What is a literature review?
A literature review is the review of a collection of published research relevant to a research question. All good research and writing is guided by a review of the relevant literature.
An integral component of the scientific process, a literature review is the mechanism by which research is viewed as a cumulative process. The literature review has two components: the actual literature search and the writing of the review.
What is the purpose of a literature review?
Regardless of the research methodology used, the purpose of the literature review remains the same. It is an essential test of the research question against that which is already known about the subject.
The literature review reveals whether or not a research question has already been answered by someone else. If it has, often the question needs to be changed or modified, so that an original contribution to the research is made.
What questions should be asked during a literature review?
If a research question has not been answered satisfactorily by someone else, then it may be a valid question. Questions that can help determine further research direction include:
- What is known about the subject?
- What is the chronology of the development of knowledge about the subject?
- Are there any gaps in knowledge of the subject? Which openings for research have been identified by other researchers? How can these gaps be bridged?
- Is there a consensus on relevant issues? Or is there significant debate on issues? What are the various positions?
- What is the most fruitful direction for the research as the result of the literature review? What directions are indicated by the work of other researchers?
It is important to recognize that, ultimately, the relevance, significance and importance of a research subject are determined by the researcher.
What are some tips for literature review research?
- Focus the search
Having the research question written down, and on hand, can prevent inefficient wandering into research areas unrelated to the subject.
- When to narrow the search
If too many citations appear for a question then it is too broad, and a more focused question needs to be asked.
- When to broaden the search
If few citations appear for a question, then the topic is too narrow. Perhaps the question needs to be broadened.
- Conduct a systematic search
If little research has been done in an area, then a systematic search is necessary. One option is journals that print abstracts in a subject area which can provide an overview of the scope of the available literature. Other options are a general source, such as a book, or a specific source, such as a research paper, which can provide a starting point and a list of references to begin investigating.
- Take thorough notes
Taking thorough notes saves research time, as references can be quickly accessed again. (Suggestion: open a document in MS Word (Windows) or TextEdit (Macintosh) while running a online search, and toggle back and forth between the search screen and document to record findings).
- Conduct a smart, targeted search
- Identify publications which print abstracts of articles and books in the subject area (research papers previously written in the subject area can help identify these publications).
- Identify authors who are frequently cited and considered leaders in the subject area.
- Identify available holdings by browsing online library catalogs.
- Identify keywords in the area of interest to help narrow and refine database searches.
- Use databases. Academic researchers find more information more efficiently by reaching into scholarly journal databases to build bibliographies for their papers and dissertations. Union Institute & University’s Databases by Subject page is a useful place to begin accessing academic databases for use in scholarly projects.
What are some tips for writing literature reviews?
- Write and rewrite
Since rewriting is always necessary, the first draft does not need to be written in a linear fashion. When one area of the writing proves difficult or premature, it is perfectly acceptable to move to another area, and complete the writing of the review in a non-linear fashion which can be reorganized in the final draft. (Generally, the introduction or abstract is written last).
- Edit and rewrite
Allow time for editing so that the work is clear, concise, and consistent. Avoid jargon that will be unclear to the audience, and always prefer the smaller word to the bigger. To test the work’s clarity, find an outside reader and read the work aloud as well.
- Writing the conclusion
The conclusion should convey and summarize insights learned during the literature review. While the interaction between the research question and the relevant literature is foreshadowed throughout the review, it is usually not directly stated until the conclusion. There, the researcher can communicate the new knowledge gained after the review by demonstrating the relationship between the research question and the reviewed literature.
- Oliver, P. (2012). Succeeding with your literature review: A handbook for students.
Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
- Cooper, H. M. (1998). Synthesizing research: A guide for literature reviews (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Aveyard, H. (2010). Doing a literature review in health and social care: A practical guide (2nd ed.). Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
- Wilkinson, D. (Ed.). (2000). The researcher's toolkit: The complete guide to practitioner research. London, UK: Routledge.
- Blaxter, L., Hughes, C., & Tight, M. (2010). How to research (4th ed.). Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.