A review of literature is a critical analysis of a portion of the published body of knowledge available through the use of summary, classification, and comparison of previous research studies, reviews of literature, and journal articles (Subject Guides, n.d.). This handout discusses the reasons for writing a literature review and presents its various requirements. It examines what a literature review is, as well as what it is not; it distinguishes between the literature review and the annotated bibliography. Like many academic writing assignments, there is not one universal standard for writing a literature review. Its format can differ from discipline to discipline and from assignment to assignment. There is, however, an overall structure that is commonly used across various disciplines, and this format is examined in more detail. The handout concludes with some helpful “tips and tricks” for preparing a literature review.
Disclaimer: The content of a literature review may vary from discipline to discipline and from assignment to assignment. The literature review content recommended in this handout is that which is most commonly included. If in doubt about what you should include in your literature review, please consult your professor.
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Literature Review Handout
What is a literature review? A literature review examines the current scholarly work available on a particular subject, perhaps within a given time period (“Writing Center Handouts,” n.d.). It is not merely a summation of the existing work; its purpose is to analyze critically the applicable “published body of knowledge” (“The Writer’s Handbook,” n.d.) in order to establish the current knowledge of that topic (“Subject Guides,” n.d.). The literature review is more than a survey of various sources, but it is not a book review (“Subject Guides,” n.d.). It is the summary and synthesis of material gathered from various sources and organized to address an issue, research objective, or problem statement (“Writing Center Handouts,” n.d.). A well-written literature review may even state what research has yet to be done (“Writing Center Handouts,” n.d.). A literature review, then, must do these things: ? ? ? ? be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question being developed synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known identify areas of controversy in the literature formulate questions that need further research (Taylor and Procter, n.d.).
Why do a literature review? A literature review gives an overview of a specific field of inquiry (“Writing a Literature Review, n.d.). It asks questions concerning the prevailing theories and hypotheses, the key researchers, the current state of the research, and the methods and methodologies being used (“Writing a Literature Review, n.d.). The literature review helps the potential researcher identify the research question, focus the topic of inquiry, understand the makeup of a particular research question, understand an idea’s genetic roots, and understand the “current conceptual landscape” (“Literature Review,” n.d.). In other words, the literature review shows the potential researcher how prevailing ideas fit into his/her own thesis and how his/her thesis agrees or differs from them (“Writing a Literature Review, n.d.). It also points out major methodological flaws or gaps in research, inconsistencies in theory and findings, and areas or issues pertinent to future study (“The Writer’s Handbook,” n.d.). What are the differences?
How does a literature review differ from other writing assignments? A literature review is not a research paper, although, like other forms of expository writing, it does use well-formed paragraphs and a logical structure. However, where a research paper uses relevant literature to support the discussion of the thesis; “in a literature review, the literature itself is the subject of discussion” (“Writing a Literature Review, n.d.). The literature review may be a self-contained unit, that is an end in itself, or it may be preface to engaging in primary research (“The Writer’s Handbook,” n.d.). The literature review itself does not present any new primary scholarship (“Write a Literature Review,” n.d.). How does a literature review differ from an annotated bibliography? A literature review is also not an annotated bibliography, although it may be produced from an annotated bibliography (“Literature Review,” n.d.). An annotated bibliography is a listing of references, which includes a single paragraph descriptive analysis of each work listed (“Literature Review,” n.d.). On the other hand, a literature review is an essay in itself, which summarizes and evaluates already published arguments about a certain topic (“Difference Between Annotated Bibliography and Literature Review,” n.d.). A literature review is a piece of “discursive prose, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another”—that is an annotated bibliography (Taylor and Procter, n.d.). A literature review is also not to be confused with a book review, as the literature review offers an overview of significant literature published on a topic (“Write a Literature Review,” n.d.). Nor is a literature review a literary review, which is a “brief, critical discussion about the merits and weaknesses of a literary work, such as a play, novel, or book of poems” (“Researching and Writing Literature Reviews,” n.d.).
Writing a Literature Review
Writing a literature review requires four stages: problem formulation, literature search, data evaluation, and analysis and interpretation (“Researching and Writing Literature Reviews,” n.d.).
The purpose of problem formulation is to define which topic or field is being examined and to identify its component issues (“Write a Literature Review,” n.d.). This stage is similar to the development of a thesis statement for a research paper. The researcher must identify the specific thesis, problem, or research question that the subsequent review of literature will help to define. According to Spiller (n.d.), one should choose a current, well-studied, specific topic.
The literature search finds materials relevant to the subject being explored (“Write a Literature Review,” n.d.). This step may sound easier than it actually is. The Columbia University Writing Center suggests the following strategy:
1. Identify and find the “big names” and best publications in the research area.
2. Conduct an online literature search.
3. Look in bibliographies of the most recent books and journal articles.
4. Avoid the popular press, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Wikipedia (“Writing Center Handouts,” n.d.).
As always, make sure to write down the full bibliographic details of each book or article as soon as you find a reference to it. Many abstracting journals and electronic databases are available through the University Library. The minimum number of references needed depends upon what the review is for and what stage you are in in your studies. As a general rule, an undergraduate review should use between five and twenty titles, depending on the level. A master’s thesis should use over forty, and a doctoral dissertation should use over fifty (“Writing a Literature Review, n.d.).
Data evaluation involves determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic (“Write a Literature Review,” n.d.). According to the American University Library, ask the following questions about the material you are including:
1. “Has the author formulated a problem/issue?
2. Is it clearly defined? Is its significance (scope, severity, relevance) clearly established? 3. Could the problem have been approached more effectively from another perspective?
4. What is the author’s research orientation (e.g., interpretive, critical science, combination)?
5. What is the author’s theoretical framework (e.g., psychological, developmental, feminist)? 6. What is the relationship between the theoretical and research perspectives?
7. Has the author evaluated the literature relevant to the problem/issue? Does the author include literature taking positions she or he does not agree with?
8. In a research study, how good are the basic components of the study design (e.g., population, intervention, outcome)? How accurate and valid are the measurements? Is the analysis of the data accurate and relevant to the research question? Are the conclusions validly based upon the data and analysis?
9. In material written for popular readership, does the author use appeals to emotion, one-sided examples, or rhetorically-charged language and tone? Is there an objective basis to the reasoning, or is the author merely ‘proving’ what he or she already believes?
10.How does the author structure the argument? Can you ‘deconstruct’ the flow of the argument to see whether or where it breaks down logically (i.e., in establishing cause-effect relationships)?
11.In what ways does this book or article contribute to our understanding of the problem under study, and in what ways is it useful for practice? What are the strengths and limitations?
12.How does this book or article relate to the specific thesis or question I am developing?” (“Literature Review Tutorial” (n.d.)). Spiller (n.d.) suggests the following strategy: read the easier articles first; scan the article for key points; then read for depth; and finally, allow enough time.
Analysis and Interpretation
This stage involves discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature (“Write a Literature Review,” n.d.). Apply the principles of analysis to identify unbiased and valid studies; specifically, compare and contrast information or arguments between sources (“Annotated Bibliography & Literature Review,” n.d.). All pertinent facts need to be organized in a systematic way. Columbia University’s Writing Center suggests the following steps to critically assessing the material: “List three questions you want answered by the material.
1. Summarize the major points the author makes.
2. How does the author support his/her position (specific facts, details, etc.)?
3. Were the three questions raised concerning the article answered? List answers. If not, what questions did the author subsequently raise and answer?
4. Evaluate the article, with consideration for the following:
5. What are its strengths and/or weaknesses?
6. Is the subject covered adequately?
7. Is the author’s position adequately supported?
8. Is it biased, balanced, etc.?
9. Do you agree with the author’s position and why?” (“Writing Center Handouts,” n.d.). “In assessing each piece, consideration
should be given to: ? Provenance—What are the author’s credentials? Are the author’s arguments supported by evidence (e.g., primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings)?
Objectivity—Is the author’s perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author’s point? Persuasiveness—Which of the author’s theses are most/least convincing? Value—Are the author’s arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?” (“Write a Literature Review,” n.d.).
Structuring the Literature Review
While there is no general standard for structuring a literature review, most formats contain common elements organized in a particular manner; this handout offers that structure. Remember that this is not a “boilerplate” format that can be used in every situation, but rather one that has widespread use among the various disciplines. Be sure to contact your professor concerning any differences between the format shown here and that of your individual assignment.
The purpose of the introduction is to define or identify the general topic, issue, or area of concern, thus providing an appropriate context for reviewing the literature (“The Writer’s Handbook,” n.d.). The introduction must present the specific research hypothesis, purpose of the research, or questions about the topic under consideration. The thesis statement or statement of significance must be specific to the topic under consideration. The use of first person is permitted (“Subject Guides, n.d.). The introduction should also point out overall trends in what has been published about the topic; or conflicts in theory, methodology, evidence, and conclusions; or gaps in research and scholarship, or a single problem or new perspective of immediate interest. Finally, it should establish the writer’s reason (point of view) for reviewing the literature; explain the criteria to be used in analyzing and comparing literature and the organization of the review (sequence); and, when necessary, state why certain literature is or is not included (scope) (“The Writer’s Handbook,” n.d.).
The purpose of the body is to group research studies and other types of literature (reviews, theoretical articles, case studies, etc.) according to common denominators such as qualitative versus quantitative approaches, conclusions of authors, specific purpose or objective, chronology, etc. (“The Writer’s Handbook,” n.d.). The body of the review should be presented in essay form and should not be a list of the resources used in researching the topic (“Subject Guides, n.d.). The following is one example of how various sources should be summarized and synthesized in a narrative form:
This is one point of my paper. Here is sour ce A and how it relates to this point. Source A additionally states this, this, and this. Source A contributes this to the field. However, Source A does not cover that, that, and that. Source B refutes A’s conclusion. Source B’s conclusion points to th is, that, and the other thing. Source B also points this out and supports my point. Source C corroborates with B in the following ways. Additionally, Source C says this and that. However, Source D disagrees with Source C, attributing another cause. In fact, Source D supports Source A’s conclusion by stating that this causes that and not the other way around. But Source D… (“Annotated Bibliographies,” n.d.) The body of the review should report the findings of the previous research on a topic, not just the methodologies and measurements used in the research. It should point out trends and themes, as well as gaps in the literature, that is, it should synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known and formulate questions that need further research (Taylor and Procter, n.d.). Direct quotations should be used sparingly. Details of the literature being cited should be reported sparingly, as well (“Subject Guides,” n.d.). It should provide the reader with strong “umbrella” statements at beginnings of paragraphs, “signposts” throughout, and brief “so what” summary sentences at intermediate points in the review to aid in understanding comparisons and analyses (“The Writer’s Handbook,” n.d.). In other words, it should address how the material contributes to the understanding of the problem under study, how it is useful for practice, and how it relates to the specific thesis or question being developed (Taylor and Procter, n.d.).
The conclusion should summarize major pieces of significant studies and articles to the body of knowledge under review, maintaining the focus established in the introduction. It should also evaluate the current “state of the art” for the body of knowledge reviewed, pointing out major methodological flaws or gaps in the research, inconsistencies in theory and findings, and areas or issues pertinent to future study. Finally, it should conclude by providing some insight into the relationship between the central topic of the literature review and a larger area of study such as a discipline, a scientific endeavor, or a profession (“The Writer’s Handbook,” n.d.).
Spiller (n.d.) provides the following tips for writing the literature review: Make yourself comfortable. Don’t start writing too early. Leave time for breaks. Use specific language and support your arguments with concrete examples. Paraphrase, don’t quote. Evaluate what you report.
Avoid plagiarism. If done well, your literature review should show other researchers that you have done your homework and are qualified to contribute to the field. Further information on writing a literature review may be found in the resources listed in the Reference List.