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Writing a Literature Review

What is a literature review?

Literature reviews situate your research within a context of previous research. Literature reviews are used to clarify:

  • What information is already known
  • What theoretical frameworks have already been developed
  • What research has already been done

Literature reviews can identify gaps in the current research or present areas of disagreement within your field of study. Therefore, your job is both to describe and to evaluate previous research studies. This requires you to determine the credibility and relevance of the research as well as identify conflicts or gaps in the body of literature on your topic.

How is a literature review different from a research report?

  • Literature reviews discuss the previous work done in a particular area of research. They do so intentionally and critically, in ways that both inform your work and demonstrate its significance. Think of literature reviews as finding, mapping out, and joining of the scholarly conversation relevant to your study.
  • While literature reviews outline other researchers’ work and look at how different people have studied your area of interest, research reports present the study you have done. The literature review becomes a part of your report that is usually included in the introductory section. In the sciences, a typical report is structured as follows: introduction, methods, results, conclusion.

What are the basic steps for reviewing the literature?

  • Choose an area of research and develop your research question. This may be the most difficult stage of your research, so allow time to narrow your topic. Start with a provisional question, and expect that it will be modified as your work through the project.
  • Identify sources of information. Talk with professors in your discipline, review work cited lists, see who other researchers reference in their literature reviews, and search the major professional journals in your field.
  • Read studies and research relevant to your topic. Keep records of what you have read, making notes and documenting important quotes. Look for patterns and disagreements among authors.
  • Develop a meaningful, coherent way to organize the studies. Group the literature into categories and lay out arguments in an ordered sequence.
  • Write about the literature, explaining what different authors say about your topic. Pay attention to their central argument, the methods they use and the assumptions that underpin their approach. Relate the literature review to your research question, show its relevance for your study, and make the case for the importance of your contribution to the scholarly conversation.

Seven questions to guide your reading of each source (these questions can also help revise your literature review):

  • Does the researcher begin by identifying a specific problem area?
  • Does the researcher establish the importance of the problem area?
  • Is the introduction an essay that logically moves from topic to topic?
  • Has the research provided conceptual definitions of key terms?
  • Has the researcher indicated the basis for factual statements?
  • Do the specific research purposes, questions, or hypotheses logically flow from the introductory material?
  • Overall, is the introduction effective and appropriate?
Four questions to help you examine the sources as a body of literature (these questions will be useful in organizing and writing your review):
  • What have authors already said about my topic?
  • Are there contradictions, gaps, or inconsistencies in the literature?
  • How do we reconcile different findings in the studies?
  • How would my study contribute to the research on this subject?
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