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As a general guide, a dissertation literature review will account for approximately ten to fifteen per cent of a dissertation. However, there are some dissertations, for example within subjects such as nursing, where the literature review may account for significantly more. The literature review is your chance to ‘show off’ how much you have read and to demonstrate how your work builds upon the work of others and is supported by existing academics.
A literature review is not, however, just an exercise in repeating what others have written. It is not sufficient just to list twenty books/articles and to state what each author says. Rather, you must analyse what they have written and link what they have written directly to the exact questions that your dissertation is answering (as you write the dissertation these questions may, subtly change – hence the need, as mentioned earlier, to allow time to review your introduction).
In a literature review you must show that you understand how that which has been previously written upon your subject area feeds into your work and how your work builds upon it. You are not, whatever you may think, writing in a void. Nor are you likely to be writing something that is absolutely ‘unique and new’. The literature review therefore acts to ground and base your work in the wider academic community of writing. Through so doing it allows your work to review the academic debates that surround the subject upon which you are writing.
It is impolite, arrogant, and non-academic (especially at undergraduate level) to state that an academic expert is wrong. You are writing a very short piece of work and they have spent years researching their opinion. However, it is permissible to state that Author X believes that Author Y is wrong and that your dissertation supports the view taken by Author X (without using the first person). Thus, you may use the books and articles noted in the literature review to further the line of argument you believe and to debase the arguments of those that you do not find convincing. However, by using the opinions of others (in a referenced and quotable manner) you are depersonalising the argument and making sure that your work conforms to best academic practice, for which you will be rewarded.
When writing the literature review you do not need to comment on every book that has ever been written on the subject or to quote from every book that you mention. However, you do need to show to the marker that you have actually read the works that you are commenting upon. Literature reviews that just contain long lists of authors in sentences such as, ‘Author X suggests xyz, with which Authors L, M, N, O, and P agree’ do not receive good marks. Such sentences give the impression that little has been read or absorbed, that the student has just copied down a list of names, and that they have not interacted with the books they have mentioned.
In contrast, a literature review that states, ‘Author X suggests xyz and, in agreeing, Author L further states ‘(insert quote)” will attain a better mark because you have made the argument using the opinion of experts and you have included a quote. Better still is the literature review that states:
Author X suggests xyz; in agreeing with him, Author L further states that ‘(insert quote’ and then full citation). This is important within the confines of this dissertation because, as will be noted in Chapter Five, the experiment carried out conforms to views that both authors have previously expressed.
The final example is of First class standard because it directly links the literature review to your own work and directly shows how your work is contributing to the accumulation of wider knowledge. Moreover, the sentences are clear and easily written and the inclusion of a direct quote illustrates to the marker that you have taken the time to read (at least a section) of the book you have referred to. It is this attention to detail that will help you to achieve a good grade for your literature review within your dissertation.
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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