How to write a literature review
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Not to be confused with a book review, a literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work. The purpose of a literature review is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.
Elements of a literature review
A literature review should include:
- An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review
- Division of works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely)
- 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
Steps to prepare a literature review
Preparation of a literature review may be divided into four broad stages:
- Define your topic: you must define your topic and components of your topic
- Search for materials: use search tools (such as the library catalogue, databases, bibliographies) to find materials about your topic
- Evaluate what you have found: read and evaluate what you have found in order to determine which material makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
- Analysis and interpretation: provide a discussion of the findings and conclusions of the pertinent literature
In assessing each piece, consideration should be given to:
- 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)?
- 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/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?
Uses and purpose of a literature review
A literature review may constitute an essential chapter of a thesis or dissertation, or may be a self-contained review of writings on a subject (such as a journal article). In either case, its purpose is to:
- Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
- Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
- Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
- Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
- Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
- Point the way forward for further research
- Place one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature
The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.
Examples of literature reviews may be found by doing keyword searches in many of our databases as well as in CLUES, the library catalogue. Literature reviews may be published as scholarly articles, books, and as introductions to scholarly articles and dissertations.
Here is an example of a literature review:
Mallett, S. (2004). Understanding home: A critical review of the literature. The Sociological Review, 52(1): 62-89. Link to the article
For more information
Further information on the literature review may be found in:
- Conducting research literature reviews : from the Internet to paper by Arlene Fink
- Integrating research : a guide for literature reviews by Harris M. Cooper
- Evaluating research articles from start to finish by Ellen R. Girden
Adapted with permission and thanks from How to Write a Literature Review originally created by Kenneth Lyons, McHenry Library, University of California, Santa Cruz.