What is a literature review?
The aim of a literature review is to show "that the writer has studied existing work in the field with insight" (Haywood and Wragg, 1982: 2). It is not enough merely to show what others in your field have discovered. You need to view the work of others with insight to review critically. An effective review analyses and synthesizes material, and it should meet the following requirements: (Caulley, 1992)
- Compare and contrast different authors' views on an issue
- Group authors who draw similar conclusions,
- Criticise aspects of methodology,
- Note areas in which authors are in disagreement,
- Highlight exemplary studies,
- Identify patterns or trends in the literature
- Highlight gaps in and omissions in previous research or questions left unanswered
- Show how your study relates to previous studies,
- Show how your study relates to the literature in general,
- Conclude by summarising what the literature says.
A literature review has a number of purposes. It enables you to :
- Define and limit the problem you are working on,
- Place your study in a historical perspective,
- Avoid unnecessary duplication,
- Evaluate promising research methods,
- Relate your findings to previous knowledge and suggest further research.
- Give your Supervisor a sense of your research interests
As can be seen from the purposes above, the literature review is an exploration of an area, which at best will provide definition and a framework for a piece of research. Most students are not experts in their chosen field before they start their reading. The idea of the literature review is to develop a good working knowledge of the research in a particular area. The final written review should reflect the results of this preliminary research. So, a good literature review raises questions and identifies areas to be explored. The review should give an idea of the work that has been carried out in the subject area, preparing the reader for the study that is to follow.
A good literature review presents a clear case and context for the project which makes up the rest of the thesis. Even if you are writing your review before you start your data collection, it is important to make clear the relationship of previous research to your thesis project.
This relationship between past work and your rationale is the most important influence on the structure and length of your literature review. Keep in mind that your purpose is important, because it will help to focus and direct your reading.
Caulley, D. N. (1992). Writing a Critical Review of the Literature. La Trobe University: Bundoora.
Haywood, P. and Wragg, E. D. (1982). Evaluating the Literature. Rediguide 2, University of Nottingham School of Education.
Strategies and issues to consider
- The literature review relates to your research questions so think of the key concepts/issues surrounding them. Your literature review is judged within the context of your completed research
- Establish terminology and key words. Thesauri can assist. Mind spelling variations
- Construct a search strategy. Use Boolean operators (OR, AND, NOT)
- The absence of research in the literature may help confirm that this is an area which needs further research. You may need to broaden your search by looking for literature in related fields.
- Determine the scope of your literature search. The scope of the literature search and review is bound up with the research problem
- The breadth of reading may depend on whether this is a new research area where reading may need to be more extensive, or a well-researched area where reading may be more focused
- Decide whether to be comprehensive or selective in your coverage? What is your rationale? What is your interest? There are inherent difficulties in attempting to be comprehensive
- How far back you should search may depend on the topic/subject? You might only include historical landmark studies while including a broader approach to more current research
- Start with the most recent sources and search backwards
- You may read articles only to decide to exclude them
- It is worth thinking laterally to other fields given the multidisciplinary nature of research (depending on the discipline area.)
Keeping track of reading materials
Because the nature of a literature review is to be dependent on what other authors have said, it is vital that you develop good referencing skills. These skills should be put into use the moment you first pick up a piece of written material. As soon as you pick up an article, put the publication details into your selected referencing system. The University Library has site licenses for three referencing products: EndNote, EndNote Online and RefWorks. Additionally there are free and subscription reference management programs available on the web or for loading onto your computer, such as Zotero, Mendeley, Citavi, Papers etc. It's important to choose the one that suits your needs. Refer to the Library's Managing References guide for more information.
Many reference management programs can be used to:
- store bibliographic records (e.g. details of books, chapters, journal articles, websites, conference papers, theses, reports, etc.), PDF files, other attachments, links and research notes added manually or imported from web-based search engines/databases
- automatically generate citations and bibliographies in a number of standard referencing formats, (e.g. APA 6, Chicago 16a, Vancouver)
- search and retrieve bibliographic records from library catalogues and journal indexing databases.
- retrieve articles by querying the University SourceIt system for web locations
- store PDF articles, images or word documents
Selected reference titles
For additional titles see the Further Reading section (tab) of this guide.
The Annotated Bibliography
This online tutorial explains why an annotated bibliography is an integral part of the research process. Lecturer and researcher Dr Carolyne Lee interviews three research students to discover how the process of compiling an annotated bibliography helped structure and develop their work. The tutorial explains how to put together an annotated bibliography including the elements for each entry.
Particularly useful for Honours and Higher Degree students.
Need further help?
Library Research Consultations
If you need assistance with the selection of indexes to locate published research for your literature review it's possible to request an individual research consultation with a Liaision Librarian via: Book a research consultation
Much of the content of this site has been compiled from guides created by the University's Learning Skills Unit, now known as Academic Skills and by University of Melbourne Library colleagues. The creator of this site acknowledges and thanks these staff for their contributions.