Grad Coach

Literature Review: 3 Essential Ingredients

The theoretical framework, empirical research and research gap

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewer: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | July 2023

Writing a comprehensive but concise literature review is no simple task. There’s a lot of ground to cover and it can be challenging to figure out what’s important and what’s not. In this post, we’ll unpack three essential ingredients that need to be woven into your literature review to lay a rock-solid foundation for your study.

This post is based on our popular online course, Literature Review Bootcamp . In the course, we walk you through the full process of developing a literature review, step by step. If it’s your first time writing a literature review, you definitely want to use this link to get 50% off the course (limited-time offer).

Overview: Essential Ingredients

  • Ingredients vs structure
  • The theoretical framework (foundation of theory)
  • The empirical research
  • The research gap
  • Summary & key takeaways

Ingredients vs Structure

As a starting point, it’s important to clarify that the three ingredients we’ll cover in this video are things that need to feature within your literature review, as opposed to a set structure for your chapter . In other words, there are different ways you can weave these three ingredients into your literature review. Regardless of which structure you opt for, each of the three components will make an appearance in some shape or form. If you’re keen to learn more about structural options, we’ve got a dedicated post about that here .

Free Webinar: Literature Review 101

1. The Theoretical Framework

Let’s kick off with the first essential ingredient – that is the theoretical framework , also called the foundation of theory . 

The foundation of theory, as the name suggests, is where you’ll lay down the foundational building blocks for your literature review so that your reader can get a clear idea of the core concepts, theories and assumptions (in relation to your research aims and questions) that will guide your study. Note that this is not the same as a conceptual framework .

Typically you’ll cover a few things within the theoretical framework:

Firstly, you’ll need to clearly define the key constructs and variables that will feature within your study. In many cases, any given term can have multiple different definitions or interpretations – for example, different people will define the concept of “integrity” in different ways. This variation in interpretation can, of course, wreak havoc on how your study is understood. So, this section is where you’ll pin down what exactly you mean when you refer to X, Y or Z in your study, as well as why you chose that specific definition. It’s also a good idea to state any assumptions that are inherent in these definitions and why these are acceptable, given the purpose of your study.

Related to this, the second thing you’ll need to cover in your theoretical framework is the relationships between these variables and/or constructs . For example, how does one variable potentially affect another variable – does A have an impact on B, B on A, and so on? In other words, you want to connect the dots between the different “things” of interest that you’ll be exploring in your study. Note that you only need to focus on the key items of interest here (i.e. those most central to your research aims and questions) – not every possible construct or variable.

Lastly, and very importantly, you need to discuss the existing theories that are relevant to your research aims and research questions . For example, if you’re investigating the uptake/adoption of a certain application or software, you might discuss Davis’ Technology Acceptance Model and unpack what it has to say about the factors that influence technology adoption. More importantly, though, you need to explain how this impacts your expectations about what you will find in your own study . In other words, your theoretical framework should reveal some insights about what answers you might expect to find to your research questions .

If this sounds a bit fluffy, don’t worry. We deep dive into the theoretical framework (as well as the conceptual framework) and look at practical examples in Literature Review Bootcamp . If you’d like to learn more, take advantage of the limited-time offer (60% off the standard price).

Need a helping hand?

3 key aspects of literature review

2. The Empirical Research

Onto the second essential ingredient, which is  empirical research . This section is where you’ll present a critical discussion of the existing empirical research that is relevant to your research aims and questions.

But what exactly is empirical research?

Simply put, empirical research includes any study that involves actual data collection and analysis , whether that’s qualitative data, quantitative data, or a mix of both . This contrasts against purely theoretical literature (the previous ingredient), which draws its conclusions based exclusively on logic and reason , as opposed to an analysis of real-world data.

In other words, theoretical literature provides a prediction or expectation of what one might find based on reason and logic, whereas empirical research tests the accuracy of those predictions using actual real-world data . This reflects the broader process of knowledge creation – in other words, first developing a theory and then testing it out in the field.

Long story short, the second essential ingredient of a high-quality literature review is a critical discussion of the existing empirical research . Here, it’s important to go beyond description . You’ll need to present a critical analysis that addresses some (if not all) of the following questions:

  • What have different studies found in relation to your research questions ?
  • What contexts have (and haven’t been covered)? For example, certain countries, cities, cultures, etc.
  • Are the findings across the studies similar or is there a lot of variation ? If so, why might this be the case?
  • What sorts of research methodologies have been used and how could these help me develop my own methodology?
  • What were the noteworthy limitations of these studies?

Simply put, your task here is to present a synthesis of what’s been done (and found) within the empirical research, so that you can clearly assess the current state of knowledge and identify potential research gaps , which leads us to our third essential ingredient.

Theoretical literature provides predictions, whereas empirical research tests the accuracy of those predictions using real-world data.

The Research Gap

The third essential ingredient of a high-quality literature review is a discussion of the research gap (or gaps).

But what exactly is a research gap?

Simply put, a research gap is any unaddressed or inadequately explored area within the existing body of academic knowledge. In other words, a research gap emerges whenever there’s still some uncertainty regarding a certain topic or question.

For example, it might be the case that there are mixed findings regarding the relationship between two variables (e.g., job performance and work-from-home policies). Similarly, there might be a lack of research regarding the impact of a specific new technology on people’s mental health. On the other end of the spectrum, there might be a wealth of research regarding a certain topic within one country (say the US), but very little research on that same topic in a different social context (say, China).

These are just random examples, but as you can see, research gaps can emerge from many different places. What’s important to understand is that the research gap (or gaps) needs to emerge from your previous discussion of the theoretical and empirical literature . In other words, your discussion in those sections needs to start laying the foundation for the research gap.

For example, when discussing empirical research, you might mention that most studies have focused on a certain context , yet very few (or none) have focused on another context, and there’s reason to believe that findings may differ. Or you might highlight how there’s a fair deal of mixed findings and disagreement regarding a certain matter. In other words, you want to start laying a little breadcrumb trail in those sections so that your discussion of the research gap is firmly rooted in the rest of the literature review.

But why does all of this matter?

Well, the research gap should serve as the core justification for your study . Through your literature review, you’ll show what gaps exist in the current body of knowledge, and then your study will then attempt to fill (or contribute towards filling) one of those gaps. In other words, you’re first explaining what the problem is (some sort of gap) and then proposing how you’ll solve it.

 A research gap exists whenever there’s still a  reasonable level of uncertainty or disagreement regarding a certain topic or question.

Key Takeaways

To recap, the three ingredients that need to be mixed into your literature review are:

  • The foundation of theory or theoretical framework
  • The empirical or evidence-based research

As we mentioned earlier, these are components of a literature review and not (necessarily) a structure for your literature review chapter. Of course, you can structure your chapter in a way that reflects these three components (in fact, in some cases that works very well), but it’s certainly not the only option. The right structure will vary from study to study , depending on various factors.

If you’d like to get hands-on help developing your literature review, be sure to check out our private coaching service , where we hold your hand through the entire research journey, step by step. 

Literature Review Course

Psst… there’s more!

This post is an extract from our bestselling short course, Literature Review Bootcamp . If you want to work smart, you don't want to miss this .

You Might Also Like:

How to synthesise literature for a literature review

very good , as the first writer of the thesis i will need ur advise . please give me a piece of idea on topic -impact of national standardized exam on students learning engagement . Thank you .

Submit a Comment Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.

  • Print Friendly

Get science-backed answers as you write with Paperpal's Research feature

What is a Literature Review? How to Write It (with Examples)

literature review

A literature review is a critical analysis and synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. It provides an overview of the current state of knowledge, identifies gaps, and highlights key findings in the literature. 1 The purpose of a literature review is to situate your own research within the context of existing scholarship, demonstrating your understanding of the topic and showing how your work contributes to the ongoing conversation in the field. Learning how to write a literature review is a critical tool for successful research. Your ability to summarize and synthesize prior research pertaining to a certain topic demonstrates your grasp on the topic of study, and assists in the learning process. 

Table of Contents

  • What is the purpose of literature review? 
  • a. Habitat Loss and Species Extinction: 
  • b. Range Shifts and Phenological Changes: 
  • c. Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs: 
  • d. Adaptive Strategies and Conservation Efforts: 
  • How to write a good literature review 
  • Choose a Topic and Define the Research Question: 
  • Decide on the Scope of Your Review: 
  • Select Databases for Searches: 
  • Conduct Searches and Keep Track: 
  • Review the Literature: 
  • Organize and Write Your Literature Review: 
  • Frequently asked questions 

What is a literature review?

A well-conducted literature review demonstrates the researcher’s familiarity with the existing literature, establishes the context for their own research, and contributes to scholarly conversations on the topic. One of the purposes of a literature review is also to help researchers avoid duplicating previous work and ensure that their research is informed by and builds upon the existing body of knowledge.

3 key aspects of literature review

What is the purpose of literature review?

A literature review serves several important purposes within academic and research contexts. Here are some key objectives and functions of a literature review: 2  

  • Contextualizing the Research Problem: The literature review provides a background and context for the research problem under investigation. It helps to situate the study within the existing body of knowledge. 
  • Identifying Gaps in Knowledge: By identifying gaps, contradictions, or areas requiring further research, the researcher can shape the research question and justify the significance of the study. This is crucial for ensuring that the new research contributes something novel to the field. 
  • Understanding Theoretical and Conceptual Frameworks: Literature reviews help researchers gain an understanding of the theoretical and conceptual frameworks used in previous studies. This aids in the development of a theoretical framework for the current research. 
  • Providing Methodological Insights: Another purpose of literature reviews is that it allows researchers to learn about the methodologies employed in previous studies. This can help in choosing appropriate research methods for the current study and avoiding pitfalls that others may have encountered. 
  • Establishing Credibility: A well-conducted literature review demonstrates the researcher’s familiarity with existing scholarship, establishing their credibility and expertise in the field. It also helps in building a solid foundation for the new research. 
  • Informing Hypotheses or Research Questions: The literature review guides the formulation of hypotheses or research questions by highlighting relevant findings and areas of uncertainty in existing literature. 

Literature review example

Let’s delve deeper with a literature review example: Let’s say your literature review is about the impact of climate change on biodiversity. You might format your literature review into sections such as the effects of climate change on habitat loss and species extinction, phenological changes, and marine biodiversity. Each section would then summarize and analyze relevant studies in those areas, highlighting key findings and identifying gaps in the research. The review would conclude by emphasizing the need for further research on specific aspects of the relationship between climate change and biodiversity. The following literature review template provides a glimpse into the recommended literature review structure and content, demonstrating how research findings are organized around specific themes within a broader topic. 

Literature Review on Climate Change Impacts on Biodiversity:

Climate change is a global phenomenon with far-reaching consequences, including significant impacts on biodiversity. This literature review synthesizes key findings from various studies: 

a. Habitat Loss and Species Extinction:

Climate change-induced alterations in temperature and precipitation patterns contribute to habitat loss, affecting numerous species (Thomas et al., 2004). The review discusses how these changes increase the risk of extinction, particularly for species with specific habitat requirements. 

b. Range Shifts and Phenological Changes:

Observations of range shifts and changes in the timing of biological events (phenology) are documented in response to changing climatic conditions (Parmesan & Yohe, 2003). These shifts affect ecosystems and may lead to mismatches between species and their resources. 

c. Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs:

The review explores the impact of climate change on marine biodiversity, emphasizing ocean acidification’s threat to coral reefs (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007). Changes in pH levels negatively affect coral calcification, disrupting the delicate balance of marine ecosystems. 

d. Adaptive Strategies and Conservation Efforts:

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the literature review discusses various adaptive strategies adopted by species and conservation efforts aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change on biodiversity (Hannah et al., 2007). It emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary approaches for effective conservation planning. 

3 key aspects of literature review

How to write a good literature review

Writing a literature review involves summarizing and synthesizing existing research on a particular topic. A good literature review format should include the following elements. 

Introduction: The introduction sets the stage for your literature review, providing context and introducing the main focus of your review. 

  • Opening Statement: Begin with a general statement about the broader topic and its significance in the field. 
  • Scope and Purpose: Clearly define the scope of your literature review. Explain the specific research question or objective you aim to address. 
  • Organizational Framework: Briefly outline the structure of your literature review, indicating how you will categorize and discuss the existing research. 
  • Significance of the Study: Highlight why your literature review is important and how it contributes to the understanding of the chosen topic. 
  • Thesis Statement: Conclude the introduction with a concise thesis statement that outlines the main argument or perspective you will develop in the body of the literature review. 

Body: The body of the literature review is where you provide a comprehensive analysis of existing literature, grouping studies based on themes, methodologies, or other relevant criteria. 

  • Organize by Theme or Concept: Group studies that share common themes, concepts, or methodologies. Discuss each theme or concept in detail, summarizing key findings and identifying gaps or areas of disagreement. 
  • Critical Analysis: Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each study. Discuss the methodologies used, the quality of evidence, and the overall contribution of each work to the understanding of the topic. 
  • Synthesis of Findings: Synthesize the information from different studies to highlight trends, patterns, or areas of consensus in the literature. 
  • Identification of Gaps: Discuss any gaps or limitations in the existing research and explain how your review contributes to filling these gaps. 
  • Transition between Sections: Provide smooth transitions between different themes or concepts to maintain the flow of your literature review. 

Conclusion: The conclusion of your literature review should summarize the main findings, highlight the contributions of the review, and suggest avenues for future research. 

  • Summary of Key Findings: Recap the main findings from the literature and restate how they contribute to your research question or objective. 
  • Contributions to the Field: Discuss the overall contribution of your literature review to the existing knowledge in the field. 
  • Implications and Applications: Explore the practical implications of the findings and suggest how they might impact future research or practice. 
  • Recommendations for Future Research: Identify areas that require further investigation and propose potential directions for future research in the field. 
  • Final Thoughts: Conclude with a final reflection on the importance of your literature review and its relevance to the broader academic community. 

what is a literature review

Conducting a literature review

Conducting a literature review is an essential step in research that involves reviewing and analyzing existing literature on a specific topic. It’s important to know how to do a literature review effectively, so here are the steps to follow: 1  

Choose a Topic and Define the Research Question:

  • Select a topic that is relevant to your field of study. 
  • Clearly define your research question or objective. Determine what specific aspect of the topic do you want to explore? 

Decide on the Scope of Your Review:

  • Determine the timeframe for your literature review. Are you focusing on recent developments, or do you want a historical overview? 
  • Consider the geographical scope. Is your review global, or are you focusing on a specific region? 
  • Define the inclusion and exclusion criteria. What types of sources will you include? Are there specific types of studies or publications you will exclude? 

Select Databases for Searches:

  • Identify relevant databases for your field. Examples include PubMed, IEEE Xplore, Scopus, Web of Science, and Google Scholar. 
  • Consider searching in library catalogs, institutional repositories, and specialized databases related to your topic. 

Conduct Searches and Keep Track:

  • Develop a systematic search strategy using keywords, Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT), and other search techniques. 
  • Record and document your search strategy for transparency and replicability. 
  • Keep track of the articles, including publication details, abstracts, and links. Use citation management tools like EndNote, Zotero, or Mendeley to organize your references. 

Review the Literature:

  • Evaluate the relevance and quality of each source. Consider the methodology, sample size, and results of studies. 
  • Organize the literature by themes or key concepts. Identify patterns, trends, and gaps in the existing research. 
  • Summarize key findings and arguments from each source. Compare and contrast different perspectives. 
  • Identify areas where there is a consensus in the literature and where there are conflicting opinions. 
  • Provide critical analysis and synthesis of the literature. What are the strengths and weaknesses of existing research? 

Organize and Write Your Literature Review:

  • Literature review outline should be based on themes, chronological order, or methodological approaches. 
  • Write a clear and coherent narrative that synthesizes the information gathered. 
  • Use proper citations for each source and ensure consistency in your citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.). 
  • Conclude your literature review by summarizing key findings, identifying gaps, and suggesting areas for future research. 

The literature review sample and detailed advice on writing and conducting a review will help you produce a well-structured report. But remember that a literature review is an ongoing process, and it may be necessary to revisit and update it as your research progresses. 

Frequently asked questions

A literature review is a critical and comprehensive analysis of existing literature (published and unpublished works) on a specific topic or research question and provides a synthesis of the current state of knowledge in a particular field. A well-conducted literature review is crucial for researchers to build upon existing knowledge, avoid duplication of efforts, and contribute to the advancement of their field. It also helps researchers situate their work within a broader context and facilitates the development of a sound theoretical and conceptual framework for their studies.

Literature review is a crucial component of research writing, providing a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. The aim is to keep professionals up to date by providing an understanding of ongoing developments within a specific field, including research methods, and experimental techniques used in that field, and present that knowledge in the form of a written report. Also, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the scholar in his or her field.  

Before writing a literature review, it’s essential to undertake several preparatory steps to ensure that your review is well-researched, organized, and focused. This includes choosing a topic of general interest to you and doing exploratory research on that topic, writing an annotated bibliography, and noting major points, especially those that relate to the position you have taken on the topic. 

Literature reviews and academic research papers are essential components of scholarly work but serve different purposes within the academic realm. 3 A literature review aims to provide a foundation for understanding the current state of research on a particular topic, identify gaps or controversies, and lay the groundwork for future research. Therefore, it draws heavily from existing academic sources, including books, journal articles, and other scholarly publications. In contrast, an academic research paper aims to present new knowledge, contribute to the academic discourse, and advance the understanding of a specific research question. Therefore, it involves a mix of existing literature (in the introduction and literature review sections) and original data or findings obtained through research methods. 

Literature reviews are essential components of academic and research papers, and various strategies can be employed to conduct them effectively. If you want to know how to write a literature review for a research paper, here are four common approaches that are often used by researchers.  Chronological Review: This strategy involves organizing the literature based on the chronological order of publication. It helps to trace the development of a topic over time, showing how ideas, theories, and research have evolved.  Thematic Review: Thematic reviews focus on identifying and analyzing themes or topics that cut across different studies. Instead of organizing the literature chronologically, it is grouped by key themes or concepts, allowing for a comprehensive exploration of various aspects of the topic.  Methodological Review: This strategy involves organizing the literature based on the research methods employed in different studies. It helps to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of various methodologies and allows the reader to evaluate the reliability and validity of the research findings.  Theoretical Review: A theoretical review examines the literature based on the theoretical frameworks used in different studies. This approach helps to identify the key theories that have been applied to the topic and assess their contributions to the understanding of the subject.  It’s important to note that these strategies are not mutually exclusive, and a literature review may combine elements of more than one approach. The choice of strategy depends on the research question, the nature of the literature available, and the goals of the review. Additionally, other strategies, such as integrative reviews or systematic reviews, may be employed depending on the specific requirements of the research.

The literature review format can vary depending on the specific publication guidelines. However, there are some common elements and structures that are often followed. Here is a general guideline for the format of a literature review:  Introduction:   Provide an overview of the topic.  Define the scope and purpose of the literature review.  State the research question or objective.  Body:   Organize the literature by themes, concepts, or chronology.  Critically analyze and evaluate each source.  Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the studies.  Highlight any methodological limitations or biases.  Identify patterns, connections, or contradictions in the existing research.  Conclusion:   Summarize the key points discussed in the literature review.  Highlight the research gap.  Address the research question or objective stated in the introduction.  Highlight the contributions of the review and suggest directions for future research.

Both annotated bibliographies and literature reviews involve the examination of scholarly sources. While annotated bibliographies focus on individual sources with brief annotations, literature reviews provide a more in-depth, integrated, and comprehensive analysis of existing literature on a specific topic. The key differences are as follows: 


  • Denney, A. S., & Tewksbury, R. (2013). How to write a literature review.  Journal of criminal justice education ,  24 (2), 218-234. 
  • Pan, M. L. (2016).  Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches . Taylor & Francis. 
  • Cantero, C. (2019). How to write a literature review.  San José State University Writing Center . 

Paperpal is an AI writing assistant that help academics write better, faster with real-time suggestions for in-depth language and grammar correction. Trained on millions of research manuscripts enhanced by professional academic editors, Paperpal delivers human precision at machine speed.  

Try it for free or upgrade to  Paperpal Prime , which unlocks unlimited access to premium features like academic translation, paraphrasing, contextual synonyms, consistency checks and more. It’s like always having a professional academic editor by your side! Go beyond limitations and experience the future of academic writing.  Get Paperpal Prime now at just US$19 a month!

Related Reads:

  • Empirical Research: A Comprehensive Guide for Academics 
  • How to Write a Scientific Paper in 10 Steps 
  • Life Sciences Papers: 9 Tips for Authors Writing in Biological Sciences
  • What is an Argumentative Essay? How to Write It (With Examples)

6 Tips for Post-Doc Researchers to Take Their Career to the Next Level

Self-plagiarism in research: what it is and how to avoid it, you may also like, how paperpal’s research feature helps you develop and..., how paperpal is enhancing academic productivity and accelerating..., how to write a successful book chapter for..., academic editing: how to self-edit academic text with..., 4 ways paperpal encourages responsible writing with ai, what are scholarly sources and where can you..., how to write a hypothesis types and examples , measuring academic success: definition & strategies for excellence, what is academic writing: tips for students, why traditional editorial process needs an upgrade.

Purdue Online Writing Lab Purdue OWL® College of Liberal Arts

Writing a Literature Review

OWL logo

Welcome to the Purdue OWL

This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.

Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.


  • An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
  • A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
  • Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
  • 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 transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.


  • Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
  • Connect it back to your primary research question

How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

  • Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
  • Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
  • Qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
  • Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

  • It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
  • Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
  • Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
  • Read more about synthesis here.

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.

  • UConn Library
  • Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide
  • Introduction

Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide — Introduction

  • Getting Started
  • How to Pick a Topic
  • Strategies to Find Sources
  • Evaluating Sources & Lit. Reviews
  • Tips for Writing Literature Reviews
  • Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites
  • Citation Resources
  • Other Academic Writings

What are Literature Reviews?

So, what is a literature review? "A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. In writing the literature review, 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 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." Taylor, D.  The literature review: A few tips on conducting it . University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre.

Goals of Literature Reviews

What are the goals of creating a Literature Review?  A literature could be written to accomplish different aims:

  • To develop a theory or evaluate an existing theory
  • To summarize the historical or existing state of a research topic
  • Identify a problem in a field of research 

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1997). Writing narrative literature reviews .  Review of General Psychology , 1 (3), 311-320.

What kinds of sources require a Literature Review?

  • A research paper assigned in a course
  • A thesis or dissertation
  • A grant proposal
  • An article intended for publication in a journal

All these instances require you to collect what has been written about your research topic so that you can demonstrate how your own research sheds new light on the topic.

Types of Literature Reviews

What kinds of literature reviews are written?

Narrative review: The purpose of this type of review is to describe the current state of the research on a specific topic/research and to offer a critical analysis of the literature reviewed. Studies are grouped by research/theoretical categories, and themes and trends, strengths and weakness, and gaps are identified. The review ends with a conclusion section which summarizes the findings regarding the state of the research of the specific study, the gaps identify and if applicable, explains how the author's research will address gaps identify in the review and expand the knowledge on the topic reviewed.

  • Example : Predictors and Outcomes of U.S. Quality Maternity Leave: A Review and Conceptual Framework:  10.1177/08948453211037398  

Systematic review : "The authors of a systematic review use a specific procedure to search the research literature, select the studies to include in their review, and critically evaluate the studies they find." (p. 139). Nelson, L. K. (2013). Research in Communication Sciences and Disorders . Plural Publishing.

  • Example : The effect of leave policies on increasing fertility: a systematic review:  10.1057/s41599-022-01270-w

Meta-analysis : "Meta-analysis is a method of reviewing research findings in a quantitative fashion by transforming the data from individual studies into what is called an effect size and then pooling and analyzing this information. The basic goal in meta-analysis is to explain why different outcomes have occurred in different studies." (p. 197). Roberts, M. C., & Ilardi, S. S. (2003). Handbook of Research Methods in Clinical Psychology . Blackwell Publishing.

  • Example : Employment Instability and Fertility in Europe: A Meta-Analysis:  10.1215/00703370-9164737

Meta-synthesis : "Qualitative meta-synthesis is a type of qualitative study that uses as data the findings from other qualitative studies linked by the same or related topic." (p.312). Zimmer, L. (2006). Qualitative meta-synthesis: A question of dialoguing with texts .  Journal of Advanced Nursing , 53 (3), 311-318.

  • Example : Women’s perspectives on career successes and barriers: A qualitative meta-synthesis:  10.1177/05390184221113735

Literature Reviews in the Health Sciences

  • UConn Health subject guide on systematic reviews Explanation of the different review types used in health sciences literature as well as tools to help you find the right review type
  • << Previous: Getting Started
  • Next: How to Pick a Topic >>
  • Last Updated: Sep 21, 2022 2:16 PM
  • URL:

Creative Commons

  • USC Libraries
  • Research Guides

Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

  • 5. The Literature Review
  • Purpose of Guide
  • Design Flaws to Avoid
  • Independent and Dependent Variables
  • Glossary of Research Terms
  • Reading Research Effectively
  • Narrowing a Topic Idea
  • Broadening a Topic Idea
  • Extending the Timeliness of a Topic Idea
  • Academic Writing Style
  • Applying Critical Thinking
  • Choosing a Title
  • Making an Outline
  • Paragraph Development
  • Research Process Video Series
  • Executive Summary
  • The C.A.R.S. Model
  • Background Information
  • The Research Problem/Question
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Citation Tracking
  • Content Alert Services
  • Evaluating Sources
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Tiertiary Sources
  • Scholarly vs. Popular Publications
  • Qualitative Methods
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Insiderness
  • Using Non-Textual Elements
  • Limitations of the Study
  • Common Grammar Mistakes
  • Writing Concisely
  • Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Footnotes or Endnotes?
  • Further Readings
  • Generative AI and Writing
  • USC Libraries Tutorials and Other Guides
  • Bibliography

A literature review surveys prior research published in books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have used in researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within existing scholarship about the topic.

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . Fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

Importance of a Good Literature Review

A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories . A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might:

  • Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations,
  • Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates,
  • Depending on the situation, evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research, or
  • Usually in the conclusion of a literature review, identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date.

Given this, the purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
  • Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important].

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2011; Knopf, Jeffrey W. "Doing a Literature Review." PS: Political Science and Politics 39 (January 2006): 127-132; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012.

Types of Literature Reviews

It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally among scholars that become part of the body of epistemological traditions within the field.

In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews. Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.

Argumentative Review This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply embedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].

Integrative Review Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication. This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.

Historical Review Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

Methodological Review A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels [i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques], how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

Systematic Review This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. The goal is to deliberately document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem . Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?" This type of literature review is primarily applied to examining prior research studies in clinical medicine and allied health fields, but it is increasingly being used in the social sciences.

Theoretical Review The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

NOTE : Most often the literature review will incorporate some combination of types. For example, a review that examines literature supporting or refuting an argument, assumption, or philosophical problem related to the research problem will also need to include writing supported by sources that establish the history of these arguments in the literature.

Baumeister, Roy F. and Mark R. Leary. "Writing Narrative Literature Reviews."  Review of General Psychology 1 (September 1997): 311-320; Mark R. Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature." Educational Researcher 36 (April 2007): 139-147; Petticrew, Mark and Helen Roberts. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006; Torracro, Richard. "Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples." Human Resource Development Review 4 (September 2005): 356-367; Rocco, Tonette S. and Maria S. Plakhotnik. "Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions." Human Ressource Development Review 8 (March 2008): 120-130; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  Thinking About Your Literature Review

The structure of a literature review should include the following in support of understanding the research problem :

  • An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review,
  • Division of works under review into themes or categories [e.g. works that support a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative approaches entirely],
  • An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others,
  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.

The critical evaluation of each work should consider :

  • Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
  • Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
  • Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
  • Validity -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

II.  Development of the Literature Review

Four Basic Stages of Writing 1.  Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues? 2.  Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored. 3.  Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic. 4.  Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.

Consider the following issues before writing the literature review: Clarify If your assignment is not specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions: 1.  Roughly how many sources would be appropriate to include? 2.  What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)? 3.  Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue? 4.  Should I evaluate the sources in any way beyond evaluating how they relate to understanding the research problem? 5.  Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history? Find Models Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The bibliography or reference section of sources you've already read, such as required readings in the course syllabus, are also excellent entry points into your own research. Narrow the Topic The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, but you'll make the act of reviewing easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the USC Libraries Catalog for recent books about the topic and review the table of contents for chapters that focuses on specific issues. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text. Consider Whether Your Sources are Current Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.

III.  Ways to Organize Your Literature Review

Chronology of Events If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union. By Publication Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies. Thematic [“conceptual categories”] A thematic literature review is the most common approach to summarizing prior research in the social and behavioral sciences. Thematic reviews are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time, although the progression of time may still be incorporated into a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it would still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The difference in this example between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: themes related to the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point being made. Methodological A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

Other Sections of Your Literature Review Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. However, only include what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship about the research problem.

Here are examples of other sections, usually in the form of a single paragraph, you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:

  • Current Situation : Information necessary to understand the current topic or focus of the literature review.
  • Sources Used : Describes the methods and resources [e.g., databases] you used to identify the literature you reviewed.
  • History : The chronological progression of the field, the research literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Selection Methods : Criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed [i.e., scholarly] sources.
  • Standards : Description of the way in which you present your information.
  • Questions for Further Research : What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

IV.  Writing Your Literature Review

Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.

Use Evidence A literature review section is, in this sense, just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid. Be Selective Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information, but that are not key to understanding the research problem, can be included in a list of further readings . Use Quotes Sparingly Some short quotes are appropriate if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, is not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for using your own words in reviewing the literature. Summarize and Synthesize Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work and the work of others. Keep Your Own Voice While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording. Use Caution When Paraphrasing When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.

V.  Common Mistakes to Avoid

These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.

  • Sources in your literature review do not clearly relate to the research problem;
  • You do not take sufficient time to define and identify the most relevant sources to use in the literature review related to the research problem;
  • Relies exclusively on secondary analytical sources rather than including relevant primary research studies or data;
  • Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
  • Does not describe the search procedures that were used in identifying the literature to review;
  • Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in chi-squared or meta-analytic methods; and,
  • Only includes research that validates assumptions and does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature.

Cook, Kathleen E. and Elise Murowchick. “Do Literature Review Skills Transfer from One Course to Another?” Psychology Learning and Teaching 13 (March 2014): 3-11; Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . London: SAGE, 2011; Literature Review Handout. Online Writing Center. Liberty University; Literature Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012; Randolph, Justus J. “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review." Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation. vol. 14, June 2009; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016; Taylor, Dena. The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Literature Review. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra.

Writing Tip

Break Out of Your Disciplinary Box!

Thinking interdisciplinarily about a research problem can be a rewarding exercise in applying new ideas, theories, or concepts to an old problem. For example, what might cultural anthropologists say about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? In what ways might geographers view the need for better distribution of social service agencies in large cities than how social workers might study the issue? You don’t want to substitute a thorough review of core research literature in your discipline for studies conducted in other fields of study. However, particularly in the social sciences, thinking about research problems from multiple vectors is a key strategy for finding new solutions to a problem or gaining a new perspective. Consult with a librarian about identifying research databases in other disciplines; almost every field of study has at least one comprehensive database devoted to indexing its research literature.

Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Just Review for Content!

While conducting a review of the literature, maximize the time you devote to writing this part of your paper by thinking broadly about what you should be looking for and evaluating. Review not just what scholars are saying, but how are they saying it. Some questions to ask:

  • How are they organizing their ideas?
  • What methods have they used to study the problem?
  • What theories have been used to explain, predict, or understand their research problem?
  • What sources have they cited to support their conclusions?
  • How have they used non-textual elements [e.g., charts, graphs, figures, etc.] to illustrate key points?

When you begin to write your literature review section, you'll be glad you dug deeper into how the research was designed and constructed because it establishes a means for developing more substantial analysis and interpretation of the research problem.

Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1 998.

Yet Another Writing Tip

When Do I Know I Can Stop Looking and Move On?

Here are several strategies you can utilize to assess whether you've thoroughly reviewed the literature:

  • Look for repeating patterns in the research findings . If the same thing is being said, just by different people, then this likely demonstrates that the research problem has hit a conceptual dead end. At this point consider: Does your study extend current research?  Does it forge a new path? Or, does is merely add more of the same thing being said?
  • Look at sources the authors cite to in their work . If you begin to see the same researchers cited again and again, then this is often an indication that no new ideas have been generated to address the research problem.
  • Search Google Scholar to identify who has subsequently cited leading scholars already identified in your literature review [see next sub-tab]. This is called citation tracking and there are a number of sources that can help you identify who has cited whom, particularly scholars from outside of your discipline. Here again, if the same authors are being cited again and again, this may indicate no new literature has been written on the topic.

Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2016; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

  • << Previous: Theoretical Framework
  • Next: Citation Tracking >>
  • Last Updated: May 9, 2024 11:05 AM
  • URL:

3 key aspects of literature review

3 Literature Review

Charitianne Williams

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to do the following:

  • Understand the purpose and function of a literature review.
  • Structure a literature review according to basic genre expectations.
  • Synthesize ideas from multiple sources using a synthesis matrix.
  • Choose between narrative or parenthetical citation and direct quoting, or paraphrase with intent and purpose.

I. Introduction

The purpose of a literature review is just that—it reviews. This means that literature reviews examine a text after it was produced, with all the benefits that hindsight allows a reader. In popular culture, we commonly review movies, restaurants, vacation spots, products, etc. In those reviews, you look back at the single thing you are reviewing and your experience with it. You focus on the strengths and weaknesses of your experience and judge the experience as positive or negative while recommending or not recommending the place or product and explaining why.

An academic literature review does something different, although some of the skills and strategies you use remain the same. The job of a literature review is to examine a collection of research or scholarship (not a single thing or text) on a given topic and show how that scholarship fits together. Literature reviews summarize, describe, evaluate, and synthesize the work of other authors and researchers while looking for common trends/patterns, themes, inconsistencies, and gaps in this previous research. The main strategy writers of a literature review use is synthesis.

SYNTHESIS: the combination of ideas and elements to form a complete system or theory.

A good metaphor for synthesis is cooking! Imagine the ingredients for a loaf of bread laid out on a kitchen cabinet. Each ingredient—eggs, milk, flour, sugar, salt, yeast—have their own purpose and can be combined in different ways to form food other than bread. Knowing all of those individual attributes that make an egg an egg, or the difference between yeast and flour, is what makes you a chef. When you combine all these ingredients according to the recipe, you get something different than all the ingredients on their own: and most of us would rather eat a slice of bread than a spoonful of flour. The product of synthesis is like bread. Synthesis takes a list of ingredients and makes them into something more than the ingredients alone.

The images show ingredients, followed by a recipe, and then all put together for bread. These images are meant to compare the baking process to synthesis in writing.

Usually, the writers of a literature review will start with a question that they want to answer through informed and research-based evidence gathered while reading others’ work on related topics. The “thesis” or controlling idea of a literature review may be that same question ( “This review seeks to answer…” ) or it may be a statement describing the reviewed research. The thesis reflects the purpose of the literature review as a genre and is different from the thesis you will write for the research paper that argues a claim or asserts a new idea.

Example 3.1: Look at this thesis statement taken from the introduction of a literature review in environmental psychology on the relationship between “nature sounds” and restorative environments:

From this example, we can learn many things about literature reviews:

  • They are explicit and focused on their topic. The opening states an observable truth about the current research ( emphasizes nature ), is followed by a general condition ( positive psychological experiences) within that research, and then finally focuses on describing how a particular outcome is achieved (listening to nature sounds is restorative).
  • They seek to pre vent or eliminate misunderstanding. Note the use of specialized key terms, exacting transitional phrases, and meaningful verbs in the thesis such as “ restorative environments,” “in particular,” and “ generate .”
  • They seek to forward understanding. In other words, literature reviews examine and link together evidence described and validated in the research of others so a reader can learn how a field is developing. ( Research seems to agree that nature sounds can relieve stress and fatigue–this review will examine that conclusion so readers can understand/ build on how and why.)

Moving from the beginning to the very end of the literature review, we can also learn many things about literature reviews from the sources used. Think of each text listed in the References section of a literature review as contributing pieces to a gigantic puzzle.

Example 3.2: Look at the first three articles listed in the References for the article excerpted above:

Abbott, L. C., Taff, D., Newman, P., Benfield, J. A., and Mowen, A. J. (2016). The influence of natural sounds on attention restoration. J. Park Recreation Adm. 34, 5–15. doi: 10.18666/JPRA-2016-V34-I3-6893

Aletta, F., and Kang, J. (2019). Promoting healthy and supportive acoustic environments: going beyond the quietness. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 16:4988. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244988

Aletta, F., Oberman, T., and Kang, J. (2018). Associations between positive health-related effects and soundscapes perceptual constructs: a systematic review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 15:2392. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15112392

None of these sources are exactly the same. One focuses on sound and attention, the next two on sound and health, and none of them are quite the same as sound and restoration —but they are all pieces of the puzzle that give a full understanding of how sound and restorative environments relate.

As the author of the literature review, it is your job to join the pieces together, giving your reader a complete picture of what researchers know about your topic.

Literature reviews are an indispensable tool for researchers. Instead of having to read dozens of articles on a topic, a researcher could instead read a literature review that synthesizes what is known and puts each piece of scholarship into conversation with the others. This could be not only quicker, but also more valuable.

Have you heard the saying that the whole is more than the sum of its parts? The knowledge constructed by a well-written literature review often outweighs the knowledge constructed by simply reading each article in the References section on its own because the author of a literature review processes and analyzes the information for the reader.

Literature reviews occur in two general forms—as a background section in a scholarly work or as a stand-alone genre in and of itself. In both situations, the basic purpose and structure of the literature review is similar: it is the length and the scope that varies. For example, consider the previous chapter, the Proposal. In most proposals, you will want to convince your audience that you are informed on the background of your topic—a literature review is how you would do that. Since a proposal is commonly a short text, you do not have the space to summarize every piece of research. You must select an important set and synthesize that information into a small section signaling your expertise.

On the other hand, consider a professional journal intended to keep its readers up to date on new technologies and findings in a specific field or career. New ideas and discoveries are emerging every day, and it can be difficult to stay on top of all of these new findings, understand how they fit together, and also keep track of your own career responsibilities! A magazine might hire an author to read all the new research on a specific topic and synthesize it into a single article, a state-of-the-art review, so that practitioners in a field can read a single 25-page article instead of 100 25-page articles.

More Resources 3.1: Literature Reviews

II. Rhetorical Considerations: Voice

Using the scholarship of other writers and researchers is one of the things that differentiates academic writing from other types of writing. Using others’ scholarship in a meaningful way that creates new knowledge without mischaracterizing the original findings takes effort, attention, and usually several rounds of revision and rewriting. One of the issues is voice , which refers to the attitude and tone of a text—think of it as what the text “sounds like” in your head as you read it. Voice is an important element of cohesion , or what some people think of as “flow.” Creating a consistent voice in the mind of your reader helps them fit all the information in a text together in the way the author intends. Check out this advice from about academic style and voice.

Think back to your annotated bibliography and how you created your summaries. You probably used key terms from the original authors’ texts, but because you had to take whole articles and restate the meaning in a short paragraph, there wasn’t room to just repeat the words of the original author. So you had to write the summaries in your voice . If you used those key terms correctly and in ways similar to original authors, those key terms probably did not interfere with cohesiveness and voice. However, in the literature review, you have many more voices to synthesize than you did to summarize in the annotated bibliography. Maintaining a consistent and cohesive voice will be challenging. An important way to maintain voice is through paraphrasing, discussed later in this chapter.

More Resources 3.2: Transitions

Another important way to maintain cohesion is through the use of metadiscourse (see Chapter 2) and transitional phrases. See this link for the use and meaning of transitional phrases, sometimes called signposts .

III. The Literature Review Across the Disciplines

Example 3.3: Academic and Professional Examples

Structure of Literature Reviews

While the details vary across disciplines, all literature reviews tend to have similar basic structure. The introduction of a literature review informs the reader on the topic by defining key terms, citing key researchers or research periods in the field, and introducing the main focus of the review in a descriptive thesis statement. The introduction also explains the organization of the review. In a literature review, you organize your discussion of the research by topic or theme— not article or author. This is in direct contrast to the annotated bibliography, which is often the first step in the writing process for a literature review.

In the annotated bibliography, you organize your entries in alphabetical order by authors’ last names. Each annotation is directly connected to a single text. A literature review is connected to a collection of texts, and therefore must be organized in a way that reflects this.

Example 3.4: Let’s examine the full paragraph that the thesis statement we analyzed earlier came from:

A systematic review by Aletta et al. (2018) has identified links between positive urban soundscapes (which may also include nature sounds) and health and well-being, including stress recovery. Given the emphasis on nature w ithin restorative environments (see Hartig et al., 2014 ), the present narrative literature review focuses on evidence for positive psychological experiences of nature sounds and soundscapes specifically, and in particular how listening to these can generate perceptions and outcomes of restoration from stress and fatigue. This review has five key objectives, summarized in Figure 1 [in the article] . First, it explores literature regarding the impact of nature sounds on perceptions and experiences of wider natural environments. Second, it examines evidence regarding cognitive and affective appraisals of nature sounds and their contributions to overall perceptions of restorative environments. Third, literature regarding restorative outcomes in response to nature sounds is assessed. Fourth, the relevance of key restoration theories to this top ic is examined and areas where these theories are limited are identified. Fifth, a possible new theoretical area of interest—semantic associations with nature—is discussed and exemplified by recent acoustics research (Ratcliffe, 2021, emphasis added).

Notice how the thesis statement (in bold ) is followed by an explicit description of the five key objectives—which correspond to the titles (usually called headings ) of the five major sections of the body of the literature review. The introduction basically outlines the body of the literature review to make it easier for a researcher to find the specific information they are looking for. What follows each of these headings is an analysis and synthesis of the topic described in the heading—which is what we mean when we say a literature review is organized by topic.

Example 3.5: See how the body sections of a literature review synthesize research and evidence in relation to a focused topic. Read this example taken from a literature review in another discipline, nursing.

The introduction states that the review’s purpose is to understand the issues facing nurses in situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers found several themes in the research that all contributed to nurses’ experiences. This paragraph describes one of those themes which the authors label “Professional collegiality”:

3.2.2. Professional collegiality

Professional camaraderie amongst nursing colleagues working during a pandemic was high (Ives et al., 2009, Kim, 2018, Liu a nd Liehr , 2009). Nurses acknowledged the importance of caring for their co-workers and in sharing the load. Some nurses associated the experience with working on a battlefield, whereby they worked together as a team protecting one another (Chung et al., 20 05, Kang et al., 2018, Liu and Liehr , 2009). Appreciation of their nursing colleagues was demonstrated through sharing their experiences, willingness to work together and encouraging a team spirit (Shih et al., 2007, Chung et al., 2005, Chiang et al., 2007 ). (Ratcliffe, 2021, p.4)

In this single paragraph, there are seven different research articles cited, and some of them are cited twice. There is no way to write a coherent paragraph summarizing seven different research articles at once—instead, the authors of this paragraph reviewed what the researchers said about collegiality, found where their findings pointed in the same direction, and put those connections into their own words. This is the importance of the review’s body section: it is here where you really dig into the content, meaning, and implications of the scholarship you are discussing.

The end of a literature review looks different from the one- or two-paragraph conclusion we are used to in other texts. The end is often made up of multiple sections, each with a slightly different purpose, although all are probably recognizable to you. A “Discussion” section is almost always present, where the author summarizes the most important findings of each section. In most cases, the “Discussion” section does not contain new information, but ties the different body sections together in ways that provide a deeper analysis.

The end of a literature review may also contain an “Implications for Future Research” or “Resolution” after the Discussion—sometimes this final section is even called “Conclusion.” What this last section looks like is often dependent upon the type of review you are writing, and whether the review is standing alone as a complete text or part of a larger project.

In any situation, across all disciplines, it is important to understand how your literature review is meant to inform the reader and what kind of review is appropriate for the context, in order to decide how you should structure the beginning and end of your review.

Types of Literature Reviews

There are different types of literature reviews, although in undergraduate study the Traditional or Narrative Review is most common. Narrative reviews are somewhat exploratory in their content—in a narrative review you are synthesizing the results of specific texts selected for their connection to your topic. Narrative reviews almost always end with a section describing areas for future research if they are a stand-alone text, or a section describing why the author’s research is so needed if part of a larger research article. The chart below outlines the key differences between three major literature review types. Notice that each type has a slightly different purpose. You might think about which type best fits your project as you read.

Table 3.1: Types of Literature Reviews

More Resources 3.3: Literature Review Structures

IV. Research Strategies: Developing a Methodology

Systematic and scoping reviews should always contain a Research Methodology that explains to your reader exactly how you found the research you are reviewing. Often Narrative Reviews will also contain a research methodology, although it will be slightly different since they are not comprehensive reviews, meaning, they do not attempt to find all the research on a topic—by design, they cover only a specific portion. Even if you are not required to write up your methodology, you need clear research strategies to find the appropriate scholarship for your literature review.

Example 3.6: Check out this excerpt from the methods sections from a psychology literature review. Note how the authors clearly describe what types of sources they’ll be using as well as their steps throughout the research process.

Drawing on individual case studies, archival reports, correlational studies, and laboratory and field experiments, this monograph scrutinizes a sequence of events during which confessions may be obtained from criminal suspects and used as evidence. First, we examine the pre-interrogation interview, a process by which police …( Kassin and Gudjonsson , 2004, p.33)

Example 3.7: Here is another example from the field of education. In it the authors describe two separate searches they performed to gather the literature—the first search used key terms they decided upon before reading any scholarship, and the second search used the terms that they found were common to that first set of texts (see more about key terms here and in the Annotated Bibliography chapter).

We conducted two rounds of literature searches, utilizing the following databases: World CAT (general search), EB SCO Academic Search Complete, EBSCO Education Source, and Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts (ProQuest). In the first round, we searched using every possible combination of the following terms: ‘race,’ ‘language teaching,’ ‘ethnicity,’ ‘language p edagogy,’ ‘Whiteness,’ ‘racialized,’ ‘antiracism,’ and ‘ nativeness .’ For the second round of our literature search, we searched using terms that we saw emerging from the literature such as ‘racial identities of language learners,’ ‘racial identities of lan guage teachers,’ ‘language varieties and language teaching,’ ‘race and language teacher education,’ ‘race and educational policy,’ ‘race and language programs,’ and ‘race and language curriculum’ and also repeated our earlier searches in order to keep the literature updated. (Von Esch et al., 2020, p. 392)

No matter the type of research (see a description of qualitative vs. quantitative research ), the specific genres (see descriptions of academic research genres ), or the time frame (see a discussion on the importance of publication date ) you use for your review, it is important to think through the options, make a decision, and incorporate all your research knowledge—use of key terms, use of subject filters, use of specialized databases, etc.—into a coherent and meaningful process that results in the best scholarship for your inquiry and review.

Here’s a video to help you get started on using databases for research:

Library Referral: Connecting the Conversation with Scholarly Sources and Beyond​

(by Annie R. Armstrong)

Research involves drawing from numerous voices from a range of source types. The sources you choose to include in your conversation are context-specific and might vary depending on your topic or the parameters of your assignment. Review your assignment description and talk to your instructor about guidelines. While most research papers emphasize scholarly sources, expertise isn’t always equated with scholarliness and you might want to branch out. For example, a research paper focusing on exploitation of Native American land and communities by the mining industry should make some attempt to include sources generated by the communities under discussion, especially if their point of view is not represented in the peer-reviewed, scholarly sources you’ve found. Think about who the stakeholders are as related to various aspects of your topic and how you can tap into their voices through available resources. You may want to consult a librarian about this.

The chart below summarizes the breadth of source types available through library websites versus the open web:

Table 3.2: Scholarly Sources and Beyond

V. Reading Strategies: Intertextuality and Graphic Organizers

Typically we think of reading as something we do to learn the content of a text—and this is absolutely true! But true understanding means knowing the relationships between and impact of separate but related topics, which might mean understanding how different texts—generally focused on one topic—overlap or differ.

Intertextuality refers to the connections that exist between texts. Intertextuality as a reading strategy means looking for the connections between the text you are reading and others you have already read; anticipating connections with other texts that you have not yet read, but plan to; as well as connections to whole disciplines, fields, and social phenomena. Reading for intertextuality means looking for opportunities to connect texts with each other, and keeping track of those connections in a productive way.

This means note-taking is essential to intertextual reading. Once you have thought carefully about why you are reading a text, what types of information to look for, and what you will do with that information, you can better decide how to keep track of that information. In regards to literature reviews, one type of graphic organizer dominates: the Synthesis Matrix.

The synthesis matrix is a way to keep track of the themes, concepts, and patterns that are emerging from your reading—NOT all the individual content of each article. This is important, yes, and you will need the citations, but literature reviews move one step further into the topic than simply identifying the pieces. You will need to synthesize.

If you have an annotated bibliography of sources already, it is the perfect way to start your synthesis matrix. An annotated bibliography is often the first step in preparing for a literature review, and is quite similar to an ingredient list, if we are using the metaphor from the introduction. (For a detailed description of how to write an annotated bibliography, see Chapter 1 ).

In your annotations, you will have selected the most important information that text supplies in relation to your topic. For an example, let’s take the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s statement “ Students’ Right to Their Own Language ,” which contains two annotated bibliographies. The second uses more recent sources and looks most like the annotated bibliographies you will write as a student, so let’s start there.

Example 3.8: Here are three annotations from that bibliography. As you read, take notice of the different highlighted colors. Phrases italicized and highlighted green identify ideas related to linguistic identity , phrases bolded and highlighted in blue identify concepts related to grammar analysis , and phrases underlined and highlighted orange identify groups and ideas related to educational objectives :

Fought, Carmen. Chicano English in Context. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Based primarily on data collected from adolescent and young adult native speakers in Los Angeles , this book is a comprehensive sociolinguistic study of language and language change in Latino/a communities. It provides the basics of Chicano English (CE) structure (phonology, syntax, and semantics) and its connection to the social and cultural identity of its speakers, along with detailed analyses of particular sociolinguistic variables. Emphasis is given to the historical, social, and linguistic contexts of CE. In addition, the differences between native and non-native CE speakers are covered. A final chapter discusses the future of research on CE.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States . London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

The author examines linguistic facts about the structure and function of language , explores commonly held myths about language, and develops a model of “the language subordination process.” Then, using a case-study approach, she applies the model to specific institutional practices (e.g., in education, news media, business) to show how false assumptions about language lead to language subordination. The author analyzes specific groups and individuals (speakers of African American English, Southern U.S. English, and the foreign-language accent of Latinos and Asian Americans) and discusses why and how some embrace linguistic assimilation while others resist it.

Nero, Shondel J. Englishes in Contact: Anglophone Caribbean Students in an Urban College. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2001.

This qualitative study of four anglophone Caribbean students at a New York City college offers an in-depth examination of the students’ written and spoken language and the challenges faced by both students and teachers as such students acquire academic literacy. Case studies of the four participants include excerpts from tape-recorded interviews, which reflect their linguistic self-perception, and sociolinguistic and educational experiences in their home countries and in New York City. Samples of their college writing over four semesters are represented and analyzed on morphosyntactic and discourse levels to determine the patterns that emerge when Creole English speakers attempt to write Standard Written English. Related issues such as language and identity , language attitudes, and educational responses to ethnolinguistic diversity are also discussed.

Once you have identified a concept like “language and identity” for your literature review, you can start getting “intertextual”! Review your other annotated sources and your new sources for their discussion of language and identity, as well as parallel concepts—what else do researchers address when they discuss language and identity? What do they discuss instead? Go back to the methods you used to come up with key terms for your literature search—the same strategies now apply to your reading. Also look for “umbrella” concepts, patterns in methodologies—anything that emerges while you read intertextually, focusing on the text in front of you while also remembering all the others you read before. Look for the themes in your annotated bibliography and keep track of the page numbers where these themes appear—plan to go back to those pages several times as you write your literature review.

This is a different type of reading than you did for the annotated bibliography, and might mean you go back and reread your sources several times in this new way—don’t think of this as just repeating labor you have already performed. This is new work, designed to uncover new things in the research. Re-reading articles multiple times is something all serious writers do, and something you should do, too. It isn’t redundant, it is recur sive .

Table 3.3: Synthesis Matrix for Individuals’ Choices in Linguistic Identity

Put your sources into conversations around your themes, as shown in the table above. Notice that the top row names the themes covered in that column, put into original wording similar, but not identical, to the wording in the annotated bibliographies. Not every source will address every topic—not every article is the same. The last row starts to describe what is happening in each column across the whole collection of texts. In this way, your synthesis matrix takes the ingredient list provided by the annotated bibliography and makes it into a recipe for your final product—the literature review.

More Resources 3.4: Synthesis Matrix

VI. Writing Strategies: Citation, Quotation, and Paraphrase

Citation is when you use the work of other authors in your writing and mark that portion of your writing so your reader understands what idea is being “borrowed.” Citation also tells your reader where they could find that original idea in the original text, and how your text fits together with the web of other texts related to your topic: in other words, citations help create intertextuality. A citation placed in your sentences should refer directly to the full bibliographic information in your Works Cited or References page.

As you read in Chapter 1, there are different styles of citation including AMA, APA, CMS, and MLA. You can refer back to that chapter for a more detailed explanation of each. In this section, we’ll cover the basics that are common to citation practices. Most academic styles use the original author’s last name as the central part of the in-text citation, since References pages usually list cited works alphabetically by last name, but some use footnotes or endnotes instead, listing works in the order they were cited. It is important to know which academic style you are using for your literature review so that you can make the right choice.

In-text citation takes one of two forms: parenthetical or narrative. In a narrative citation the author of the original work is mentioned in the sentence.

Example 3.9: Here’s an example taken from the introduction of the same literature review discussed in the Research Strategies: Developing a Methodology section of this chapter.

Several pieces offered a comprehensive review of the historical literature on the formation of Black English as a construct in the context of slavery and Jim Crow, and the historical teaching of Black English within the U .S. context, including Wheeler ( 2016 ) and Alim and Baugh (2007). Wheeler (2016) equated Standard English with ‘White’ English and challenged its hegemony in dialectically diverse classrooms. She named the “racism inherent in [fostering] bidialectalism [th rough teaching]” (p. 380), arguing that we are acknowledging that the only way for African-Americans to be upwardly mobile was to learn how to speak ‘White’ English. Alim (2010) , explained, “By uncritically presenting language varieties as ‘equal’ but diff ering in levels of ‘appropriateness,’ language and Dialect Awareness programs run the risk of silently legitimizing ‘Standard English’” (p. 215)…. Current work addressing AAVE studies has been shifting focus to translingualism and to promoting such pedag ogies as code-meshing (Young, Barrett, Young Rivera and Lovejoy, 2014) and translanguaging (García & Wei, García and Wei, 2014) , embedded in a critical analysis of the racial logics underpinning the denigration of some languages. This work, combined with e xtensive examinations of the connections between race, language, teaching, and identity ( e.g. Flores & Rosa, 2015; Alim et al., 2016 ), has laid a foundation for a raciolinguistics approach to teaching, which we return to later in this article. (Von Esch et al., 2020, p. 399, emphasis added .)

In the first sentence, we see two narrative citations just before the period. These citations state the authors’ names as a part of the sentence, and put the publication date of the articles in parenthesis. It makes sense to use a narrative citation in the topic sentence, since most of the paragraph is a synthesis of Wheeler and Alim’s research. The second sentence starts with Wheeler’s name in the subject position, and the fourth sentence starts with Alim’s name in the subject position—both are narrative citations, a form chosen by the author to emphasize the importance and similarities in the two articles.

In the last two sentences, we see parenthetical citations. The citation information is in parenthesis within the sentences, which focuses the reader on the ideas, not the research itself. Imagine you were reading this article out loud—you would most certainly say the narrative citations “Wheeler” and “Alim”; you might choose not to say “Young, Barrett, Young-Rivera, & Lovejoy, 2014,” though, and no one listening to you would notice the omission. This is the most important difference between narrative and parenthetical citation—narrative draws attention to the researchers, while parenthetical allows a focus on ideas. In academic writing, you often have reason to use both, but it is important to note that using parenthetical citation is less disruptive to your voice—it keeps a reader focused on the ideas you are explaining.

Usually you are citing a type of quotation in your text (although different disciplines have other situations that they cite). Direct quotation and paraphrase are usually what we talk about when we talk about using resources in your writing, although summary is cited as well.

Direct quotation is when you take the original words of one author and place them in your own text. When you quote in your own writing, you mark the copied text—usually with quotation marks “” around the text and a citation afterwards. Quoting is useful when the original author is an important authority on a topic or if you want to define/describe another’s point of view in a way that leaves no room for misinterpretation.

In a literature review, a direct quote will almost always be accompanied by a narrative citation. But direct quoting can cause some issues in your own text, such as a sudden shift in voice and a loss of cohesion; the potential for misunderstanding and misrepresentation, since the quote has been separated from its original context; and wordiness —quotes can take up too much space both in terms of the quote itself, and of the explanation and context you must provide for the introduced idea. For these reasons, literature reviews do not contain much direct quoting.

Paraphrasing is a way to accomplish similar goals to direct quoting without causing the same problems. Paraphrasing is when you use only the original author’s key terms and ideas, but your own words. Paraphrasing still contains a citation afterwards that directs the reader to the full bibliographic information in your Works Cited, but does not require quotation marks since the language is yours. Paraphrase may be longer or shorter than the original author’s text, and uses both narrative and parenthetical citation. Paraphrase also allows you to cite more than one piece of research containing the same idea in a single sentence, such as the last sentence in the example paragraph above. This kind of citation string is important to literature reviews because it clearly identifies patterns and trends in research findings.

Key Takeaways

  • Literature reviews are a synthesis of what other researchers have discovered on your topic. Think of reviews as “the big picture.”
  • Taking so much information from other sources can get confusing–use section headings to keep your review organized and clear.
  • Diverse citation, quotation, and paraphrasing techniques are necessary to help your reader understand where the ideas are coming from, AND to help make the ideas “stick together.”
  • Keeping all the new knowledge you are learning from your sources organized is hard! Take notes using citations and use a graphic organizer to keep yourself on track.

Fernandez, Lord, H., Halcomb, E., Moxham, L., Middleton, R., Alananzeh, I., & Ellwood, L. (2020). Implications for COVID-19: A systematic review of nurses’ experiences of working in acute care hospital settings during a respiratory pandemic. International Journal of Nursing Studies , 111.

Kassin, S. M., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (2004). The psychology of confessions. Psychological Science in the Public Interest , 5 (2), 33–67.

National Council of Teachers of English. (2018, June 16). Students’ right to their own language (with bibliography) . Conference on College Composition and Communication. Retrieved July 24, 2022, from

NEIU Libraries. (2020). “How should I search in a database?”  YouTube .

Ratcliffe, E. (2021). Summary Flowchart [Image]. Frontiers in Psychology.

Ratcliffe, E. (2021). Sound and soundscape in restorative natural environments: A narrative literature review. Frontiers in Psychology , 12 .

Sasaki. K. (2022). Synthesis and Recipes [Image].

Von Esch, K., Motha, S., & Kubota, R. (2020). Race and language teaching. Language Teaching, 53 (4), 391-421. doi:10.1017/S0261444820000269

Writing for Inquiry and Research Copyright © 2023 by Charitianne Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • View all journals
  • Explore content
  • About the journal
  • Publish with us
  • Sign up for alerts
  • 04 December 2020
  • Correction 09 December 2020

How to write a superb literature review

Andy Tay is a freelance writer based in Singapore.

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Literature reviews are important resources for scientists. They provide historical context for a field while offering opinions on its future trajectory. Creating them can provide inspiration for one’s own research, as well as some practice in writing. But few scientists are trained in how to write a review — or in what constitutes an excellent one. Even picking the appropriate software to use can be an involved decision (see ‘Tools and techniques’). So Nature asked editors and working scientists with well-cited reviews for their tips.

Access options

Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals

Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription

24,99 € / 30 days

cancel any time

Subscribe to this journal

Receive 51 print issues and online access

185,98 € per year

only 3,65 € per issue

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout


Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Updates & Corrections

Correction 09 December 2020 : An earlier version of the tables in this article included some incorrect details about the programs Zotero, Endnote and Manubot. These have now been corrected.

Hsing, I.-M., Xu, Y. & Zhao, W. Electroanalysis 19 , 755–768 (2007).

Article   Google Scholar  

Ledesma, H. A. et al. Nature Nanotechnol. 14 , 645–657 (2019).

Article   PubMed   Google Scholar  

Brahlek, M., Koirala, N., Bansal, N. & Oh, S. Solid State Commun. 215–216 , 54–62 (2015).

Choi, Y. & Lee, S. Y. Nature Rev. Chem . (2020).

Download references

Related Articles

3 key aspects of literature review

  • Research management

How I fled bombed Aleppo to continue my career in science

How I fled bombed Aleppo to continue my career in science

Career Feature 08 MAY 24

Illuminating ‘the ugly side of science’: fresh incentives for reporting negative results

Illuminating ‘the ugly side of science’: fresh incentives for reporting negative results

Hunger on campus: why US PhD students are fighting over food

Hunger on campus: why US PhD students are fighting over food

Career Feature 03 MAY 24

Japan can embrace open science — but flexible approaches are key

Correspondence 07 MAY 24

US funders to tighten oversight of controversial ‘gain of function’ research

US funders to tighten oversight of controversial ‘gain of function’ research

News 07 MAY 24

France’s research mega-campus faces leadership crisis

France’s research mega-campus faces leadership crisis

News 03 MAY 24

Mount Etna’s spectacular smoke rings and more — April’s best science images

Mount Etna’s spectacular smoke rings and more — April’s best science images

Plagiarism in peer-review reports could be the ‘tip of the iceberg’

Plagiarism in peer-review reports could be the ‘tip of the iceberg’

Nature Index 01 MAY 24

Faculty Positions at the Center for Machine Learning Research (CMLR), Peking University

CMLR's goal is to advance machine learning-related research across a wide range of disciplines.

Beijing, China

Center for Machine Learning Research (CMLR), Peking University

3 key aspects of literature review

Faculty Positions at SUSTech Department of Biomedical Engineering

We seek outstanding applicants for full-time tenure-track/tenured faculty positions. Positions are available for both junior and senior-level.

Shenzhen, Guangdong, China

Southern University of Science and Technology (Biomedical Engineering)

3 key aspects of literature review

Southeast University Future Technology Institute Recruitment Notice

Professor openings in mechanical engineering, control science and engineering, and integrating emerging interdisciplinary majors

Nanjing, Jiangsu (CN)

Southeast University

3 key aspects of literature review

Staff Scientist

A Staff Scientist position is available in the laboratory of Drs. Elliot and Glassberg to study translational aspects of lung injury, repair and fibro

Maywood, Illinois

Loyola University Chicago - Department of Medicine

W3-Professorship (with tenure) in Inorganic Chemistry

The Institute of Inorganic Chemistry in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Bonn invites applications for a W3-Pro...

53113, Zentrum (DE)

Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität

3 key aspects of literature review

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Quick links

  • Explore articles by subject
  • Guide to authors
  • Editorial policies

Logo for British Columbia/Yukon Open Authoring Platform

Want to create or adapt books like this? Learn more about how Pressbooks supports open publishing practices.

The Research Proposal

83 Components of the Literature Review

Krathwohl (2005) suggests and describes a variety of components to include in a research proposal.  The following sections present these components in a suggested template for you to follow in the preparation of your research proposal.


The introduction sets the tone for what follows in your research proposal – treat it as the initial pitch of your idea.  After reading the introduction your reader should:

  • Understand what it is you want to do;
  • Have a sense of your passion for the topic;
  • Be excited about the study´s possible outcomes.

As you begin writing your research proposal it is helpful to think of the introduction as a narrative of what it is you want to do, written in one to three paragraphs.  Within those one to three paragraphs, it is important to briefly answer the following questions:

  • What is the central research problem?
  • How is the topic of your research proposal related to the problem?
  • What methods will you utilize to analyze the research problem?
  • Why is it important to undertake this research? What is the significance of your proposed research?  Why are the outcomes of your proposed research important, and to whom or to what are they important?

Note : You may be asked by your instructor to include an abstract with your research proposal.  In such cases, an abstract should provide an overview of what it is you plan to study, your main research question, a brief explanation of your methods to answer the research question, and your expected findings. All of this information must be carefully crafted in 150 to 250 words.  A word of advice is to save the writing of your abstract until the very end of your research proposal preparation.  If you are asked to provide an abstract, you should include 5-7 key words that are of most relevance to your study. List these in order of relevance.

Background and significance

The purpose of this section is to explain the context of your proposal and to describe, in detail, why it is important to undertake this research. Assume that the person or people who will read your research proposal know nothing or very little about the research problem.  While you do not need to include all knowledge you have learned about your topic in this section, it is important to ensure that you include the most relevant material that will help to explain the goals of your research.

While there are no hard and fast rules, you should attempt to address some or all of the following key points:

  • State the research problem and provide a more thorough explanation about the purpose of the study than what you stated in the introduction.
  • Present the rationale for the proposed research study. Clearly indicate why this research is worth doing.  Answer the “so what?” question.
  • Describe the major issues or problems to be addressed by your research. Do not forget to explain how and in what ways your proposed research builds upon previous related research.
  • Explain how you plan to go about conducting your research.
  • Clearly identify the key or most relevant sources of research you intend to use and explain how they will contribute to your analysis of the topic.
  • Set the boundaries of your proposed research, in order to provide a clear focus. Where appropriate, state not only what you will study, but what will be excluded from your study.
  • Provide clear definitions of key concepts and terms. As key concepts and terms often have numerous definitions, make sure you state which definition you will be utilizing in your research.

Literature Review

This is the most time-consuming aspect in the preparation of your research proposal and it is a key component of the research proposal. As described in Chapter 5 , the literature review provides the background to your study and demonstrates the significance of the proposed research. Specifically, it is a review and synthesis of prior research that is related to the problem you are setting forth to investigate.  Essentially, your goal in the literature review is to place your research study within the larger whole of what has been studied in the past, while demonstrating to your reader that your work is original, innovative, and adds to the larger whole.

As the literature review is information dense, it is essential that this section be intelligently structured to enable your reader to grasp the key arguments underpinning your study. However, this can be easier to state and harder to do, simply due to the fact there is usually a plethora of related research to sift through. Consequently, a good strategy for writing the literature review is to break the literature into conceptual categories or themes, rather than attempting to describe various groups of literature you reviewed.  Chapter V, “ The Literature Review ,” describes a variety of methods to help you organize the themes.

Here are some suggestions on how to approach the writing of your literature review:

  • Think about what questions other researchers have asked, what methods they used, what they found, and what they recommended based upon their findings.
  • Do not be afraid to challenge previous related research findings and/or conclusions.
  • Assess what you believe to be missing from previous research and explain how your research fills in this gap and/or extends previous research

It is important to note that a significant challenge related to undertaking a literature review is knowing when to stop.  As such, it is important to know how to know when you have uncovered the key conceptual categories underlying your research topic.  Generally, when you start to see repetition in the conclusions or recommendations, you can have confidence that you have covered all of the significant conceptual categories in your literature review.  However, it is also important to acknowledge that researchers often find themselves returning to the literature as they collect and analyze their data.  For example, an unexpected finding may develop as one collects and/or analyzes the data and it is important to take the time to step back and review the literature again, to ensure that no other researchers have found a similar finding.  This may include looking to research outside your field.

This situation occurred with one of the authors of this textbook´s research related to community resilience.  During the interviews, the researchers heard many participants discuss individual resilience factors and how they believed these individual factors helped make the community more resilient, overall.  Sheppard and Williams (2016) had not discovered these individual factors in their original literature review on community and environmental resilience. However, when they returned to the literature to search for individual resilience factors, they discovered a small body of literature in the child and youth psychology field. Consequently, Sheppard and Williams had to go back and add a new section to their literature review on individual resilience factors. Interestingly, their research appeared to be the first research to link individual resilience factors with community resilience factors.

Research design and methods

The objective of this section of the research proposal is to convince the reader that your overall research design and methods of analysis will enable you to solve the research problem you have identified and also enable you to accurately and effectively interpret the results of your research. Consequently, it is critical that the research design and methods section is well-written, clear, and logically organized.  This demonstrates to your reader that you know what you are going to do and how you are going to do it.  Overall, you want to leave your reader feeling confident that you have what it takes to get this research study completed in a timely fashion.

Essentially, this section of the research proposal should be clearly tied to the specific objectives of your study; however, it is also important to draw upon and include examples from the literature review that relate to your design and intended methods.  In other words, you must clearly demonstrate how your study utilizes and builds upon past studies, as it relates to the research design and intended methods.  For example, what methods have been used by other researchers in similar studies?

While it is important to consider the methods that other researchers have employed, it is equally important, if not more so, to consider what methods have not been employed but could be.  Remember, the methods section is not simply a list of tasks to be undertaken. It is also an argument as to why and how the tasks you have outlined will help you investigate the research problem and answer your research question(s).

Tips for writing the research design and methods section:

  • Specify the methodological approaches you intend to employ to obtain information and the techniques you will use to analyze the data.
  • Specify the research operations you will undertake and he way you will interpret the results of those operations in relation to the research problem.
  • Go beyond stating what you hope to achieve through the methods you have chosen. State how you will actually do the methods (i.e. coding interview text, running regression analysis, etc.).
  • Anticipate and acknowledge any potential barriers you may encounter when undertaking your research and describe how you will address these barriers.
  • Explain where you believe you will find challenges related to data collection, including access to participants and information.

Preliminary suppositions and implications

The purpose of this section is to argue how and in what ways you anticipate that your research will refine, revise, or extend existing knowledge in the area of your study. Depending upon the aims and objectives of your study, you should also discuss how your anticipated findings may impact future research.  For example, is it possible that your research may lead to a new policy, new theoretical understanding, or a new method for analyzing data?  How might your study influence future studies?  What might your study mean for future practitioners working in the field?  Who or what may benefit from your study?  How might your study contribute to social, economic, environmental issues?  While it is important to think about and discuss possibilities such as these, it is equally important to be realistic in stating your anticipated findings.  In other words, you do not want to delve into idle speculation.  Rather, the purpose here is to reflect upon gaps in the current body of literature and to describe how and in what ways you anticipate your research will begin to fill in some or all of those gaps.

The conclusion reiterates the importance and significance of your research proposal and it provides a brief summary of the entire proposed study.  Essentially, this section should only be one or two paragraphs in length. Here is a potential outline for your conclusion:

  • Discuss why the study should be done. Specifically discuss how you expect your study will advance existing knowledge and how your study is unique.
  • Explain the specific purpose of the study and the research questions that the study will answer.
  • Explain why the research design and methods chosen for this study are appropriate, and why other design and methods were not chosen.
  • State the potential implications you expect to emerge from your proposed study,
  • Provide a sense of how your study fits within the broader scholarship currently in existence related to the research problem.

As with any scholarly research paper, you must cite the sources you used in composing your research proposal.  In a research proposal, this can take two forms: a reference list or a bibliography.  A reference list does what the name suggests, it lists the literature you referenced in the body of your research proposal.  All references in the reference list, must appear in the body of the research proposal.  Remember, it is not acceptable to say “as cited in …”  As a researcher you must always go to the original source and check it for yourself.  Many errors are made in referencing, even by top researchers, and so it is important not to perpetuate an error made by someone else. While this can be time consuming, it is the proper way to undertake a literature review.

In contrast, a bibliography , is a list of everything you used or cited in your research proposal, with additional citations to any key sources relevant to understanding the research problem.  In other words, sources cited in your bibliography may not necessarily appear in the body of your research proposal.  Make sure you check with your instructor to see which of the two you are expected to produce.

Overall, your list of citations should be a testament to the fact that you have done a sufficient level of preliminary research to ensure that your project will complement, but not duplicate, previous research efforts. For social sciences, the reference list or bibliography should be prepared in American Psychological Association (APA) referencing format. Usually, the reference list (or bibliography) is not included in the word count of the research proposal. Again, make sure you check with your instructor to confirm.

An Introduction to Research Methods in Sociology Copyright © 2019 by Valerie A. Sheppard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book

University Library

Write a literature review.

  • Examples and Further Information

1. Introduction

Not to be confused with a book review, a literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work. The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.

2. Components

Similar to primary research, development of the literature review requires four stages:

  • Problem formulation—which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
  • Literature search—finding materials relevant to the subject being explored
  • Data evaluation—determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
  • Analysis and interpretation—discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature

Literature reviews should comprise the following elements:

  • An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review
  • Division of works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely)
  • Explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research

In assessing each piece, consideration should be given to:

  • Provenance—What are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence (e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings)?
  • Objectivity—Is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness—Which of the author's theses are most/least convincing?
  • Value—Are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

3. Definition and Use/Purpose

A literature review may constitute an essential chapter of a thesis or dissertation, or may be a self-contained review of writings on a subject. In either case, its purpose is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
  • Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Point the way forward for further research
  • Place one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature

The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.

  • Next: Examples and Further Information >>

spacer bullet

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License except where otherwise noted.

Library Twitter page

Land Acknowledgement

The land on which we gather is the unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, comprised of the descendants of indigenous people taken to missions Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista during Spanish colonization of the Central Coast, is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands and heal from historical trauma.

The land acknowledgement used at UC Santa Cruz was developed in partnership with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman and the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at the UCSC Arboretum .

Benedictine University Library

Literature Review: What is a Literature Review?

  • Sample Searches
  • Examples of Published Literature Reviews
  • Researching Your Topic
  • Subject Searching
  • Google Scholar
  • Track Your Work
  • Citation Managers This link opens in a new window
  • Citation Guides This link opens in a new window
  • Tips on Writing Your Literature Review This link opens in a new window
  • Research Help

Profile Photo

Ask a Librarian

Chat with a Librarian

Lisle: (630) 829-6057 Mesa: (480) 878-7514 Toll Free: (877) 575-6050 Email: [email protected]

Book a Research Consultation Library Hours


Not Just for Graduate Students!

A literature review is an in-depth critical analysis of published scholarly research related to a specific topic. Published scholarly research (the "literature") may include journal articles, books, book chapters, dissertations and thesis, or conference proceedings. 

A solid lit review must:

  • be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you're 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

Why Conduct a Literature Review?

  • to distinguish what has been done from what needs to be done
  • to discover important variables relevant to the topic
  • to synthesize and gain new perspective
  • to identify relationships between ideas and practices
  • to establish the context of the topic
  • to rationalize the significance of the problem
  • to enhance and acquire subject vocabulary
  • to understand the structure of the subject
  • tp relate ideas and theory to applications
  • to identify main methodologies and research techniques that have been used
  • to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-art development

Questions to Consider

  • What is the overarching question or problem your literature review seeks to address?
  • How much familiarity do you already have with the field? Are you already familiar with common methodologies or professional vocabularies?
  • What types of strategies or questions have others in your field pursued?
  • How will you synthesize or summarize the information you gather?
  • What do you or others perceive to be lacking in your field?
  • Is your topic broad? How could it be narrowed?
  • Can you articulate why your topic is important in your field?
  • Next: Sample Searches >>
  • Last Updated: Apr 25, 2024 3:34 PM
  • URL:

Kindlon Hall 5700 College Rd. Lisle, IL 60532 (630) 829-6050

Gillett Hall 225 E. Main St. Mesa, AZ 85201 (480) 878-7514


Ten elements of a good literature review

3 key aspects of literature review

  • A good literature review is a critical synthesis of the literature on a specific topic e.g. the relationship between class size and student achievement. Too many students engage in “telling” (what X or Y said about the topic) rather than also “synthesizing” (what is said, how well it is said, what is missing etc.)
  • A good literature review works with published research literature rather than opinion pieces, advocacy material or professional viewpoints on the topic. This means that the principal resource for information on the topic is journal articles that publish current research.
  • A good literature review works mainly with recent research on the topic given the growth in knowledge on any subject. The only exception is where a classic text is referred to or in the case of historical research which of course requires a long-term view of the literature e.g. the history of corporal punishment in South African education.
  • A good literature review, having described what is known about the topic, brings in the voice of the researcher in the assessment of that literature. This is difficult for novice researchers but something that should and can be learnt, for example, by reading how others do book reviews or literature reviews in journals that specialize in that particular craft e.g. The Review of Educational Research or The Review of Research in Education.
  • A good literature review is able to give a competent account of what is known about the topic as a first step. This means being able to give a cogent and concise account in one paragraph, in your own words, what a body of research says about the topic.
  • A good literature review then is able to say what it not well known about the topic as a second step. This means being able to identify silences, gaps or contradictions in the body of literature on the specific topic. This is the critical in a critical synthesis of the literature.
  • A good literature review then is able to say how your research addresses the weakness(es) in the literature reviewed as a third step.
  • A good literature review is therefore able to acknowledge the research done on the topic (we stand on the shoulders of giants) and then demonstrate how the research proposed on the topic adds value or new knowledge on the topic (we step on the toes of giants).
  • A good literature review has a competent grasp of all the major published research on the topic . This means, as a rule of thumb, at least 100 solid research articles on the topic should be reviewed.
  • A good literature review is written in a fluent, academic voice from beginning to end, almost like a spy novel, so that reader is captured in the story until it reaches its climax—“and this is how my research hopes to fill the gap/address the silence/resolve the contradiction/add new knowledge on the topic under review. This means that the final copy of the literature review would have undergone MANY revisions and, done well, could be a standalone chapter in the thesis or dissertation.

PS. Always useful to do an annotated bibliography of all your literature references before starting to write the literature review

' src=

Closing schools just means poor kids bear the brunt of the virus

What happens to your rights in a pandemic, you may also like, corrupted: a study of chronic dysfunction in south..., learning under lockdown – 100 student voices, limitations of the literature – a guide to..., ten rules for turning a dissertation into a..., leave a comment cancel reply.

Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed .

First group of successful Future Professors celebrated

2024 – chin yidan visiting global fellow, harvard…, power to truth with jj tabane, 2023 – elected fellow of the american academy…, 2023 – south african education research association honours, 2023 – lifetime achievement award, national science and…, limitations of the literature – a guide to…, ten rules for turning a dissertation into a…, the future of leadership book, corrupted: a study of chronic dysfunction in south…, trading places, a different take, my south africa, 8 myths about teachers: what parents often get…, the future of uwc and uct’s leadership hangs…, if time-wasting were in the curriculum, schools would…, profit and greed plague private education, but don’t….

  • Books published in 2022 & 2023
  • Recent Research
  • Presentations
  • Speaking Requests

California State University, Northridge - Home

Literature Review How To

  • Things To Consider
  • Synthesizing Sources
  • Video Tutorials
  • Books On Literature Reviews

Consider This

  • What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review aims to define?
  • What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory, methodology, policy, quantitative research (e.g. interviews, observations), qualitative research (e.g., studies, surveys, statistics)?
  • What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents)?
  • What discipline am I working in (e.g. Public Health, Nursing, Kinesiology etc.)?
  • Has my search for sources been wide enough to ensure that I have 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 (i.e. if your literature review is part of a larger paper or assignment)?
  • Have I critically analyzed the resources I found?
  • How will I avoid just listing and summarizing resources? 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 or useful?


The format of a literature review may vary from discipline to discipline and from assignment to assignment. However, a literature review must do these things:

  • Be organized 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 problematic areas or areas of controversy in the literature
  • Formulate questions or issues that need further research

Remember! A literature review is not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another.

Try and avoid starting every paragraph with the name of a researcher or the title of the work. Rather, try organizing the literature review into sections that present themes or identify trends, including relevant theories. You are not trying to list all the material published on a topic, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question.

Consider These For Each Source

  • Has the author formulated a problem/issue?
  • Is the problem/issue clearly defined and is its significance (scope, severity, and relevance) clearly established?
  • Could the problem/issue have been approached more effectively and or 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 #4 and #5?
  • Has the author evaluated the literature relevant to the topic (i.e. does the author include a literature review and or provide sources that take positions she/he does not agree with)?
  • How accurate and valid are the measurements, statistics or data the author has provided?
  • Is the analysis of the measurements, statistics or data accurate and relevant to the research question?
  • Are the conclusions validly based upon the data and analysis?
  • · How does the author structure the argument? Can you retrace the steps he/she takes and analyze the flow of the argument to see if it progresses logically?
  • In what ways does this piece contribute to our understanding of the topic, and in what ways is it useful? What are the strengths and limitations?
  • How does this book or article relate to my thesis or research question?
  • << Previous: Home
  • Next: Synthesizing Sources >>
  • Last Updated: Nov 30, 2018 4:51 PM
  • URL:

Report ADA Problems with Library Services and Resources

Duke University Libraries

Literature Reviews

  • Types of reviews
  • Getting started

Types of reviews and examples

Choosing a review type.

  • 1. Define your research question
  • 2. Plan your search
  • 3. Search the literature
  • 4. Organize your results
  • 5. Synthesize your findings
  • 6. Write the review
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) tools
  • Thompson Writing Studio This link opens in a new window
  • Need to write a systematic review? This link opens in a new window

3 key aspects of literature review

Contact a Librarian

Ask a Librarian

  • Meta-analysis
  • Systematized


"A term used to describe a conventional overview of the literature, particularly when contrasted with a systematic review (Booth et al., 2012, p. 265).


  • Provides examination of recent or current literature on a wide range of subjects
  • Varying levels of completeness / comprehensiveness, non-standardized methodology
  • May or may not include comprehensive searching, quality assessment or critical appraisal

Mitchell, L. E., & Zajchowski, C. A. (2022). The history of air quality in Utah: A narrative review.  Sustainability ,  14 (15), 9653.

Booth, A., Papaioannou, D., & Sutton, A. (2012). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

"An assessment of what is already known about a policy or practice issue...using systematic review methods to search and critically appraise existing research" (Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 100).

  • Assessment of what is already known about an issue
  • Similar to a systematic review but within a time-constrained setting
  • Typically employs methodological shortcuts, increasing risk of introducing bias, includes basic level of quality assessment
  • Best suited for issues needing quick decisions and solutions (i.e., policy recommendations)

Learn more about the method:

Khangura, S., Konnyu, K., Cushman, R., Grimshaw, J., & Moher, D. (2012). Evidence summaries: the evolution of a rapid review approach.  Systematic reviews, 1 (1), 1-9.

Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries. (2021). Rapid Review Protocol .

Quarmby, S., Santos, G., & Mathias, M. (2019). Air quality strategies and technologies: A rapid review of the international evidence.  Sustainability, 11 (10), 2757.

Grant, M.J. & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of the 14 review types and associated methodologies.  Health Information & Libraries Journal , 26(2), 91-108.

Developed and refined by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre), this review "map[s] out and categorize[s] existing literature on a particular topic, identifying gaps in research literature from which to commission further reviews and/or primary research" (Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 97).

Although mapping reviews are sometimes called scoping reviews, the key difference is that mapping reviews focus on a review question, rather than a topic

Mapping reviews are "best used where a clear target for a more focused evidence product has not yet been identified" (Booth, 2016, p. 14)

Mapping review searches are often quick and are intended to provide a broad overview

Mapping reviews can take different approaches in what types of literature is focused on in the search

Cooper I. D. (2016). What is a "mapping study?".  Journal of the Medical Library Association: JMLA ,  104 (1), 76–78.

Miake-Lye, I. M., Hempel, S., Shanman, R., & Shekelle, P. G. (2016). What is an evidence map? A systematic review of published evidence maps and their definitions, methods, and products.  Systematic reviews, 5 (1), 1-21.

Tainio, M., Andersen, Z. J., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J., Hu, L., De Nazelle, A., An, R., ... & de Sá, T. H. (2021). Air pollution, physical activity and health: A mapping review of the evidence.  Environment international ,  147 , 105954.

Booth, A. (2016). EVIDENT Guidance for Reviewing the Evidence: a compendium of methodological literature and websites . ResearchGate. . 

Grant, M.J. & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of the 14 review types and associated methodologies.  Health Information & Libraries Journal , 26(2), 91-108.

"A type of review that has as its primary objective the identification of the size and quality of research in a topic area in order to inform subsequent review" (Booth et al., 2012, p. 269).

  • Main purpose is to map out and categorize existing literature, identify gaps in literature—great for informing policy-making
  • Search comprehensiveness determined by time/scope constraints, could take longer than a systematic review
  • No formal quality assessment or critical appraisal

Learn more about the methods :

Arksey, H., & O'Malley, L. (2005) Scoping studies: towards a methodological framework.  International Journal of Social Research Methodology ,  8 (1), 19-32.

Levac, D., Colquhoun, H., & O’Brien, K. K. (2010). Scoping studies: Advancing the methodology. Implementation Science: IS, 5, 69.

Example : 

Rahman, A., Sarkar, A., Yadav, O. P., Achari, G., & Slobodnik, J. (2021). Potential human health risks due to environmental exposure to nano-and microplastics and knowledge gaps: A scoping review.  Science of the Total Environment, 757 , 143872.

A review that "[compiles] evidence from into one accessible and usable document" (Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 103). While originally intended to be a compilation of Cochrane reviews, it now generally refers to any kind of evidence synthesis.

  • Compiles evidence from multiple reviews into one document
  • Often defines a broader question than is typical of a traditional systematic review

Choi, G. J., & Kang, H. (2022). The umbrella review: a useful strategy in the rain of evidence.  The Korean Journal of Pain ,  35 (2), 127–128.

Aromataris, E., Fernandez, R., Godfrey, C. M., Holly, C., Khalil, H., & Tungpunkom, P. (2015). Summarizing systematic reviews: Methodological development, conduct and reporting of an umbrella review approach. International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare , 13(3), 132–140.

Rojas-Rueda, D., Morales-Zamora, E., Alsufyani, W. A., Herbst, C. H., Al Balawi, S. M., Alsukait, R., & Alomran, M. (2021). Environmental risk factors and health: An umbrella review of meta-analyses.  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Dealth ,  18 (2), 704.

A meta-analysis is a "technique that statistically combines the results of quantitative studies to provide a more precise effect of the result" (Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 98).

  • Statistical technique for combining results of quantitative studies to provide more precise effect of results
  • Aims for exhaustive, comprehensive searching
  • Quality assessment may determine inclusion/exclusion criteria
  • May be conducted independently or as part of a systematic review

Berman, N. G., & Parker, R. A. (2002). Meta-analysis: Neither quick nor easy. BMC Medical Research Methodology , 2(1), 10.

Hites R. A. (2004). Polybrominated diphenyl ethers in the environment and in people: a meta-analysis of concentrations.  Environmental Science & Technology ,  38 (4), 945–956.

A systematic review "seeks to systematically search for, appraise, and [synthesize] research evidence, often adhering to the guidelines on the conduct of a review" provided by discipline-specific organizations, such as the Cochrane Collaboration (Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 102).

  • Aims to compile and synthesize all known knowledge on a given topic
  • Adheres to strict guidelines, protocols, and frameworks
  • Time-intensive and often takes months to a year or more to complete
  • The most commonly referred to type of evidence synthesis. Sometimes confused as a blanket term for other types of reviews

Gascon, M., Triguero-Mas, M., Martínez, D., Dadvand, P., Forns, J., Plasència, A., & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. (2015). Mental health benefits of long-term exposure to residential green and blue spaces: a systematic review.  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health ,  12 (4), 4354–4379.

"Systematized reviews attempt to include one or more elements of the systematic review process while stopping short of claiming that the resultant output is a systematic review" (Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 102). When a systematic review approach is adapted to produce a more manageable scope, while still retaining the rigor of a systematic review such as risk of bias assessment and the use of a protocol, this is often referred to as a  structured review  (Huelin et al., 2015).

  • Typically conducted by postgraduate or graduate students
  • Often assigned by instructors to students who don't have the resources to conduct a full systematic review

Salvo, G., Lashewicz, B. M., Doyle-Baker, P. K., & McCormack, G. R. (2018). Neighbourhood built environment influences on physical activity among adults: A systematized review of qualitative evidence.  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health ,  15 (5), 897.

Huelin, R., Iheanacho, I., Payne, K., & Sandman, K. (2015). What’s in a name? Systematic and non-systematic literature reviews, and why the distinction matters.

Flowchart of review types

  • Review Decision Tree - Cornell University For more information, check out Cornell's review methodology decision tree.
  • - Eight literature review methodologies Learn more about 8 different review types (incl. Systematic Reviews and Scoping Reviews) with practical tips about strengths and weaknesses of different methods.
  • << Previous: Getting started
  • Next: 1. Define your research question >>
  • Last Updated: May 8, 2024 8:12 AM
  • URL:

Duke University Libraries

Services for...

  • Faculty & Instructors
  • Graduate Students
  • Undergraduate Students
  • International Students
  • Patrons with Disabilities


  • Harmful Language Statement
  • Re-use & Attribution / Privacy
  • Support the Libraries

Creative Commons License


  1. How to Write a Literature Review

    Examples of literature reviews. Step 1 - Search for relevant literature. Step 2 - Evaluate and select sources. Step 3 - Identify themes, debates, and gaps. Step 4 - Outline your literature review's structure. Step 5 - Write your literature review.

  2. 3 Essential Components Of A Literature Review

    Literature Review: 3 Essential Ingredients. The theoretical framework, empirical research and research gap. Writing a comprehensive but concise literature review is no simple task. There's a lot of ground to cover and it can be challenging to figure out what's important and what's not. In this post, we'll unpack three essential ...

  3. What is a Literature Review? How to Write It (with Examples)

    A literature review is a critical analysis and synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. It provides an overview of the current state of knowledge, identifies gaps, and highlights key findings in the literature. 1 The purpose of a literature review is to situate your own research within the context of existing scholarship ...

  4. Writing a Literature Review

    A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays).

  5. Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide

    Example: Predictors and Outcomes of U.S. Quality Maternity Leave: A Review and Conceptual Framework: 10.1177/08948453211037398 ; Systematic review: "The authors of a systematic review use a specific procedure to search the research literature, select the studies to include in their review, and critically evaluate the studies they find." (p. 139).

  6. 5. The Literature Review

    A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories.A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that ...

  7. PDF Writing an Effective Literature Review

    make the task any easier, and indeed for many, writing a literature review is one of the most challenging aspects of their academic writing. In this study guide, I will begin by clearing up some misconceptions about what a literature review is and what it is not. Then, I will break the process down into a series of simple steps, looking at

  8. 3 Literature Review

    Literature reviews summarize, describe, evaluate, and synthesize the work of other authors and researchers while looking for common trends/patterns, themes, inconsistencies, and gaps in this previous research. The main strategy writers of a literature review use is synthesis. SYNTHESIS: the combination of ideas and elements to form a complete ...

  9. Writing a literature review

    A formal literature review is an evidence-based, in-depth analysis of a subject. There are many reasons for writing one and these will influence the length and style of your review, but in essence a literature review is a critical appraisal of the current collective knowledge on a subject. Rather than just being an exhaustive list of all that ...

  10. How to write a superb literature review

    The best proposals are timely and clearly explain why readers should pay attention to the proposed topic. It is not enough for a review to be a summary of the latest growth in the literature: the ...

  11. Components of the Literature Review

    This is the most time-consuming aspect in the preparation of your research proposal and it is a key component of the research proposal. As described in Chapter 5, the literature review provides the background to your study and demonstrates the significance of the proposed research. Specifically, it is a review and synthesis of prior research ...

  12. Comprehensive Literature Review: A Guide

    Despite their various structures (see the descriptions below), literature reviews consist of the following elements: Citations for the referenced materials. A discussion of the materials' research purpose, methods, and findings. A discussion of how those findings relate to your research. A discussion of the similarities and differences between ...

  13. What is a Literature Review?

    A literature review is a review and synthesis of existing research on a topic or research question. A literature review is meant to analyze the scholarly literature, make connections across writings and identify strengths, weaknesses, trends, and missing conversations. A literature review should address different aspects of a topic as it ...

  14. Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

    Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-increasing output of scientific publications .For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three, eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and biodiversity, respectively .Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to examine in detail every ...

  15. Write a Literature Review

    1. Introduction. Not to be confused with a book review, a literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work. The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.

  16. Literature Review: What is a Literature Review?

    Watch on. A literature review is an in-depth critical analysis of published scholarly research related to a specific topic.Published scholarly research (the "literature") may include journal articles, books, book chapters, dissertations and thesis, or conference proceedings. A solid lit review must:

  17. PDF CHAPTER 3 Conducting a Literature Review

    3.1 Summarize what a literature review is, what it tells the reader, and why it is necessary. 3.2 Evaluate the nine basic steps taken to write a well-constructed literature ... strategy elements of MEAL that are useful when conducting a literature review. 3.6 Demonstrate an understanding of the

  18. Ten elements of a good literature review

    Ten elements of a good literature review. A good literature review is a critical synthesis of the literature on a specific topic e.g. the relationship between class size and student achievement. Too many students engage in "telling" (what X or Y said about the topic) rather than also "synthesizing" (what is said, how well it is said ...

  19. LibGuides: Literature Review How To: Things To Consider

    However, a literature review must do these things: Be organized 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 problematic areas or areas of controversy in the literature. Formulate questions or issues that need further research.

  20. Literature review as a research methodology: An ...

    As mentioned previously, there are a number of existing guidelines for literature reviews. Depending on the methodology needed to achieve the purpose of the review, all types can be helpful and appropriate to reach a specific goal (for examples, please see Table 1).These approaches can be qualitative, quantitative, or have a mixed design depending on the phase of the review.

  21. Approaching literature review for academic purposes: The Literature

    Therefore, this paper discusses the purposes of LRs in dissertations and theses. Second, the paper considers five steps for developing a review: defining the main topic, searching the literature, analyzing the results, writing the review and reflecting on the writing. Ultimately, this study proposes a twelve-item LR checklist.

  22. What are the key elements of a strong literature review?

    5 Writing style and format. The fifth element of a strong literature review is to write your review in a clear, concise, and consistent style and format. This means using appropriate language ...

  23. Types of reviews

    Types of reviews and examples. Definition: "A term used to describe a conventional overview of the literature, particularly when contrasted with a systematic review (Booth et al., 2012, p. 265). Characteristics: Example: Mitchell, L. E., & Zajchowski, C. A. (2022). The history of air quality in Utah: A narrative review.