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What is a Literature Review?
A literature review surveys books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by doing so, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within a larger field of study.
Source: Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper by Arlene Fink, 2014
Importance of a Literature Review
Literature reviews consist of a summary of key sources within a specific conceptual category. This summary recaps important information of the source, with an additional synthesis of the information that reorganizes the material in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem.
Analytical features of the literature review may:
- Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations.
- Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates.
- Evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research.
- Identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date.
The purpose of a literature review is to:
- Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
- Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
- Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
- Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
- Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
- Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
- Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research.
- Locate your own research within the context of existing literature.
Structure and Writing Style
Thinking About the Literature Review
The structure of a literature review should include the following:
- An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review.
- Division of works under review into themes or categories.
- An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others.
- Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.
Critically evaluate each work. Consider the following:
- What are the author's credentials? Are the arguments made supported by evidence?
- What was the methodology? Were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
- Is there objectivity within the work? Is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudiced? Is contrary data considered, or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
- Which of the author's theses are most and least convincing? Do their arguments persuade your thinking?
- Does the material provide value? Are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?
Developing the Literature Review
When developing your literature review, break the process down into the following four steps. These steps will build upon one another, building up your literature review.
- Problem Formation
Which topic or field is being examined and what its component issues? Identify what your topic is and what issues your topic discusses and will build upon.
- Literature Search
Using the answers from the first step, search the library's catalog and databases to find relevant materials to explore.
- Data Evaluation
Taking the materials you have located, determine which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic.
- Analysis and Interpretation
Discuss the finding and conclusions of the pertinent literature, adding in your own thoughts, analysis, and interpretation of the data and information presented.
Organizing the Literature Review
There are several ways to organize your literature review. Think about how to best highlight the information gathered during the literature review, and how that information can be best presented to support your own research.
- Chronology of Events
If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development.
- By Publication
Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend.
Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review.
A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. This scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.
Once you have decided on the organizational structure of your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from the organizational structure. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue; etc. However, you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body.
Additional sections may include:
- Current Situation: information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
- History: the chronological progression of the field, literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body is not already a chronology.
- Selection Methods: the criteria you used to select sources in your literature review. You can also explain why you excluded certain resources.
- Standards: the way in which you present your information.
- Questions for Further Research: what questions about the field has the review sparked, and how will you further your research as the result of the review?
Writing the Literature Review
Once you have decided on how to organize your literature review, you are ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep the following in mind:
- Use Evidence
A literature review section is just like any other section of an academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence (citations) that demonstrate what you are saying is valid.
- Be Selective
Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem.
- Use Quotes Sparingly
Some short quotes are okay if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for your own summary and interpretation of the literature.
- Summarize and Synthesize
Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recap the important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work.
- Keep Your Own Voice
While the literature review presents other's ideas, your own voice should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing, but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas.
Tips for Writing a Literature Review
- Make sure the content in your literature review sources relate to your own work.
- Take time to define and identify the most relevant sources to use within the literature review. It is okay to be a bit picky on what you add in.
- Don't rely exclusively on secondary analytical sources. Find and include the relevant primary research studies or data cited by others.
- Don't accept another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid without examining all aspects of the research design and analysis critically.
- Describe the search procedures used to identify materials within the literature review.
- Include research that both validates and goes against your assumptions.
- Review not just for content. Don't look only at what others are saying, but also how they are saying it.
Locating Materials for a Literature Review
Databases to Use
How to Search a Database
- Start at the library's homepage
- Click on the Database List quick link button located on the right-hand side of the screen
- Limit databases by subject using the "All Subjects" drop-down menu
- Select a Database to begin your search
- Type your search terms into the top search box
- Narrow your search results as needed
- Publication date
- Source type
- Subject area
Tips for Searching Case Studies
- Use "case study" as a keyword
- Combine your topic with the phrase case study to create a keyword search string
- Example: small business social media case study
- If no results are appearing when "case study" is used, remove the phrase
- Read the abstract to see if the research is case study based
- If you get stuck or need help, contact the library
Check out the Database Search Tips guide to learn more about how to effectively search a library database.
This information was originally complied and presented by the librarians at the University of Southern California. The original material can be found in the research guide The Literature Review.
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