When you’re conducting academic research, a literature review is a survey of the scholarly sources you’ve consulted in your research. Typically, literature reviews are only necessary when you’re doing a significant academic project, such as a dissertation, research paper, or a thesis. For shorter pieces of academic writing, including essays, your works cited page is sufficient.
When would I write a literature review?
As we mentioned above, writing a literature review is part of writing an academic paper. The purpose of writing a literature review is to present the sources you’ve used in your research to your work’s readers. By doing this, you’re communicating several things:
- Research methodology: In other words, you’re explaining the type of research you conducted, how you conducted your research and collected your data, your reasons for choosing the sources you chose, and how you analyzed the data you collected.
- Theoretical framework you established: This is essentially a map of your research showing where you started, which concepts you chose to dive into deeply, and where following those concepts brought you. Generally, these concepts are theories and models established by academics in your field.
- Where your work fits into the bigger picture: Here, you explain how your findings connect to the existing body of research on your topic. This means how it relates to other pieces of research, any existing gaps it fills, any debates to which it contributes, and where you fit in among others in your field.
Writing a literature review is no small undertaking! But then again, neither is writing your thesis, dissertation, or even a lengthy, comprehensive research paper.
In many cases, you’re required to write a literature review and submit it to your academic supervisor before getting started on your paper. This gives your supervisor the opportunity to see what you’re researching, how you’re conducting that research, and, if necessary, provide feedback and suggestions to make your research stronger. This could mean suggesting alternative sources or redirecting your research’s scope.
A literature review is not the same thing as an abstract. Both are critical parts of a research project, but while an abstract summarizes your work, a literature review summarizes the research you conducted to complete your work. In many cases, an abstract’s goal is to engage readers and help researchers and cataloguers determine whether your work is a relevant source for their work and whether it’s a good fit for a specific collection or academic journal. A literature review’s goal is to provide a “behind the scenes” look at how you did your research, underpinning it as a valid piece of scholarly research.
How to write a literature review
Literature review structure
A literature review is structured similarly to an essay. It begins with an introduction that states the research question and explains how you tackled it. Following are body paragraphs that explain your research in further detail. Then, it ends with a conclusion section that reiterates the research question while summarizing the insights you had through your research.
A literature review’s length depends largely on the type of research it’s being written for. For a short paper, it might only be a few pages long, but for a lengthy work like a thesis or dissertation, it’s often an entire chapter.
Literature review style
A literature review requires the same style as any other piece of academic writing. That means no contractions or colloquialisms, concise language, formal tone, and an objective perspective at all times.
To distinguish between your analysis and prior scholarly work in the field, use the past tense when discussing the previous research conducted on your topic and the present tense when discussing your point of view. For example, you might write that a specific author conducted research or that they had been influenced by earlier researchers in the field, but also that you are exploring different research methods and that you are posing certain questions.
Writing a literature review, step-by-step
Define your research scope
If you haven’t yet narrowed your research focus down to a specific, answerable question, do that before you move forward with finding sources. Once you have a clear, specific thesis for your work, write a list of keywords related to that thesis you can use to streamline your source-gathering process.
Find relevant literature
Using the keywords you listed, search for relevant sources through your university library and/or databases like Google Scholar, JSTOR, EBSCO, and field-specific databases like Project Muse and EconLit.
As you find potential sources, read their abstracts to determine whether they are within your research’s scope. By reading a quick preview of each source (and taking note of recurring authors, contributors, and citations) you can pare down your list to a collection of works that provide the data, insights, and additional content you need to conduct your research.
Identify themes, patterns, and gaps within your body of sources
Read your pared-down body of sources. As you conduct your research, take note of the themes present in them and ask questions:
- Do different authors agree with each other on these themes?
- Where do they disagree?
- How does each author support their position?
Examine the research methods each author used in their work. If your sources involve studies or experiments, note whether the results were replicated and where, if at all, the studies’ results varied from each other.
Write down your key insights and how each source you consult contributes to the existing pool of knowledge on its subject. Explore how the sources challenge and contradict each other and where they agree or expand upon each other.
Create a literature review outline
Writing an outline is an important part of the writing process. Once you’ve read your sources and you understand their themes, patterns, and connections to each other, it’s time to organize your strategy for writing about how you’ve used them in your research by creating an outline.
There are a few different ways you can organize your outline. You can organize it chronologically, listing and discussing the oldest sources you’ve consulted and working up to the latest pieces. You can also organize your sources according to their themes, creating a section for each shared theme you encountered and discussing it there. Another way to organize your sources in your outline is to group them according to the research methods used by their authors.
The best way to organize your literature review often depends on your subject area. In the humanities, presenting your sources chronologically or according to their themes can effectively highlight how existing research on your subject has evolved, whereas in the hard sciences, organizing your sources according to their research methods can enable you to highlight why the current scholarly consensus (if there is one!) is what it is.
Write your literature review
Once your outline is complete, it’s time to start writing. In nearly all cases, literature reviews are written in the third person. For example, you might discuss a scholarly article by stating “this paper argues . . .” or “in her work, the author elaborates on . . .” However, there are cases where first person is appropriate in a literature review, such as when you’re referencing your own research. For example, if you’re citing an earlier paper you’ve written or data collected from a study you conducted, you may use phrases like “I argue,” “I propose,” and “through my research, I found that . . .”
Remember to follow the style you’re using for your research paper, whether that’s MLA, APA, or Chicago Manual of Style format. Similarly, use the same objective academic tone you’ll use in your research paper. Don’t just list and describe the sources you’ve read; respond to them, interpret them, and critically evaluate them. Keep in mind that you don’t have to agree with every source you use—in fact, exploring where your findings diverge from a source’s findings can be a strong point in your literature review and your research as a whole.
Don’t forget to write an annotated bibliography of all your sources. Failing to cite your sources correctly can get you in trouble for plagiarism, which can potentially result in having your work discredited or even being expelled from your university.
Literature review examples
Reading others’ literature reviews, especially literature reviews for research in your academic field, can be a very helpful way for you to understand how they work and see what you need to include in yours.
Read the literature reviews of the sources you read in your own research. Your university might also have a resources page of literature review examples you can read. University of West Florida is one university that publishes literature review examples online.
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