How to write a literature review

A literature review is research and analysis of all available sources in particular topic area. In other words, it is not just a list of different writers and their opinions related to your research paper. A good review should describe what you have found and read before even starting to work on your paper. This is the basis of the study that motivates for research.

A literature review covers the following tasks:

  • It shows the relation to body of knowledge and demonstrates credibility of your research.
  • It consolidates initial research and explains how your paper is related to it.
  • It summarises what is known about a subject.
  • It shows what knowledge you have acquired from others and what new ideas you have gained.

Your research should become starting point for new ideas that are based on existing literature.

To avoid common misunderstandings about what dissertation literature review should contain, take a look at our guide that demystifies the process in several simple steps.

What is literature review: Sources

The literature review is commonly placed at the beginning of your thesis after the introduction section. Your writing should provide a clear picture of the whole area, describing multiple viewpoints and angles of important issues.

Usually, it includes the following types of studies:

  • peer-reviewed articles;
  • original sources i.e. books;
  • dissertations;
  • conference papers.

In literature review, you provide an in-depth analysis of already published literature by choosing what to comment on and where to place focus. What is your understanding of a particular source? Is this explanation different from other viewpoints? This is an example of critical evaluation that is expected in a quality paper.

Sources that fit: How to find a relevant literature

Not all primary or secondary sources will be relevant for your research. Checking databases for repeatedly mentioned texts is similar to looking for a needle in a haystack. That’s why you should think of specific literature suited to your topic of interest.

The more niche literature is, the better. If you are taking a class in Ecosystem Ecology and are suggested to investigate the ways of reining in climate change in the 21st century, then you will find updated information on a daily basis to use in your review. If you are dealing with something very topical, stay up to date with news and ongoing research papers presented by experts.

Your readers want to know that your work not only includes authoritative opinions but also that these opinions are a part of events that are still occurring.

Here are the basic rules of finding relevant sources:

1. Search online to quickly become familiar with your topic.

2. Search for updated information in scholarly journals.

3. Make a list of search terms that aren’t too broad, you can then narrow down search by checking glossary for potentially useful terms.

4. Consult with your teaching assistant.

Narrow down your sources: How to evaluate literature

Selecting relevant literature usually requires lots of patience. If you see that you still get too many results, look to more experienced people for help. You can either organise research consultation session with peers or meet your professor. They will give you insights and some new ideas for what to exclude from your list.

Another great way is to ask Google and use the advanced search:

  • choose a particular language and region;
  • last update;
  • document or source type;
  • search one site (like Wikipedia) or limit your results to a domain like .edu, .org or .gov
  • type in relevant keywords.

How to identify gaps in literature review

To point out your contribution you have to identify gaps in the literature. It shouldn’t necessarily be only one gap. If you are doing an in-depth analysis like dissertation, your investigation may include several weaknesses. Identifying one or several gaps will show your critical thinking and better demonstrate your investigation.

Gaps should provide an answer to the question:

  • Is there anything missing from literature?
  • Decide what needs to be changed and determine what steps need to be taken to fix things.Remember, you can always use some dissertation help if you need any.

The Structure

There are different methods of structuring your literature review. The two main ways include thematic and chronological.

Thematic review

This method is based on selecting several sources according to the topic and its relevance. This type is preferred by students because it implies a more focused investigation. By using this option, you have to explain why certain sources are related to each other.

Chronological review

If you would like to choose a chronological method, organise your literature by the date of publication. It is considered to be the second method. It is more suitable if you are working on historiographical works or other papers that describe how a particular issue changed over time.

How to write literature review

Even though your review depends on the literature you have selected, you can manage its structure and logic. Present the concepts in an order that corresponds to the area of your project.

Perfect situation is when you already know how to present your ideas and in what order. Otherwise, use the following structures that consist of introduction, body, and summary.

Introduction

Your opening should bring a general topic and provide context. Here you can explain why this topic is vital, describe conflicts, gaps in research, criteria that you used when evaluating literature.

Body

This part of review has to be organized into paragraphs that represent trends related to your area of research. Don’t just list all sources. It’s better to categorize them in a way that brings a clear connection.

Summary

Whereas a conclusion is supposed to provide a short recap of the general idea of sources, it should also include a new approach to original research. You can end with a statement: “Previous research failed to match what is found later …”. Thus summarise the main thoughts and disagreements in literature.