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Literature Review

This packet details the steps necessary to produce a literature review that may be required for work in various disciplines, including English, history and psychology. This packet is not intended to replace instructor guidelines and should not be used in that manner. The packet’s intended use is as a supplement to classroom instruction on assembling a literature review. Therefore, it contains only general information that must be tailored to fit specific guidelines as required by your discipline and by your instructor.

This packet is subdivided into six sections:


I. General Information

Definition

Literature reviews can have two roles: In their first role, they function as a stand-alone paper. At other times they will actually be part of a larger research thesis. In this handout, literature reviews will be referred to in the stand-alone sense. As a stand-alone paper, literature reviews are multi-layered and are more formal and detailed than book reviews. As the author of a literature review, you must become familiar with a large amount of research on a specific topic. You will then develop your own thesis about the topic related to this research. After this, you will classify and critically analyze research on the topic by making a comparison between several different studies and by emphasizing how these studies and their comparison relate to your own thesis.

In effect, a literature review is a paper that compiles, outlines and evaluates previously established research and relates it to your own thesis. It provides a context for readers as if they were researching the topic on their own. Just from reading your paper, readers should be able to gain insight into the amount and quality of research on the topic. Your thesis and the literature reviewed serve several important functions within the paper:

  • Your thesis creates a foundation for the literature review because it helps narrow the topic by providing a sense of direction; however, you will have to conduct some initial research and reading before deciding on an appropriate thesis. Your personal thesis may be a statement addressing some of the following situations: “why your research needs to be carried out, how you came to choose certain methodologies or theories to work with, how your work adds to the research already carried out” (Brightwell, G. and Shaw, J., 1997-98), or it may present some other logical perspective.
  • Reviewed literature is organized in a logical manner that best suits the topic of the review and the hypothesis of the literature (see Organization and Format). The selected method of organization and style of format should draw attention to similarities and differences among the reviewed literature; these similarities and differences are based on specific criteria you revealed in the literature review’s introduction. According to Brightwell and Shaw (1997-98), your goal in the body of the review “. . . should be to evaluate and show relationships between the work already done (Is Researcher Y’s theory more convincing than Researcher X’s? Did Researcher X build on the work of Researcher Y?) and between this work and your own [thesis].” Additional information on these topics can be found in the Organization and Format sections of this packet. Therefore, carefully planned organization is an essential part of any literature review.

Purpose

Although literature reviews may vary according to discipline, their overall goal is similar. A literature review serves as a compilation of the most significant sources on a subject and relates the findings of each of these sources in a rational manner while supporting the literature review author’s own thesis. A literature review establishes which sources are most relevant to its author’s point and which sources are most credible to the discipline at hand.

In a literature review, the results of previous research are summarized, organized and evaluated.

Discipline-Specificity

A literature review’s organization, format, level of detail and citation style may vary according to discipline because different disciplines have different audiences. Examples here pertain to the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.

  • Natural and social sciences: The author of a literature review in the natural or social sciences must pay close attention to measurements, study populations and technical aspects of experimental findings. Typically, a portion of the natural or social sciences literature review is set aside for reviewing sources on the primary topic. Then, a comparative analysis or discussion section is used to analyze the similarities and differences among the sources, tying them in with the literature review author’s original thesis.
  • Humanities: The author of a literature review in the humanities usually does not set aside a special section for reviewing the sources; instead, citations may be found randomly throughout the paper. The literature being reviewed is arranged according to paragraphs based on the author’s points, which in turn, support the author’s thesis. The paper itself may not be called a literature review at all. It is more likely to be called a critical analysis.

Remember that the best bet for determining what type of literature review is appropriate for your course is checking with the instructor prior to beginning research.

REVIEW

  1. What is the purpose of a literature review? What is the connection between the author’s thesis and the literature being reviewed?
  2. What discipline will your literature review be classified in?

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II. Process

  1. Find several articles that deal with your research topic. Sometimes it is helpful to review the bibliography of one of the first scholarly sources that you encounter and compare it to the bibliographies of other sources on the topic. If the same source is listed within several of these bibliographies, it is probably a fundamental, credible source that will aid you in your review.
  2. Before you begin reviewing literature, realize that you are looking to accomplish two things:

    A. Defining your research problem/thesis (examples: finding a flaw in research, continuing previous research, etc . . .)

    B. Reading and evaluating significant works that are relevant to your research problem.

    You will be conducting Steps A and B simultaneously because the two form a circular pattern. As you read related sources (Step B), you define your problem, and as you define your problem (Step A) you will more easily be able to decide what material is relevant enough to be worthy of reading (Step B).

  3. Once you begin reviewing, make an entry with complete bibliographical information and comments for each work that you are going to include in the review.
  4. Compare the articles by evaluating the similarities and differences among them. This will be the initial stage in the formulation of your thesis.
  5. Form a thesis that is clearly written and can be logically supported by the literature you will include in your review.
  6. View the articles briefly again and jot down any notes that seem to relate to your thesis.
  7. Decide which organizational pattern and format are best for the topic of your review.
  8. Construct an appropriate outline for the literature review.
  9. Write an introduction that introduces the topic, reveals your thesis statement, and arranges key issues.
  10. Organize and write the body of your paper according to the appropriate format: topical or chronological.
  11. Write a conclusion that reconciles similarities and differences on the topic and reemphasizes the criteria used to arrive at this conclusion.
  12. Complete the final draft of the literature review.
  13. Check over the final draft for grammar and punctuation errors.
  14. Use the checklist provided here to make sure that all parts of the literature review are addressed and focused.

Establishing a Critical Response for a Literature Review

You may find this section helpful at Steps 3, 4 and 5 of the process.When reviewing your sources, explore the following areas to help develop your critical response:

  • What is the purpose of the research or work?
  • What research or literary methods are used?
  • How do the major concepts operate?
  • In a research study, how accurate are the measurements?
  • In a literary work, is the author’s position objective or biased?
  • What are the different interpretations of the results of the study or of the literary work itself?


REVIEW

What do you consider to be the most crucial step(s) in the process of your literature review? Why? Justify your response(s).

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III. Organization

A literature review can be arranged either topically or chronologically.

Topical organization occurs in reviews where previous research being evaluated is divided into segments with each one representing a part of some larger issue. In a topical review, the author begins by describing the characteristics of research shared by several studies and then moves on to analyze their similarities and differences. For more information, go to Literature Review: Topical Example.

Chronological organization occurs when a review is organized in time order and is most often used when a historical context is needed for discussing a topic from its beginning to its current state; chronological organization is especially helpful when discussing inactive periods and shifts in perspective on a given topic. For more information, go to Literature Review: Chronological Example.

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IV. Format

There are also two suggested formats for composing your literature review.

Format A is used when comparing several studies that have similar hypothesis but different findings. Each piece of research is summarized individually. Format A is good for reviews with a small number of entries; however, this format may confuse the audience when used with a large number of reviews because descriptions of so many studies may get in the way of the analysis. Keep in mind that each piece of research usually will not receive equal attention in the review. See an outline of Format A here.

Format B organizes the literature review according to similarities and differences among research rather than by literature studied. In a review organized according to Format B, little background information on the literature being reviewed is given outright. Instead, it is worked into the body paragraphs of the sections on similarities and differences. The conclusion then uses these two sections (similarities and differences) to tie in points of comparison and contrast between the works. Format B better suits papers that are topically organized. Format B is outlined here.

The most important thing to remember when organizing a literature review is that it is not a list summarizing one work after another. The review should be organized into sections according to theme that are set apart by subject-related headings.

REVIEW

Which format have you chosen for your literature review? Why?

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V. Checklist

  • Establish a valid thesis based on the examined research
  • State this thesis clearly in my introduction
  • Define unfamiliar terms
  • Incorporate background information to define the problem
  • Begin each entry in the review with a complete bibliographical reference
  • List and describe the hypothesis/thesis in each work reviewed
  • Describe the outcome of the work or the research
  • Develop and incorporate my own comments, including response to the research, similarities and differences among literature reviewed, and reservations regarding author’s methods or conclusions
  • Avoid overquoting
  • Check for grammar and punctuation errors
  • Correctly cite all references in uniform documentation style

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VI. Resources

Brightwell, G. and Shaw, J. (1997-98). Writing up research. Retrieved August 20, 2002, from Languages and Educational Development at the Asian Institute of Technology’s Web page at http://www.languages.ait.ac.th/EL21OPEN.HTM. (Material no longer available at this link.)

Cuba, L. (2002). A short guide to writing about social science. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishers.

Leibensperger, S. (2003). Setting the table: Encouraging collaborative environments with spatial arrangement in the writing center. Unpublished literature review.

Northern Arizona University. (1999). Electronic textbook - A blast from the past: Your literature review. Retrieved May 30, 2002, from http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~mid/edr720/class/literature/blast/reading2-1-1.html

Taylor, D., & Procter, M. (2001). The literature review: A few tips on conducting it. Retrieved June 17, 2002, from http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review

Trinder, L. (2002). Appendix. The literature review. Retrieved August 27, 2003, from http://www.uea.ac.uk/~w071/teaching/ ppf/Appendix%20Lit%20Review.pdf. (Material no longer available at this link.)

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center. (2001). Academic writing: Reviews of literature. Retrieved May 30, 2002, from http://www.wisc.edu/writing/Handbook/ReviewofLiterature.html

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