources you’ve found. These comments may pertain to:
• historical background & early research findings
• recent developments
• areas of controversy among experts
• areas of agreement
• dominant views or leading authorities
• varying approaches to or perspectives on the subject
• qualitative comparisons and evaluations
The conclusion summarizes major issues in the literature; it also establishes where your own research fits in and what directions you see for future research.
How is a literature review organized?
While covering the range of matters listed above, a Lit Review—like any expository essay—should still have a single organizing principle expressed in a thesis statement. Examples of some common ones are these:
• Chronological — Use this organization if developments over time are important to explain the context of your research problem. Otherwise, using a chronological system is not the best way to organize your work.
• Thematic — Depending on your topic, you could organize your Lit Review by time, geographic location, gender, nationality, or another appropriate theme.
• Methodological — What approaches have researchers taken in studying the issue you’re researching? Is your topic suited best for library research or field research?
• Qualitative — Is there a great deal of difference in the quality of research conducted on your topic?
What are some strategies for writing a good literature review?
The process of writing a Lit Review typically involves a number of steps. These should include the following:
• Deciding on a relatively focused topic or question.
• Searching for relevant and relatively current literature (books, journal articles, etc. – the mix of these depends on your topic or thesis statement). It is important to locate and comment on the most important works in your chosen field. Failure to include such works might be considered a major failing of your review. The more you research and read, the more you become aware of names that are mentioned repeatedly as influential and even seminal authorities.
• Reading the materials you have found and noting how they approach your topic or question: It isn’t necessary to read every word of a book to learn what an author says about a particular subject. Peruse the index. Skim through the book or article. A quick read through the introduction or the conclusion gives a gist of the book’s or article’s thesis, general points, or argument. Begin with the most recent studies and work backwards. A recent article’s list of references or bibliography might provide you with valuable works to consult.
• Preparing a working outline for your Lit Review and grouping notes from your references in the appropriate section of your outline: Use note cards with citations and annotations, photocopied articles with points highlighted and notes in the margins, or whatever methods helps you keep your information organized.
• Take good notes: Don’t trust your memory. Record all research. Write out the complete bibliographic citation for each work. Record the page number too, because you’ll need it for your in-text citations. (Unless you are citing an entire book or journal article, the in-text citation must include a page number or it’s considered incomplete/inaccurate.) Write direct quotations word for word. Use quotation marks, so it can be recognized as a direct quote. Avoid using too many direct quotations. Take down the substance of the author’s ideas in your own words (paraphrase). IMPORTANT: Most of the review should be primarily in your own words with appropriate documentation of other’s ideas. Don’t take too many notes from a single source or two. Use a wide range of sources.
• Evaluating the information: After reading a lot of material, researchers must carefully evaluate it and decide what should be included in the literature review. Obviously researchers must be objective. Keep an open mind and look at a topic from different vantage points. Determine the objectivity of the material. Who funded the research studies? Who actually performed the research? For a contentious topic, present as equally as possible opposing positions. Be objective. Don’t overemphasize one side.
• Writing and revising the narrative: Keep your audience in mind as your write. Keep your paragraphs short and use subheadings to clarify the structure. Subheadings break the material into readable units. A Lit Review must be organized around and directly related to the thesis or research question you are developing. It must identify areas of controversy in the literature and formulate questions that need further research.
Some traps to avoid:
• Trying to read everything! As you might already have discovered, if you try to be comprehensive you will never be able to finish the reading! The Lit Review does not have to be exhaustive; the objective is not to list as many books, articles, and reports as possible. The idea of the Lit Review is not to provide a summary of all the published work that relates to your research, but a survey of the most relevant and significant work. The Lit Review should contain the most pertinent related studies and show an awareness of important past research and practices and promising current research and practices in the field.
• Reading but not writing! It’s easier to read than to write: given the choice, most of us would rather sit down with a cup of coffee and read yet another article instead of putting ourselves in front of the computer to write about what we have already read! Writing takes much more effort, doesn’t it? However, writing can help you to understand and find relationships between the works you’ve read, so don’t put writing off until you’ve “finished” reading – after all, you will probably still be doing some reading all the way through to the end of your research project. Also, don’t think of what you first write as being the final or near-final version. Writing is a way of thinking, so allow yourself to write as many drafts as you need, changing your ideas and information as you learn more about the context of your research problem.
• Not keeping bibliographic information! The moment will come when you have to write your Works Cited list . . . and then you realize you have forgotten to keep the information you need, and that you never got around to putting references into your work. The only solution is to spend a lot of time in the library tracking down all those sources that you read and going through your writing to find which information came from which source. To avoid this nightmare, always keep this information in your notes. Always put references into your writing.