1.04 How to write a literature review
What is a literature review?
The aim of a literature review is to show your reader (your tutor) that you have read, and have a good grasp of, the main published work concerning a particular topic or question in your field. This work may be in any format, including online sources. It may be a separate assignment, or one of the introductory sections of a report, dissertation or thesis. In the latter cases in particular, the review will be guided by your research objective or by the issue or thesis you are arguing and will provide the framework for your further work.
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.
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
• criticise aspects of 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 an 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 which 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.
You first need to decide what you need to read. In many cases you will be given a booklist or directed towards areas of useful published work. Make sure you use this help. With dissertations, and particularly theses, it will be more down to you to decide. It is important, therefore, to try and decide on the parameters of your research. What exactly are your objectives and what do you need to find out? In your review, are you looking at issues of theory, methodology, policy, quantitive research, or what? Before you start reading it may be useful to compile a list of the main areas and questions involved, and then read with the purpose of finding out about or answering these. Unless something comes up which is particularly important, stick to this list, as it is very easy to get sidetracked, particularly on the internet.
A good literature review needs a clear line of argument. You therefore need to use the critical notes and comments you made whilst doing your reading to express an academic opinion. Make sure that:
• you include a clear, short introduction which gives an outline of the review, including the main topics covered and the order of the arguments, with a brief rationale for this.
• there is always a clear link between your own arguments and the evidence uncovered in your reading. Include a short summary at the end of each section.
Use quotations if appropriate.
• you always acknowledge opinions which do not agree with your thesis. If you ignore opposing viewpoints, your argument will in fact be weaker.
Your review must be written in a formal, academic style. Keep your writing clear and concise, avoiding colloquialisms and personal language. You should always aim to be objective and respectful of others’ opinions; this is not the place for emotive language or strong personal opinions. If you thought something was rubbish, use words such as inconsistent, lacking in certain areas or based on false assumptions! (See Guide 1.21)
When introducing someone’s opinion, don’t use says, but instead an appropriate verb which more accurately reflects this viewpoint, such as argues, claims or states. Use the present tense for general opinions and theories, or the past when referring to specific research or experiments:
Although Trescothick (2001) argues that attack is the best form of defence, Boycott (1969) claims that.
In a field study carried out amongst the homeless of Sydney, Warne (1999) found that.
And remember at all times to avoid plagiarising your sources. Always separate your source opinions from your own hypothesis. making sure you consistently reference the literature you are referring to. When you are doing your reading and making notes, it might be an idea to use different colours to distinguish between your ideas and those of others. (See Guide 1.13).
Here is a final checklist, courtesy of the University of Melbourne:
Selection of Sources
Have you indicated the purpose of the review?
Are the parameters of the review reasonable?
Why did you include some of the literature and exclude others?
Which years did you exclude?
Have you emphasised recent developments?
Have you focussed on primary sources with only selective use of secondary sources?
Is the literature you have selected relevant?
Is your bibliographic data complete?
Critical Evaluation of the Literature
Have you organised your material according to issues?
Is there a logic to the way you organised the material?
Does the amount of detail included on an issue relate to its importance?
Have you been sufficiently critical of design and methodological issues?
Have you indicated when results were conflicting or inconclusive and discussed possible reasons?
Have you indicated the relevance of each reference to your research?
Has your summary of the current literature contributed to the reader’s understanding of the problems?
Does the design of your research reflect the methodological implications of the literature review?
The literature review will be judged in the context of your completed research.
The review needs to further the reader’s understanding of the problem and whether it provides a rationale for your research.
Links to further resources on writing dissertations
The Dissertation Literature Review is a review of relevant theory and the most recent published information on the issue.
A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers.
In writing the literature review for your dissertation, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g. your dissertation research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries.
Besides enlarging your knowledge about the topic, writing a literature review lets you gain and demonstrate skills in two areas:
- Information seeking. the ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles and books
- Critical appraisal. the ability to apply principles of analysis to identify unbiased and valid studies.
A literature review must do these things:
- Be organised around and related directly to the thesis or research question you are developing
- 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
A literature review is a piece of discursive prose. not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another. It’s usually a bad sign to see every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher. Instead, organize the literature review into sections that present themes or identify trends, including relevant theory. You are not trying to list all the material published, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question.
Compare this to an annotated bibliography. which is something entirely different. For writing an annotated bibliography, you may need to summarise each item briefly, but should still follow through themes and concepts and do some critical assessment of material. Use an overall introduction and conclusion to state the scope of your coverage and to formulate the question, problem, or concept your chosen material illuminates. Usually you will have the option of grouping items into sections – this helps you indicate comparisons and relationships. You may be able to write a paragraph or so to introduce the focus of each section.
“I am so fond of tea that I could write a whole dissertation on its virtues. It comforts and enlivens without the risks attendant on spirituous liquors. Gentle herb! Let the florid grape yield to thee. Thy soft influence is a more safe inspirer of social joy.” (James Boswell, Scottish Biographer, 1740-1795)
Top dissertation literature review tips
Some questions to ask yourself before including material:
- 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 )?
- 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?
For each article or book you include, you should ask yourself questions like these:
- Has the author formulated a problem/issue?
- Is it clearly defined? Is its significance (scope, severity, relevance) clearly established?
- Could the problem have been approached more effectively from another perspective?
- What is the author’s research orientation (e.g. interpretive, critical science, combination)?
- What is the author’s theoretical framework (e.g. psychological, developmental, feminist)?
- What is the relationship between the theoretical and research perspectives?
- 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?
- 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?
- In material written for a 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?
- How does the author structure the argument? Can you deconstruct the flow of the argument to see whether or where it breaks down logically (e.g. in establishing cause-effect relationships)?
- 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?
- How does this book or article relate to the specific thesis or question I am developing?
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