What is a literature review?
- A critical look at the research relevant to your research project.
- A discussion of how the relevant literature addresses the themes and concepts in your paper.
- A contextual overview of the work of previous authors, how they relate to each other, and how they relate to your research project.
- An analysis of the gaps in the existing literature which your research hopes to fill.
- A rationale for the relevance of your work to ongoing scholarly conversations.
What does a literature review do?
A literature review is not a list of summaries; it is an essential component of your project that:
- puts your work in context.
- establishes your credibility with your intended audiences.
- demonstrates how your current work builds upon and/or deviates from earlier publications.
A literature review should:
- be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you are developing
- synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known
- identify areas of controversy in the literature
- formulate questions that need further research
A few questions to ask yourself (and answer for your reader):
- What is the gap in the literature/problem with previous research?
- What conflict or unanswered question, untested population, untried method in existing research does your experiment address?
- What findings of others are you challenging or extending?
- What is the scope of my literature review?
- What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, popular media)? What discipline am I working in (e.g., nursing psychology, sociology, medicine)?
- Have I critically analyzed the literature I use?
- Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them?
- Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?
- Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?
Tips for finding literature reviews
One of the best ways to figure out how literature reviews work in your field is to find a few of them.
- Ask your advisor or mentor for excellent examples of literature reviews. If possible, ask for an example from an undergraduate thesis, a masters or doctoral thesis, and a peer-reviewed journal article.
- You can also ask a librarian to help you find example literature reviews!
- Check out ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global and other databases to search for dissertations in your field. These will usually contain a literature review.
- Search for “annual review” journals in your field, e.g., The Annual Review of Sociology
- Search on your topic using a database (e.g., Web of Science) that allows you to filter specifically for review articles.
These tips and guidelines on writing literature reviews were adapted from: