A literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work. The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.
A literature review is not an annotated bibliography in which you summarize briefly each article that you have reviewed. While a summary of you have read is contained within the literature review, it goes well beyond merely summarizing professional literature. It focuses on a specific topic of interest to you and includes a critical analysis of the relationship among different works, and relating this research to your work. It may be written as a stand-alone paper or to provide a theoretical framework and rationale for a research study (such as a thesis or dissertation).
A literature review is an evaluative report of information found in the literature related to your selected area of study. The review should describe, summarise, evaluate and clarify this literature. It should give a theoretical base for the research and help you (the author) determine the nature of your research.
Counts as ‘literature’
‘Literature’ covers everything relevant that is written on a topic: books, journal articles, newspaper articles, historical records, government reports, theses and dissertations, etc. The important word is ‘relevant’. Check with your supervisor when in doubt.
How many references to look for writing literature review
This depends on what the literature review is for, and what stage you are at in your studies. Your supervisor or tutor should specify a minimum number of references.
Generally speaking, a reasonable number of references in a literature review would be:
- undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
- Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
- Master’s thesis: 40+ titles
- Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles
Review of literature
- The format of a review of literature may vary from discipline to discipline and from assignment to assignment.
- A review may be a self-contained unit — an end in it — or a preface to and rationale for engaging in primary research. A review is a required part of grant and research proposals and often a chapter in theses and dissertations.
- Generally, the purpose of a review is to analyze critically a segment of a published body of knowledge through summary, classification, and comparison of prior research studies, reviews of literature, and theoretical articles.
- Problem formulation—which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
- Literature search—finding materials relevant to the subject being explored
- Data evaluation—determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
- Analysis and interpretation—discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature
Literature reviews should comprise the following elements:
- An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review
- Division of works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely)
- Explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
- Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research
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, and 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?
- Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
- Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
- Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
- Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
- Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
- Point the way forward for further research
- Place one’s original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature.
WRITE A LITERATURE REVIEW
Conduct the literature search
Find out what has been written on your subject. Use as many bibliographical sources as you can to find relevant titles. The following are likely sources:
- Bibliographies and references in key textbooks and recent journal articles. Your supervisor or tutor should tell you which are the key texts and relevant journals.
- Abstracting databases, such as PsycINFO, Medline, etc
- Citation databases, such as Web of Science, Scopus.
- Many abstracting journals and electronic databases are available through the University Library’s Research Gateway.
Note the bibliographical details
Write down the full bibliographical details of each book or article as soon as you find a reference to it. This will save you an enormous amount of time later on.
Find the literature
Once you have what looks like a list of relevant texts, you have to find them.
- Use the UC library catalogue to see if the books and journals are held at UC.
- For journals, look at the A-Z listing.
- For books and journals, you can use the UC library pages to search other Canberra library catalogues (including the National Library).
- For journals, articles, theses, particularly on Australian topics, use the Trove Database http://trove.nla.gov.au.
If the book or journal you want is not held in Canberra, you may be able to access it through inter-library loans. Check with your supervisor to see if this facility is available to you. (Someone has to pay for inter-library loans!)
The full text of many journal articles can be found on electronic databases such as Business Source Complete, IEEE Explore, and Science Direct.
Read the literature
Before you begin to read a book or article, make sure you written down the full details
Take notes as you read the literature. You are reading to find out how each piece of writing approaches the subject of your research, what it has to say about it, and (especially for research students) how it relates to your own thesis:
- Is it a general textbook or does it deals with a specific issue(s)?
- Is it an empirical report, a theoretical study, a sociological or political account, a historical overview, etc? All or some of these?
- Does it follow a particular school of thought?
- What is its theoretical basis?
- What definitions does it use?
- What is its general methodological approach? What methods are used?
- What kinds of data does it use to back up its argument?
- What conclusions does it come to?
Other questions may be relevant. It depends on the purpose of the review.
Usually, you won’t have to read the whole text from first to last page. Learn to use efficient scanning and skimming reading techniques.
Write the review
Having gathered the relevant details about the literature, you now need to write the review. The kind of review you write, and the amount of detail, will depend on the level of your studies.
Like all academic writing, a literature review must have an introduction, body, and conclusion.
The introduction should include:
- the nature of the topic under discussion (the topic of your thesis)
- The parameters of the topic (what does it includes and exclude)?
- the basis for your selection of the literature
- Theconclusion should include:
- A summary of major agreements and disagreements in the literature
- A summary of general conclusions that are being drawn.
- A summary of where your thesis sits in the literature
The body paragraphs could include relevant paragraphs on:
- historical background, including classic texts
- current mainstream versus alternative theoretical or ideological viewpoints, including differing theoretical assumptions, differing political outlooks, and other conflicts
- possible approaches to the subject (empirical, philosophical, historical, etc)
- definitions in use
- current research studies
- current discoveries about the topic
- principal questions that are being asked
- general conclusions that are being drawn
- methodologies and methods in use