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Literature Reviews

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

Introduction

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review investigates and appraises existing knowledge, research, material and sources that have been published on a particular topic. It can serve as a framework that informs the development and focus of an ensuing study, such as a thesis, article or research report. It can also be a stand-alone piece of research, such as an essay or conceptual article.

Literature reviews provide analyses that demonstrate a deep understanding of the existing literature, and commonly identify gaps and areas for future research to examine. Importantly, literature reviews are diverse in their format and purpose:

  • A literature review may be undertaken with a strong focus on critical evaluation, while others may adopt a more descriptive and exploratory approach.
  • Some reviews concentrate on data, findings and methodologies, others examine ideas, themes, and theories.
  • A review may aim to be summative in comprehensively synthesising all known literature on a topic. Other reviews may attempt to be more integrative in exploring related and interdisciplinary literatures.

This guide recognises the diversity of literature reviews. Rather than listing prescriptive advice, it aims to provide general guidance on the literature review process and share resources with you to help you get started.

 

Writing an Annotated Bibliography?

An annotated bibliography is a list of citations (articles, books, or other resources), each followed by a short descriptive paragraph that summarises the source's content and evaluates its relevance to the topic in question. For more information on how to write an annotated bibliography:

Visit the Academic Skills resource "Writing an annotated bibliography"

Writing a Systematic Review?

A systematic review appraises the literature in relation to a clearly-formulated question. It generally follows a strict protocol, with well-defined inclusion and exclusion criteria for the literature, data or studies assessed in the review, to ensure the transparency and reproducibility of the conclusions drawn by the review. To find out more about systematic reviews:

Visit the Systematic Reviews library guide

 

Searching the literature

Strategies for an effective and comprehensive literature search

Maximise the quality, scope and appropriateness of the literature you review. When commencing a search:

  • Determine key concepts and issues surrounding them
  • Establish terminology so you can develop lists of key words and synonyms to use in your search
  • Encyclopedias and key articles will often introduce topics and provide lists of key references

Reviewing a good range of the available literature on your topic is an important consideration. The tips below may be useful in helping you search for literature, and decide what literature to include in the scope of your review: 

  • Consider the age of resources as appropriate for your review
  • Use a variety of resources - books, journal articles, theses, conference papers and reports
  • Search by keyword, subject, and also author
  • Evaluate the information - is a journal refereed (peer-reviewed)? Is a source authoritative?
  • Develop good referencing skills
  • You can broaden your search by looking laterally for literature in related fields

Online guides that may help with your literature search

Research Essentials

Want to revisit the fundamentals of library research? The Research Essentials guide is a good starting point.

Finding Theses

Looking for examples of other theses to learn from and be inspired? The Finding Theses guide is highly recommended, especially for PhD students.

Staying Current

Want to keep up-to-date with the latest research? Visit the Staying Current guide for tips and tricks to setup alerts and manage information flows for you as a researcher.

Critical reading

Some things to consider before you start reading

  • Keep your purpose in mind when you read
  • Don't let the arguments in the text distract you
  • Before beginning to read, take a few moments to think about what it is you are expecting from the article or chapter
  • Skim-read the abstract, headings, conclusion, and the first sentence of each paragraph. Do you need to read everything with equal attention? Can you see where the arguments are headed?

Suggested critical questions to ask as you read

  • What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Why is this piece of research important?
  • What was measured?
  • What information do you have on the sample?
  • How was the data collected?
  • What were the results?
  • What do the authors conclude and to what do they attribute their findings?
  • Can you accept the findings as true?
  • How can you apply these findings to your own work?
  • When results are conflicting, you might find it useful to ask the following questions:

    • How similar were the programs used?
    • Were different measurement instruments used?
    • How were the programs evaluated?
Looking to improve your critical reading and notetaking skills?

Visit the Academic Skills "Reading and notetaking resources"

Writing your review

Structure of the review

The structure of your literature review will be based largely on your discipline and your topic. Your review is also influenced by how you decide to organise your argument(s):

  • 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’; instead, seek out effective models of literature reviews written in your discipline area. Broadly, the structure of a review may comprise the following elements:

Introduction

  • Provide an overview of the contents of the review. What is the significance and importance of the review?

Body (i.e. where you critically analyse the relevant literature)

  • Synthesise the essence of literature that has dealt with your topic
  • 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.

Important considerations

  • Set parameters (e.g. inclusion and exclusion criteria for the literature referred to, date range)
  • Make sure your literature review is a critical synthesis of the information you have discovered, and not just a summary
  • Organise the material logically
  • Make your purpose clear
  • Emphasise recent/current research and developments
  • Amount of detail around an issue is proportional to its importance
  • Your own voice needs to be strong throughout the literature review - it needs to introduce and guide the reader through the research that is presented in the literature
  • Provide commentary on design, methodology, conflicting arguments, and lack of conclusions
  • Make sure citations and references are correct and accurate.

Citing and referencing

Any material you get from a source, even if you write it in your own words, needs to have a citation or footnote. Check the guidelines for your literature review, or speak to your supervisor, to determine which citation style you should be using.

Need help with your referencing? Click on the button below:
Learn how reference management software can help you with referencing:

Resources

This section helps you find books and other resources which will help you write literature reviews.

Visit the Academic Skills "Reviewing the literature" page to find additional resources


Searching the resources

Use the following platforms to find resources on literature reviews:


Search with keyword combinations such as:

writ*

AND

"literature review*"

prepar*

AND

"literature review*"

 

Create more searches by combining these keywords with the name of your discipline or subject area. For example:

(business OR economics)

AND

writ* AND "literature review*"

architecture

AND

writing AND "literature review*"


Also click on the following subject heading searches in the library catalogue:

Suggested texts on academic writing

Other web-based resources

There are a many online resources dealing with writing literature reviews. For example, Thesis Whisperer and Patter are blogs which, while not exclusively dedicated to literature reviews, have many useful posts on academic writing (including literature reviews).

 

Further assistance

Academic Skills 

Contact Academic Skills for help with academic writing, critical reading and assessment planning.

The Library 

Contact the Library for help with finding research resources.