How to Write a Literature Review

Outline

  • Preparing for a Literature Review
  • What is a Literature Review?
  • Literature Review Purpose
  • How to Develop a Literature Review for Theses and Dissertations
  • Literature Review Length
  • Introduction to the Literature Review
  • Body of the Literature Review
  • Conclusion of the Literature Review

Preparing for a Literature Review

Clearly define the topic of your research, this is the basis of picking what articles you'll be reading, analyzing and summarizing, and subsequently including in your research topic. Narrowing down the topic allows you to have a more specific base of literature to read, analyze, and review.

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a portion of a research paper that compiles, describes, and analyzes different sources of information relevant to a given research topic, and then draws connections between each source to one another and the research of the author writing the review. Rather than simply describing each of the sources, critical reviews of the sources should be made.

Literature Review Purpose

A literature review is important for a variety of reasons, beyond just providing a background for your research topic. The purpose of the literature review is to:

  • Discuss current questions and debates that exist in the research topic
  • Provide a summary of the relevant aspects of the sources reviewed
  • Show how your research paper is placed chronologically in the research topic
  • Provide an overall understanding and introduction to the topic, building credibility
  • Prevent the author from researching a topic or area that has already been done

How to Develop a Literature Review for Theses and Dissertations

The first step in developing the literature review for theses and dissertations is to collect information and sources that are related to the topic area you are researching.

1. Keyword search

There are a variety of different places to find relevant further research for your topic. University or public library catalogs are a good place to search, as well as online databases such as Google Scholar. When searching for relevant sources, try to use keywords that are related to your topic. When you find a few really good sources, look at their literature reviews and bibliographies to find other literature in the field.

2. Snowballing

Read as many sources in your field as possible to fully understand what work has been done in the past and where the current status of the topic lies. This could be journal articles, publications, books, and interviews, to name just a few.

Take notes as you are reading the different sources. I personally like to download my sources in my theses as pdfs and then highlight relevant information and annotate in the margins, using Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Annotations in Adobe Acrobat Reader
Annotations in Adobe Acrobat Reader

Once you have read and annotated bibliography of the relevant sources, then analyze the collected works and categorize them from most and least relevant to the subject you are discussing. One effective method for doing this is by utilizing a reading grid.

A reading grid can be broken down by source information individually for each source included in the theses or dissertation literature review, such as the research question, methodology, findings, limitations, and areas for future research. This allows you to easily see the most relevant information within each piece of literature. An example of this can be seen below, provided by OpenAcademics and adapted from Auckland University of Technology.

Reading grid by OpenAcademics adapted from Auckland University of Technology.

View this example in greater detail here

3. Citations 

Citing a source means giving the credit for the source used in your research paper. This includes the information that you get from books or scholarly articles, and even pictures, charts or graphs. It is essential to give credit where it is due, so that you do not plagiarize another person's work.

You will need to include citations when you are using specific information from a single source, or when you are paraphrasing an idea from a single source. Citations can help avoid any confusion that would arise if someone else reads your work, and they can help direct readers to further resources on your topic.

When writing a literature review it is essential to keep track of all of the sources that you use. You should compile all of the sources into one document so that you can refer back to them easily and know what information came from which source. This will make it easier for you when you are ready to write your paper and insert citations.

There is a citation style that is specific to each discipline, and you should always follow the standards for your field. Check with your instructor or supervisor if you have any questions about the citation style you should use.

How to format citations

To make sure your paper is as perfect as it can be, let's take a look at how to format citations. If you're using Microsoft Word to write your literature review, you can use the "References" tab to organize your citations. If you want more control over the formatting, or if you're using another type of word processing program, you can do it manually.

Starting with a few basics

Double space everything, including block quotes and bibliography entries. If you're using a citation tool like Zotero or EndNote, make sure the formatting preferences are set for double spacing.For citations, you can use a standard font (like Times New Roman or Arial) in size 12. Using 1-inch margins all around for citations is common practice. To make sure your citations look good, indenting each new citation by half an inch is a good practice. (if you press Tab at the beginning of a paragraph, that should work).

Literature Review Length

The number of concepts explored and the number of sources incorporated into the literature review will determine its length. The number of sources included depend on how narrow or broad the topic is, the level of agreement among researchers in the topic, and the desired depth of analysis.

If the topic of your research is incredibly specific, there may only be a limited number of sources to choose from for your review, whereas if it is a really broad topic, you may need to include a variety of sources to paint a full picture of the topic background. Additionally, if there is a lot of disagreement within the research topic, you may need to include more sources to show the varying opinion that exists.

Introduction to the Literature Review

This section should describe how your research topic is placed in the context of the existing literature in the field, and provide a reasoning for reviewing the literature that has been selected. Additionally the methodology for finding these sources should be discussed, and the order of the selected literature should be explained — whether it is running chronologically, based on theme of sources, or some other methodological manner.

Body of the Literature Review

The best approach for the body of the literature review is to break it down into sections or paragraphs for each of the sources reviewed. Within each literature source discussion, there should be the following components:

  1. Description of the context of the literature and a summary of the most important concepts and aspects
  2. Explanations of theories, equations, and terminology, relevant to the topic
  3. Discussion of aspects of the literature that connect to your research topic

Conclusion of the Literature Review

Within the conclusion of the literature review, the entire section should be summarized and connected together in a methodical manner. To achieve this, the conclusion should provide the following:

  • A summarized overview of the important concepts, flaws, and gaps in each of the reviewed sources.
  • A description of how the literature is tied together, and a discussion of how the topic being written about also contributes to the overall field of knowledge.

You should show that the sources provided in the literature review relate to the work that is to be discussed in your research topic. Directly discuss different aspects of the literature review that contributed to the concepts, ideas, methodology, results, and conclusions in your research. If your research addresses potential gaps in past literature, you can also highlight this here.

An effective method for meeting this conclusion is to first synthesize the works with a brief introduction, a comparison of agreeing and disagreeing points of view, and stating the research findings impact. Then finalize the conclusion by pointing out the limitations of the topic, its impact, and discussing the contribution of your own work to this field.

An example of this synthesis and contribution discussion can be seen below, provided by OpenAcademics and adapted from Auckland University of Technology.

Synthesis of Literature Review done by OpenAcademics adapted from Auckland University of Technology.

You can view this example in greater detail here.

If you need additional insight into creating a literature review, I highly recommend checking out this video created by Wordvice Editing Service, which provides a detailed explanation of what to include, what not to include, how to structure, and how to compose a literature review from start to finish.

Thank you for reading!

If you’re looking for a tool to aid in your literature review, check out Scrintal — a web application designed to gather, organize & visually connect your thoughts, files & insights.

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