HOW TO DEVELOP A LITERATURE REVIEW FOR A RESEARCH WORK
A literature review is a survey of academic sources on a particular project topic. It gives an overview of the ebb and flows information, permitting you to distinguish significant hypotheses, strategies, and holes in the current research.
A literature review is to show your reader that you have read, and have a good grasp of, the main published work concerning a particular topic or question in your field.
It is very important to note that your review should not be simply a description of what others have published in the form of a set of summaries but should take the form of a critical discussion, showing insight and an awareness of differing arguments, theories, and approaches. It should be a synthesis and analysis of the relevant published work, linked at all times to your own purpose and rationale.
Conducting a literature review involves collecting, evaluating and analyzing publications (such as books and journal articles) that relate to your research question. There are five main steps in the process of writing a literature review:
- Search for relevant literature
- Evaluate sources
- Identify themes, debates, and gaps
- Outline the structure
- Write your literature review
A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources – it analyzes, synthesizes, and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.
According to Caulley (1992) of La Trobe University, the literature review should:
• compare and contrast different authors’ views on an issue • group authors who draw similar conclusions • criticize aspects of the methodology • note areas in which authors are in disagreement • highlight exemplary studies • highlight gaps in research • show how your study relates to previous studies • show how your study relates to the literature in general • conclude by summarising what the literature says
THE PURPOSES OF THE REVIEW ARE:
• To define and limit the problem you are working on • To place your study in a historical perspective • To avoid unnecessary duplication • To evaluate promising research methods • To relate your findings to previous knowledge and suggest further research
A good literature review, therefore, is critical of what has been written, identifies areas of controversy, raises questions and identifies areas that need further research.
STRUCTURE OF THE LITERATURE REVIEW
The overall structure of your review will depend largely on your own thesis or research area. What you will need to do is to group together and compare and contrast the varying opinions of different writers on certain topics. What you must not do is just describe what one writer says, and then go on to give a general overview of another writer, and then another, and so on. Your structure should be dictated instead by topic areas, controversial issues or by questions to which there are varying approaches and theories. Within each of these sections, you would then discuss what the different literature argues, remembering to link this to your own purpose.
Linking words are important. If you are grouping together writers with similar opinions, you would use words or phrases such as: Similarly, in addition, also, again
More importantly, if there is disagreement, you need to indicate clearly that you are aware of this by the use of linkers such as: however, on the other hand, conversely, nevertheless
At the end of the review, you should include a summary of what the literature implies, which again links to your hypothesis or main question.
A standard research literature review is expected to follow the format below:
- Conceptual framework
- Theoretical framework
- Empirical review
- Knowledge gap (optional)
- Summary of literature
INTRODUCTION: here undergraduate or final year project students are expected to simply spell out in at least seven (7) what this chapter will contain. As we have it above conceptual framework, theoretical framework, empirical review, etc. a good introduction gives the project supervisor kind confidence in his or her project students.
CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: a good conceptual framework will cover all the research objectives so as to help solve the problem of the research work. This section involves the use of diagrams to explain certain key variables in the research work. The use of diagram is usually high in MBA/MSC thesis research.
THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK: this section is very important in research work. Undergraduate project students, postgraduate research students are expected to search for theories that are related to their research project topic.
For example, consider the project topic on human resource management: work-life balancing and its effect on employee productivity; the theory that is suited for the above research topic is The Segmentation Theory, Spill-Over Theory, Compensation Theory, Resource Drain Theory, and Border Theory. A project student is expected to get the theories that are related to their research work/ topic.
The empirical review is simply talking about the various researches done by other researchers concerning your topic or people's research works that are similar to your research work. The names of various researchers must be attached to their findings or statement.
For example, the use of instructional materials in teaching and learning of geography in senior secondary schools has a significant effect on the level of the academic achievement of students (Androameda, 2017)
SUMMARY OF LITERATURE
Here the research or project students are expected to point out their view concerning all that was discussed in each section of the literature review.
WHY WRITE A LITERATURE REVIEW?
When you write a thesis, dissertation, or research paper, you will have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:
- Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and scholarly context
- Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
- Position yourself in relation to other researchers and theorists
- Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
You might also have to write a literature review as a stand-alone assignment. In this case, the purpose is to evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of scholarly debates around a topic.
The content will look slightly different in each case, but the process of conducting a literature review follows the same steps.
Step 1: Search for relevant literature
Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic.
If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions.
If you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, you will have to choose a focus and develop a central question to direct your search. Unlike a dissertation research question, this question has to be answerable without collecting original data. You should be able to answer it based only on a review of existing publications.
Search for literature using keywords and citations
Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research topic and question. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:
- Your university’s library catalog
- Google Scholar
- Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
- Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
- EconLit (economics)
- Inspec (physics, engineering, and computer science)
Read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.
To identify the most important publications on your topic, take note of recurring citations. If the same authors, books or articles keep appearing in your reading, make sure to seek them out.
You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar – a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.
What can proofreading do for your paper?
Scribbr editors not only correct grammar and spelling mistakes, but also strengthen your writing by making sure your paper is free of vague language, redundant words, and awkward phrasing.
Step 2: Evaluate and select sources
You probably won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic – you’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your questions.
For each publication, ask yourself:
- What question or problem is the author addressing?
- What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
- What are the key theories, models and methods? Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
- What are the results and conclusions of the study?
- How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
- How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?
Make sure the sources you use are credible and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.
The scope of your review will depend on your topic and discipline: in the sciences, you usually only review recent literature, but in the humanities, you might take a long historical perspective (for example, to trace how a concept has changed in meaning over time).
Take notes and cite your sources
As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.
It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism. It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography, where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.
You can use our free citation generator to quickly create correct and consistent APA citations or MLA format citations.
Step 3: Identify themes, debates, and gaps
To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, you need to understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:
- Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
- Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
- Debates, conflicts, and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
- Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
- Gaps: What is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?
This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.
Step 4: Outline your literature review’s structure
There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.
Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).
The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.
Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.
If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.
For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.
If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods, you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:
- Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
- Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources
A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.
You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.
Step 5: Write your literature review
Like any other academic text, your literature review should have an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion. What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.
The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.
Dissertation literature review you are writing the literature review as part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate your central problem or research question and give a brief summary of the scholarly context. You can emphasize the timeliness of the topic (“many recent studies have focused on the problem of x”) or highlight a gap in the literature (“while there has been much research on x, few researchers have taken y into consideration”). Stand-alone literature review you are writing a stand-alone paper, give some background on the topic and its importance, discuss the scope of the literature you will review (for example, the time period of your sources), and state your objective. What new insight will you draw from the literature?
Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.
As you write, you can follow these tips:
- Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers—add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transitions and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts
Literature review paragraph example
The example below is taken from the body of a literature review on the relationship between national identity and nature conservation. This paragraph discusses how humanities scholars have approached the concept of wilderness.
Early work in environmental humanities tended to take a sharply critical approach to the wilderness, focusing on the cultural construction of supposedly ‘natural’ landscapes. The rise of climate change awareness in the 1980s had been framed by narratives about “the end of nature” (McKibben 1989), in which a once-pristine wilderness is degraded by humans to the point of disappearance. In response to this popular discourse, environmental historian William Cronon critiqued the concept of pure, pristine nature to be preserved from human influence, arguing that ideas like “wilderness” are themselves products of particular human cultures and histories. In his influential essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’ (1995), Cronon traces how the ideal of untouched wilderness, anxiety over its loss, and the political will to preserve it has been central to American national identity, entwined with religious motifs and colonial frontier mythologies. Following Cronon, the racial and class politics of wilderness preservation was a theme taken up by several scholars in the late 1990s and early 2000s, who researched the material effects of conservation politics on indigenous and rural Americans (Catton 1997; Spence 1999; Jacoby 2001). The US National Park system became the dominant paradigm for analyzing relations between conservation, nationhood, and nationalism. However, this approach has sometimes led to a narrowly US-centric perspective that fails to engage closely with the meanings and materialities of “wilderness” in different contexts. Recent work has begun to challenge this paradigm and argues for more varied approaches to understanding the socio-political relations between nations and nature.
The example combines the thematic and chronological approaches. This section of the literature review focuses on the theme of wilderness, while the paragraph itself is organized chronologically.
In conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.
Dissertation literature review if the literature review is part of your thesis or dissertation, show how your research addresses gaps and contributes new knowledge, or discuss how you have drawn on existing theories and methods to build a framework for your research.Stand-alone literature review if you are writing a stand-alone paper, you can discuss the overall implications of the literature or make suggestions for future research based on the gaps you have identified.
When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting it. Our quick guide to proofreading offers some useful tips and tricks!