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#28) Literature Review What is a literature review? A literature review presents a survey of

#28) Literature Review

What is a literature review?

A literature review presents a survey of important published sources in a specific subject area. A literature

review can be a self-contained project or the introduction to a longer research project.

Literature review assignments may vary by instructor, discipline, and document type, but most reviews require that the writer perform the following tasks:

Summarize sources

Trace intellectual progress in the subject area, including major debates

Evaluate sources and identify the most relevant research

Evaluate sources in the context of a particular research problem

Establish the need for further research (and that you will be doing, if that is part of your assignment)

Check with your instructor to determine the specific type and purpose of the literature review you will be writing.

How do I select sources?

One of the most frustrating problems in doing academic research is the sheer magnitude of available sources on any given topic. Reading one source may lead you to another, and another, and another, ad infinitum. Just remember to stay as specific as possible while allowing for other less relevant research to come in only if necessary. Try starting with the big names in the field, then look for further studies based on the major authors’ works.

If you are unfamiliar with the topic or who the major writers in the field are, look for information on the field

in a textbook or general resource. Check the bibliography for names referenced, and then you can look for

articles by those authors. Additionally, as you read through articles on the topic, you will likely see a handful

of names referenced several times. These are the authors you should investigate, as most writers will discuss

leading theorists.

As you read, be diligent about keeping your research specific. It is very easy to get off track when reading through research, and you will need to maintain your focus, or your literature review will get unwieldy.

The types of sources you should consider are, among others:


Journal articles

Conference proceedings

Government reports

Unpublished dissertations and theses (be wary, as graduate students are less experienced researchers)

Bibliographical sources

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Websites published by the government institutions, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions (other sites may be useful, but verify accuracy and credibility)

Electronic sources available in the campus library.

Films, sound recordings, interviews, etc.

Avoid popular magazines, as these are for a general readership and will not offer enough significant information.

Don’t be afraid of Interlibrary Loan (ILL)! You can usually get journal articles for download within a couple of hours or days, and books within about a week. Don’t exclude an important source just because our library does not have it.

Before getting started

Clarify the assignment with your instructor. Should you merely summarize, or should you also synthesize and/or evaluate the information?

Determine how many sources you should cover.

Determine whether you need to focus on current sources or if you need to use a more historical approach (i.e., how far back do you need to go?).

Determine if you need to discuss literature that represents views contrary to your own.

Has your instructor given you a specific topic, or do you need to find your own? If the latter, part of your reading process will include determining a trend in the field, a topic that has not been thoroughly researched, or a topic that has not been analyzed via a particular theory.

Keep a working bibliography as you research so to avoid scrambling to track down resources after writing.

Further pre-writing

You are ready to construct your thesis statement after you have determined your focus. Your thesis statement will advocate a particular perspective on the issue; if the goal of your literature review is to establish that further research needs to be done on a particular issue, then your thesis sentence will convey that need. If you are merely summarizing the research, you should write a thesis sentence that sums up the gist of what has already been done.

Organizing your literature review

A. Introduction

The purpose of the introduction is to identify the topic, issue or area of concern. You should also point out gaps in research, controversies or conflicts, trends in theory or research. Lastly, you should establish your point of view, explain the criteria used in analyzing the literature and provide an organization of the review

B. Body

You can organize your literature review in a number of ways. For example, the organization of a literature review can be thematic, chronological, or by author.

Consult your assignment sheet or your professor to determine which approach you should take. The ideal organizational method is to organize thematically by identifying subtopics or issues and discussing the research already done on each specific issue.

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If your instructor wants you to show what research has been done over a period of time, consider organizing your literature review chronologically. You might consider organizing your literature review by author if your goal is to emphasize to your reader who the major thinkers are in a field and what each contributed.

In summarizing and evaluating the research, you will want to consider discussing items such as weaknesses and strengths, whether important variables were left out, if the study is dated, etc.

Be sure to use transitions throughout your literature review. Because you will be establishing what research has been done, you will want to point out how each element fits into the overall picture and link the issues. For example, statements such as “While Smith focuses on childhood obesity in terms of Body Mass Index, Jones focuses on assessing obesity through percentile rankings” show the relationship between Smith’s and Jones’s findings and let you move smoothly between your discussions.

C. Conclusion Summarize the main points you have covered, emphasizing the points that contribute most significantly to your conclusions. Evaluate the state of the field with regard to your topic.

Conclude your literature review by discussing gaps in the research in order to justify the study you will be doing, if that is the goal of your literature review. If you are merely summarizing the literature, make an overall statement that indicates what has already been done and offer suggestions for further research.

Sample literature reviews



Political Science/History


For further help

Galvan, Jose L. Writing Literature Reviews: A Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak, 2006. Print.

Heppner, P. Paul and Mary J. Heppner. Writing and Publishing Your Thesis, Dissertation and Research: A Guide for Students in the Helping Professions. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2004. Print.

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