Doing a literature review

Study guide

This study guide explains why you need a literature review in your dissertation. It also explains how conduct and write up a literature review. Other study guides useful for the literature review are:

Referencing and bibliographies, Avoiding plagiarism, Writing a dissertation, Active reading, What is critical writing?

Word accessible print version (Word, 55 kB)


Study guide table of contents:

why do a literature review | a critical review | getting started | ways of finding relevant material | collecting material | keeping a record | plagiarism | when to stop | writing it up | structure | narrative thread | using tables | reviewing your review | reference list

What is a literature review?

The ability to review, and to report on relevant literature is a key academic skill. A literature review does the following:

  • It situates your research focus within the context of the wider academic community in your field.
  • It reports your critical review of the relevant literature.
  • It identifies a gap within that literature that your research will attempt to address.

To some extent the literature review can become a project in itself. This is particularly true of postgraduate research. The literature provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate the following skills:

  • Understanding of the topic
  • Interpretation and analysis of relevant literature
  • Clarity of thought and argumentation

Your literature review should show that you have up-to-date awareness of relevant literature. It should also show that the research question you are asking is relevant. However, don’t promise too much. Be wary of saying that your research will solve a problem, or that it will change practice. It would be more realistic to say that your research will ‘address a gap’, rather than that it will ‘fill a gap’.

Why do I need a literature review?

Someone reading your dissertation will not just assume that your research is a good idea. You need to persuade them that it is relevant and that it was worth doing. They will ask questions such as:

  • What research question(s) are you asking?
  • Why are you asking it/them?
  • Has anyone else done anything similar?
  • Is your research relevant to research/practice/theory in your field?
  • What is already known or understood about this topic?
  • How might your research add to this understanding, or challenge existing theories and beliefs?

These are questions that you will already probably be asking yourself.

A critical review

A literature review is a critical review of literature relevant to your project. Merriam (1988:6) describes the literature review as:

‘an interpretation and synthesis of published work’.

The statement contains some key concepts, which are examined in the table below.

Explanation Associated critique

Published work

Merriam’s statement was made in 1988, since which time there has been further extension of the concept of being ‘published’ within the academic context. The term now encompasses a wide range of web-based sources, in addition to the more traditional books and print journals.

Increased ease of access to a wider range of published material has also increased the need for careful and clear critique of sources. Just because something is ‘published’ does not mean its quality is assured. You need to demonstrate to your reader that you are examining your sources with a critical approach, and not just believing them automatically.

Interpretation

You need to be actively involved in interpreting the literature that you are reviewing, and in explaining that interpretation to the reader, rather than just listing what others have written.

Your interpretation of each piece of evidence is just that: an interpretation. Your interpretation may be self-evident to you, but it may not be to everyone else. You need to critique your own interpretation of material, and to present your rationale, so that your reader can follow your thinking.

Synthesis

The term ‘synthesis’ refers to the bringing together of material from different sources, and the creation of an integrated whole. In this case the ‘whole’ will be your structured review of relevant work, and your coherent argument for the study that you are doing.

Creating a synthesis is, in effect, like building interpretation upon interpretation. It is essential to check that you have constructed your synthesis well, and with sufficient supporting evidence.

Getting started

Reading anything on your research area is a good start. You can then begin to focus on literature that is most relevant to your dissertation. As you read, you will need to evaluate the quality of the literature.

Dena Taylor (n.d.) at the University of Toronto lists some questions to ask yourself at when you start reading:

  • What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?
  • What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research (e.g. on the effectiveness of a new procedure)? qualitative research (e.g., studies of loneliness among migrant workers)?
  • What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, popular media)? What discipline am I working in (e.g., nursing psychology, sociology, medicine)?
  • How good was my information seeking? Has my search been wide enough to ensure I’ve found all the relevant material? Has it been narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material? Is the number of sources I’ve used appropriate for the length of my paper?
  • Have I critically analysed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them? Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?
  • Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?
  • Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate, and useful?

You can add other questions of your own to focus the search, for example: What time period am I interested in? What geographical area? What social setting? What materials?

You may wish to make a decision about whether to start with a narrow focus and work outwards, or to start wide before focussing in. It is a good idea to decide your strategy on this, rather than drifting into one or the other. It is one way to gain a sense of control, in what can feel like an overwhelming and uncontrollable stage of the research process.

Ways of finding relevant material

Electronic Searches

Searching electronic databases is the quickest way to access a lot of material. Guidance will be available via your own school or department and via the relevant Academic Librarian.

Key publications for your subject may also be accessible electronically. These might include, collections of policy documents, standards, archive material, videos, and audio-recordings.

References of references

If you can find a few really useful sources, it can be useful to look through their reference lists for any sources relevant to your work. This can be particularly useful if you find a review article that evaluates other literature in the field.

Hand searching of journals

You are most likely to begin your literature search electronically. However, it can be surprisingly useful to look through the contents pages, and the individual articles of print journals.

When hand searching journals, it is best to focus on the most relevant journals for your research topic. Also limit yourself to volumes from the last year or two to ensure you look at the most up-to-date research.

Collecting material

Before reading articles in full, consult the abstracts to check their relevance. This will prevent you from using valuable time reading irrelevant material.

EndNote and RefWorks are software packages you can use to store your references. You can also record your comments on them. As you review the references, remember to be an active and critical reader. For further advice, see the study guide Active reading.

Keeping a record

Keeping a record of your search strategy is useful. This will prevent you duplicating effort by doing the same search twice. It will also help to ensure you do not miss out a significant sector of literature because you think you have already done that search. Increasingly, at post-graduate level examiners wish to understand how you selected evidence. Therefore, you may be required to explain your search strategy, and your process of selection and omission.

You need to check what is required within your own discipline. Are you required to record and present your search strategy? If so, you may be able to include the details of the search strategy as an appendix to your dissertation.

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is regarded as a serious offence by all universities. So, you need to make sure that you do not, even accidentally, commit plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the using of someone else’s words or ideas, and passing them off as your own. It can happen accidentally, for example, if you are careless in your note-taking. This can mean that you get mixed up over what is an exact quote, and what you have written in your own words. You might become confused over what was an idea of your own that you jotted down, or an idea from a text.

Refer to the study guide Note-making for practical advice on how to record your reading.  Help is available on how to avoid plagiarism and it is worth accessing. Your department will have its own guidance. Further help is available from the Academic Skills Centre. You might also like to read the study guide Avoiding plagiarism. There is also an online tutorial on plagiarism.

When to stop

It is important to keep control of the reading process, and to keep your research focus in mind. Rudestam and Newton (1992, p. 49) remind us that the aim is to ‘Build an argument, not a library’.

It is also important to see the writing stage as part of the research process, not something that happens after you have finished reading the literature. Wellington et al. (2005, p. 80) suggest ‘Writing while you collect and collecting while you write.’

Once you are part way through your reading, you can begin writing the literature review. Explaining something in writing can often help to clarify your thoughts on a topic. It is also a useful means of highlighting where your argument is weak. If your argument is weak in places, you may need to take a break from writing to collect more evidence.

A skill that helps in curtailing the reading is: knowing where to set boundaries. It can help to consider the amount of time you have available. Also consider the length of the literature review. Think realistically about how many sources it is reasonable to address within the word limit available. Try not to use reading as a means of avoiding writing. If you are not sure whether you have collected enough information, ask your supervisor for advice.

Writing it up

The task of shaping a logical and effective literature review is challenging. Some useful guidance on how to approach the writing up is given by Wellington et al (2005, p. 87):

  • “It should be framed by your research questions.
  • It must relate to your study.
  • It must be clear to the reader where it is going: keep signposting along the way.
  • Wherever possible, use original source material rather than summaries or reviews by others.
  • Be in control, not totally deferent to or ‘tossed about by’ previous literature.
  • Be selective. Ask ‘why am I including this?’
  • It is probably best to treat it as a research project in its own right.
  • Engage in a dialogue with the literature, you are not just providing a summary.”

In most disciplines, the aim is for the reader to reach the end of the literature review with a clear appreciation of what you are doing. They should also understand why you are doing it and how it fits in with other research in your field. Often, the literature review will end with a statement of the research question(s).

Having a lot of literature to report on can feel overwhelming. It is important to keep the focus on your study, rather than on the literature (Wellington, 2005). To help you do this, you will need to establish a structure to work to. A good, well-explained structure is also a huge help to the reader.

Structure

As with any piece of extended writing, structure is crucial. There may be specific guidance on structure within your department. Alternatively, you may need to devise your own. Examples of ways you might structure your literature review are:

  • Chronological structure: be careful not to list items. You need to write critically, not just descriptively.
  • Thematic structure: this is useful if there are several strands within your topic. You can consider each separately before bringing them together.
  • Structure by sector. For example, political background, practice background, methodological background, geographical background, literary background.
  • By some combination of the above, or by another structure you create.

There are many possible structures. Your task is to establish one that will best fit the ‘story’ you are telling of the reason for your study. Once you have established your structure you need to outline it for your reader.

A narrative thread

Although you clearly need to write in an academic style, it can be helpful to imagine that you are telling a story. The thread running through the story is the explanation of why you decided to do the study that you are doing. The story needs to be logical, informative, persuasive, comprehensive and, ideally, interesting. It needs to reach the logical conclusion that your research is a good idea.

Using tables

Tables can be useful within a literature review to display numerical data. They can also be useful when comparing other kinds of material. For example, you could use a table to display the key differences between two or more:

  • possible theoretical perspectives;
  • possible methods;
  • sets of assumptions;
  • sample profiles;
  • possible explanations.

The table format can make the comparisons easier to understand than if they were listed within the text. It can also be a check for yourself that you have identified enough relevant differences. An omission will be more obvious within a table, where it would appear as a blank cell, than it would be within text.

Reviewing your review

Once you have a first draft of your literature review, it is possible to assess how well you have achieved your aims. One way of doing this is to examine each paragraph in turn. Write in the margin a very brief summary of the content, and the type of content e.g.: argument for; argument against; description; example; theory; link. These summaries then provide the outline of the story you are telling, and the way that you are telling it. Both of these are important and need to be critically reviewed.

Useful questions at this stage include:

  • What is the balance between description and comment?
  • Have I missed out any important dimension of the argument, or literature?
  • Have I supported the development of each step in my argument effectively?
  • Is the material presented in the most effective order?
  • Are there places where the reader is left with unanswered questions?
  • Is every element of my research question supported by the preceding material?
  • Have I explained to the reader the relevance of each piece of evidence?
  • Is there any material that is interesting but which does not contribute to the development of the argument?
  • Have I explained adequately the justification for this research approach / topic / question?
  • Are my references up to date?
  • How effective is my linking of all the elements?

Beware of becoming too attached to your writing. You need to be ready to cross out whole paragraphs or even whole sections if they do not pass the above tests. If you find that what you’ve written is not in the best order, then re-shaping it is not a huge problem. It may be a case of cutting and pasting material into a different order, with some additional explanation and linking. If this produces a more relevant and streamlined argument it is well worth the effort.

Reference list

Almost all academic writing will need a reference list. This is a comprehensive list of the full references of sources that you have referred to in your writing. The reader needs to be able to follow up any source you have referred to.

References

Merriam, S. (1988) Case study research in education: a qualitative approach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rudestam, K. and Newton, R. (1992) Surviving your dissertation. London: Sage.

Taylor, D. (n.d.) The literature review: a few tips on conducting it. Available at: https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/types-of-writing/literature-review/ (Accessed 27 April 2020).

Wellington J., Bathmaker A., Hunt C., McCulloch G., and Sikes P. (2005) Succeeding with your doctorate. London: Sage.

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