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Literature Reviews

An introduction to the Literature Review process and resources to help you get started.

Structure of the Review

There may be several different possible structures for your review. There is no one ‘correct’ way to structure a literature review; your discipline and your topic shape how the document develops. Your review could be organised in one of the following ways:

  • Chronological/historical
  • Major authors/key studies
  • Perspectives or positions taken on the topic under study
  • Issues or debates (key issues/related issues)
  • Methodological focus, etc.

Suggestions for structure:

  • Organise your literature review according to an approach that best fits your topic. This means that you should not be too attached to an idea or template of how the literature review should ‘look’.
  • Seek out effective models of literature reviews written in your discipline area. How do they handle internal structure? A quick check of the Table of Contents should confirm the structure these authors have used. 
  • Introduction: Provide an overview of the contents of the review. What is the significance and importance of the review?
  • Critically analyse the relevant literature: Synthesise the essence of literature that has dealt with your topic. Go on to consider any gaps or deficiencies, any inconsistencies or conflicting viewpoints and the broader implications of all this knowledge for your topic.
  • Conclusion: Draw together the important points and briefly explain how the information you have found addresses your original research question. Indicate if more research is needed.

Common Issues

  • A literature review requires you to display a critical synthesis (not summary) of the information you have discovered. Synthesising information implies joining disparate information into a cohesive whole – this is the core work of any effective literature review.

  • Avoid presenting material from one author, followed by information from another, then from another, and so on. This ‘shopping list’ approach can unhelpful for your readers who require a more analytical approach. Instead, identify patterns across the literature to group authors or studies together. To group authors who draw similar conclusions, you can use linking words such as; additionally, again, similarly.

  • Due to the multitude of other writers’ voices in a literature review, your own voice has much greater potential of being drowned out. However, your own voice needs to be strong throughout the literature review; it needs to introduce and guide the reader through significant research on your topic and, as such, takes a prominent ‘hand-holding’ role in guiding the reader through the literature.

  • When authors disagree on a topic in the literature, linking words that indicate contrast will show the reader how you have understood their work such as; alternatively, conversely, nonetheless. At other times, you may want to qualify an author's work (specifically, usually or generally) point to an example (namely, to illustrate, to exemplify) or indicate a causal relationship (due to, resulting in, since).

A Checklist after Writing the First Draft

Selection of Sources

  • Have you indicated the purpose of your review?
  • Have you set the parameters (boundaries) of your review? Are they reasonable?
  • Did you justify why you included some literature and excluded other sources?
  • Have you emphasised any recent or on-going developments?
  • Is your in-text and end-of-text (Reference List) referencing correct?

Critical Evaluation of the Literature

  • Have you organised your material in a logical manner?
  • Is your primary focus critical synthesis not summary?
  • Does the amount of detail around an issue equal its importance?
  • Have you been sufficiently critical of the design and methodology of the research studies you have cited?
  • Have you commented when results were conflicting or inconclusive?
  • Does your own writer’s voice shine throughout your work?,5,3.

Avoiding Plagiarism

  • Plagiarism occurs when you copy another author's ideas or words without acknowledging their source. Anything you get from a source, even if you write it in your own words, needs to have a citation or footnote.

  • Your literature review is based on the work of other authors, so you must be very careful to separate an author's evaluation of research from your own.

  • The University of Melbourne has a comprehensive website that will tell you more about plagiarism. It is highly recommended that you read this site to get a greater understanding of the University's approach to plagiarism.

  • Academic Skills has a brochure outlining how to use sources and avoid plagiarism.