A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, sometimes within a certain time period. The body of the review will contain summaries of your sources (scholarly articles). However, a literature review is not simply a list of article summaries. Rather, it has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. The purpose of a literature review is not only to tell your reader the state of scholarship about a given topic, but also to organize and evaluate the major points, parts, or arguments of each source.
It will consider the following questions:
- 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?
Your review must read like a coherent paper. A literature review is discursive prose which proceeds to a conclusion by reason or argument.
Reference to prior literature is a defining feature of scholarly and research writing. Such references put your own work into context, establishing your credibility and enabling you to demonstrate how your current work builds upon or deviates from earlier publications.
Include all works cited. Use the citation style required in your field for both in-text citations and for the References section.
1) Choose a focus for your review: What topic or research area particularly interests you? Do you know what (if any) research has been done on this topic? Look for research via an article data base. A good place to start is https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/articles/.
2) After you have scanned some articles on your topic ask yourself: "What is missing? What would I like to know about this topic that is not addressed, or not addressed adequately, by the articles I have looked over?" Your answer is your thesis statement for the review. (Introduction)
The mentally ill face a multitude of challenges. (Location statement which puts the topic in context) One of those challenges is the stigmatization they face. (Narrowing the topic) Stigmatization is social rejection; they are rejected by people because of the label they carry or that their behaviors clearly indicate that they belong to a certain labeled group. (Defining terms/more details) Stigmatization of the mentally ill is caused by the publics belief in myths about the dangerousness of the mentally ill and exposing those myths can reduce stigmatization. (Thesis statement)
3) Synthesize the articles, or show how they fit together to partially support your thesis statement. Discuss why those articles do not adequately answer your questions in Section 2. You could also include some observations about the research methods if they appear flawed. (Body) Suggest what further research needs to be done to answer your questions. (Conclusion)
What is a literature review?
A literature review is a critical analysis of published sources, or literature, on a particular topic. It is an assessment of the literature and provides a summary, classification, comparison and evaluation. At postgraduate level literature reviews can be incorporated into an article, a research report or thesis. At undergraduate level literature reviews can be a separate stand alone assessment.
The literature review is generally in the format of a standard essay made up of three components: an introduction, a body and a conclusion. It is not a list like an annotated bibliography in which a summary of each source is listed one by one.
Why do we write literature reviews?
At university you may be asked to write a literature review in order to demonstrate your understanding of the literature on a particular topic. You show your understanding by analysing and then synthesising the information to:
- Determine what has already been written on a topic
- Provide an overview of key concepts
- Identify major relationships or patterns
- Identify strengths and weaknesses
- Identify any gaps in the research
- Identify any conflicting evidence
- Provide a solid background to a research paper’s investigation
How to write a literature review
Determine your purpose
Work out what you need to address in the literature review. What are you being asked to do in your literature review? What are you searching the literature to discover? Check your assignment question and your criteria sheet to know what to focus on.
Do an extensive search of the literature
Find out what has been written on the topic.
What kind of literature?
Select appropriate source material: Use a variety of academic or scholarly sources that are relevant, current and authoritative. An extensive review of relevant material will include — books, journal articles, reports, government documents, conference proceedings and web resources. The Library would be the best place to search for your sources.
How many resources?
The number of sources that you will be required to review will depend on what the literature review is for and how advanced you are in your studies. It could be from five sources at first year undergraduate level to more than fifty for a thesis. Your lecturer will advise you on these details.
Note the bibliographical details of your sources
Keep a note of the publication title, date, authors’ names, page numbers and publishers. These details will save you time later.
Read the literature
- Critically read each source, look for the arguments presented rather than for facts.
- Take notes as you read and start to organise your review around themes and ideas.
- Consider using a table, matrix or concept map to identify how the different sources relate to each other.
Analyse the literature you have found
In order for your writing to reflect strong critical analysis, you need to evaluate the sources. For each source you are reviewing ask yourself these questions:
- What are the key terms and concepts?
- How relevant is this article to my specific topic?
- What are the major relationships, trends and patterns?
- How has the author structured the arguments?
- How authoritative and credible is this source?
- What are the differences and similarities between the sources?
- Are there any gaps in the literature that require further study?
Write the review
- Start by writing your thesis statement. This is an important introductory sentence that will tell your reader what the topic is and the overall perspective or argument you will be presenting.
- Like essays, a literature review must have an introduction, a body and a conclusion.
Structure of a literature review
Your introduction should give an outline of
- why you are writing a review, and why the topic is important
- the scope of the review — what aspects of the topic will be discussed
- the criteria used for your literature selection (e.g.. type of sources used, date range)
- the organisational pattern of the review.
Each body paragraph should deal with a different theme that is relevant to your topic. You will need to synthesise several of your reviewed readings into each paragraph, so that there is a clear connection between the various sources. You will need to critically analyse each source for how they contribute to the themes you are researching.
The body could include paragraphs on:
- historical background
- previous studies on the topic
- mainstream versus alternative viewpoints
- principal questions being asked
- general conclusions that are being drawn.
Your conclusion should give a summary of:
- the main agreements and disagreements in the literature
- any gaps or areas for further research
- your overall perspective on the topic.
Checklist for a literature review
- outlined the purpose and scope?
- identified appropriate and credible (academic/scholarly) literature?
- recorded the bibliographical details of the sources?
- analysed and critiqued your readings?
- identified gaps in the literature and research?
- explored methodologies / theories / hypotheses / models?
- discussed the varying viewpoints?
- written an introduction, body and conclusion?
- checked punctuation and spelling?