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Writing a Literature Review

Writing a Literature Review

A literature review is a form of writing that surveys all the published research and scholarship on a particular topic (ie. journal articles, books, dissertations, conference proceedings, reports). It provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work, however it is more than a simple report of facts or summary of articles.  The purpose is to present an overview of significant literature published on a topic and offer new interpretations within existing ideas.

Literature reviews are written as both full length articles that present the “state of the art” on a topic, or as introductions to new original research studies.

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Show relationships between previous studies or work on subject
  • Identify gaps or contradictory ideas in current research and offer new interpretations
  • Avoid repetition of earlier research
  • Identify avenues and questions for future research
  • Place one's original research in context of existing theories and methodologies (when written as an introduction)

Literature reviews 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, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research
  • Suggestions for areas of future research

The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.

nformation adapted from the UC Santa Cruz University Library

Choosing a Topic

Reviewing the published literature is a great strategy for identifying issues of current interest to scholars and yourself.  It's helpful to start with a general subject in mind and narrow down as you become more familiar with the research.  The more focused the topic the easier it will be to survey all the published research.

Searching

*See the Finding Sources tab to the left

Reading Analytically

When you first begin reviewing the literature you can scan rather than read in-depth as you compile potentially relevant sources.  Reading the abstract and a quick scan of most articles can be enough to determine if it should be investigated further.  Make sure to save and take careful notes of each source as you go.

When you are satisfied with searching, read each article carefully, evaluating both the main theories and evidence of each work and looking for larger themes and issues across studies.

  • Compare and contrast major thinkers and theories
  • Identify trends and create new connections
  • Uncover areas of no research or unresolved conflicts

You will likely need to return to searching at certain points to fill in knowledge or answer additional questions that come up as you read.

Organizing Ideas

There are several common techniques to assist you in organizing ideas. One way is to write an annotated bibliography that briefly summarizes each article followed by a description of how it relates to your thesis or research question.

Another technique is to create a concept map, or diagram, that shows relationships between ideas in a visual way. For examples, search the web for "literature review concept map".

Writing

Like other academic writing, literature reviews have an introduction, a body section, and a conclusion.

A literature review should include:

  • An introduction to the subject, issue or theory under consideration and to the objectives of the review.
  • A section that organizes works into themes or categories with an explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others.
  • A conclusion/synthesis that indicates which sources make the best arguments and greatest contribution to the understanding of the topic and how they relate to your research or suggestions for future research.

Most literature reviews are organized around key themes or issues in the research, but they can be organized differently depending on the topic, for instance chronologically or by the research methods used.

For further help with writing contact the WSU Writing Center or consult one of the writing guidebooks on the Books and Tutorials tab to the left.

Literature reviews can be written as both full length articles that present the “state of the art” on a topic, or as introductions to new original research studies.

The Stand-Alone Literature Review:

When a literature review stands alone, it is reviewing what is known about the topic, analyzed for trends, controversial issues, and what still needs to be studied to better understand the topic at hand. A stand-alone literature review can be as short as a few pages or may be more extensive with long bibliographies for in-depth reviews. 

Examples:

The Literature Review as a Section:

Literature reviews can be used as part of dissertations, theses, research reports, and scholarly journal articles. They generally discuss what has been done before and how the research being introduced in this document fills a gap in the field's knowledge and why it is an important.  

Examples:

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