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The Literature Review

28 The Literature Review

A literature review is a survey of everything that has been written about a particular topic, theory, or research question. The word “literature” means “sources of information”. The literature will inform you about the research that has already been conducted on your chosen subject. This is important because we do not want to repeat research that has already been done unless there is a good reason for doing so (i.e. there has been a new development in this area or testing a theory with a new population, or even just to see if the research can be reproduced).  Literature reviews usually serve as a background for a larger work (e.g. as part of a research proposal), or it may stand on its own. Much more than a simple list of sources, an effective literature review analyzes and synthesizes information about key themes or issues.

Purpose of a literature review

The literature review involves an extensive study of research publications, books and other documents related to the defined problem.  The study is important because it advises you, as a researcher, whether the problem you identified has already been solved by other researchers.  It also advises you as to the status of the problem, techniques that have been used by other researchers to investigate the problem, and other related details.

A literature review goes beyond the search for information and includes the identification and articulation of relationships between existing literature and your field of research. The literature review enables the researcher to discover what has been already been written about a topic and to understand the relationship between the various contributions. This will enable the researcher to determine the contributions of each sources (books, article, etc.) to the topic. Literature reviews also enable the researcher to identify and (if possible) resolve contradictions, and also determine research gaps and/or unanswered questions.

Even though the nature of the literature review may vary with different types of studies, the basic purposes remain constant and could be summarized as follows:

  • Provide a context for your research;
  • Justify the research you are proposing;
  • Ensure that your proposed research has not been carried out by another person (and if you find it has, then your literature review should specify why replication is necessary);
  • Show where your proposed research fits into the existing body of knowledge;
  • Enable the researcher to learn from previous theory on the subject;
  • Illustrate how the subject has been studied previously;
  • Highlight flaws in previous research;
  • Outline gaps in previous research;
  • Show how your proposed research can add to the understanding and knowledge of the field;
  • Help refine, refocus, or even move the topic in a new direction

What is involved in writing a literature review?

  • Research – to discover what has been written about the topic;
  • Critical Appraisal – to evaluate the literature, determine the relationship between the sources and ascertain what has been done already and what still needs to be done;
  • Writing – to explain what you have found

Generally speaking, it is helpful to think of the literature review as a funnel.  One starts with a broad examination of the research related to the issue, working down to look at more specific aspects of the issue, which leads to the gap or the specific issue that your research will address.

How to undertake a literature review

The first step in undertaking a literature review is to conduct a library search of academic research that has been done on your topic.  This can be done electronically, or if you are within close vicinity to a library, you can go in and use their computers to find electronic and print holdings. You can also use Google Scholar for your search.  In some cases, research conducted outside academia can serve as an important research source for your literature review. Indeed, such research can have important practical implications, as opposed to academic research which usually (although not always) tends toward theoretical applications.

However, it is important to understand who funded the research you review, in addition to the perspective and the purpose of the research.  This is becoming an issue in Canada as universities and colleges increasingly turn to industry for research funding grants (see How TransAlta used a university-sanctioned research project to lobby for the coal industry ).

As part of this first step there are a few more some things to be thinking about as you review the literature, as follows:

  • Who are the various researchers who have studied this topic?  Who are the most prolific researchers/writers on this topic? Has a specific researcher or teams of researchers been identified as pioneers or leaders in this field of study?
  • How have the various researchers defined key terms that are relevant to your topic? Have the definitions of any of the key terms evolved over time?
  • What are the different theories that have been examined and applied to this topic? How, if at all, have the various theories applied to this topic over time evolved?
  • What methodologies have been used to study this topic?  Have the methodologies evolved over time?

In addition to thinking about these questions, you should be taking notes during this process. It can be helpful to keep these notes in an Excel file.  For example, your notes should include the following information:

  • If the article is empirical, write down the results of the research study in one or two sentences of your own words. e.g. “people who are between ages 18 – 35 are more likely to own a smart phone than those above or below.”  It is also a good idea to make note of the methods, the research design, the number of participants and details on the sample used in the study. Sometimes, you may even want to write down the names of the statistical procedures used to analyze the data or even some of the statistics, depending on your assignment.
  • If the article is a review of previous research, look for the main points. It may be helpful to read or skim the whole article, look away, and ask yourself what you felt was the main idea.
  • Write down any limitations or gaps you notice, anything that seems to contradict something you read elsewhere, or just anything that you think is important or interesting (Adjei, n.d.)

When reading through your sources, remember that you are looking for the “big picture,” not a collection of random, separate articles (an annotated bibliography).  You are also not trying to prove a point (an essay). You are looking for common themes and patterns in the research as a whole. You are also looking to see how the various pieces of research are linked, if at all.  As part of this process, you also want to identify research gaps or areas that require further research related your topic (Adjei, n.d.). In this regard, you cannot be expected to be an expert on your topic. A suggestion for finding gaps is to read the conclusion section of the academic journal articles and conference proceedings your search has uncovered.  Researchers often identify gaps in the research in their conclusion. They may even suggest areas for future research. However, remember, if a researcher suggested a gap 10 years ago, it is likely that the gap has now been addressed. To find a gap, look at the most recent research your literature review has uncovered (within 2-3 years of the current date). At this point in your search of the literature, you may realize that your research question needs to change or adapt.  This is a fairly common occurrence, as when you first develop a research question, you cannot be sure what the status of the research area is, until you undertake your review of the literature related to this topic. Finally, it is worth mentioning that it is very likely you will not include all of the resources you have read in your literature review. If you are asked to include 20 resources in your literature review, for example, expect to read approximately 30.

How to write a literature review

There are three parts to the literature review: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion.  In the following paragraphs we outline what to include in each of these sections. This section concludes with a variety of resources for you to check out.

Introduction

  • The introduction must identify the topic by briefly discussing the significance of the topic including a statement that outlines the conclusion to be drawn from the literature review.
  • If your literature review is part of a larger work, explain the importance of the review to your research question.
  • Defend the importance of the topic by giving a broad overview of the scope of the work you are reviewing. For example, if you are interested in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in paramedics, you might provide some stats to prove how much work time is lost by those suffering from PTSD.
  • Clarify whether you are looking at the entire history of the field, or just a particular period of time.
  • Discuss and assess the research according to specific organizational principles (see examples below), rather than addressing each source separately. Most, if not all, paragraphs should discuss more than one source. Avoid addressing your sources alphabetically as this does not assist in developing the themes or key issues central to your review.
  • Compare, contrast, and connect the various pieces of research. Much of the research you are reading should be connected.  Or you may notice various themes within the research (i.e. effects of PTSD on sick time, effects of PTSD on families of paramedics, effects of PTSD on overall paramedic wellness, etc.).  If you have undertaken a thorough review of the literature, you should start to see the bigger picture of how the research on this topic has evolved over time, who the main researchers are on this topic, how the methods and theories related to this topic have changed (if at all), over time.
  • Summarize the works you are reviewing. Just as in any written assignment, use logical organization and clear transitions. Spend more time on the researchers and bodies of research that are considered most important in the field and/or that are most relevant.

Based upon your research, suggest where the research in the field will or should go next. If you are proposing your own research study, show how you will contribute to the field and fill in any gaps. The conclusion would also be a good place to defend the importance of the topic, now that you have demonstrated the current state of thinking in the field.

Other resources to help you write a literature review

In conclusion, there is a plethora of resources, both here and online, that provide information on how to write a literature review. For example, check out these three, very helpful YouTube videos prepared by a professor at the University of Maryland, in the U.S.A:

  • The Literature Review, Part 1
  • The Literature Review, Part 2
  • The Literature Review, Part 3

Table 5.1 also provides some suggested organizational techniques, as well as instances when you might use these various techniques.  The table also provides a writing sample to demonstrate the writing technique.

And remember, most university and college libraries also have valuable information on literature reviews.  Here is the link to one such website: JIBC Literature Review information [PDF]

Acceptable sources for literature reviews

There are a few acceptable sources for literature reviews, and I will list these in order from what will be considered most acceptable to less acceptable sources for your literature review assignments, as follows:

  • Peer reviewed journal articles;
  • Edited academic books;
  • Articles in professional journals;
  • Statistical data from government websites;
  • Website material from professional associations (use sparingly and carefully);

The following sections will explain and provide examples of these various sources.

Peer reviewed journal articles (papers)

A peer reviewed journal article is a paper that has been submitted to a scholarly journal, accepted, and published.  Peer review journal papers go through a rigorous, blind review process of peer review. What this means is that two to three experts in the area of research featured in the paper have reviewed and accepted the paper for publication. The names of the author(s) who are seeking to publish the research have been removed (blind review), so as to minimize any bias towards the authors of the research. Albeit, sometimes a savvy reviewer can discern who has done the research based upon previous publications, etc.  This blind review process can be long (often 12 to 18 months) that may involve many back and forth edits on the behalf of the researchers, as they work to address the edits and concerns of the peers who reviewed their paper. Often, reviewers will reject the paper for a variety of reasons, such as unclear or questionable methods, lack of contribution to the field, etc. Because peer reviewed journal articles have gone through a rigorous process of review, they are considered to be the premier source for research. Peer reviewed journal articles should serve as the foundation for your literature review.

The following website will provide more information on peer-reviewed journal articles: Evaluating Information Sources: What Is A Peer-Reviewed Article? Make sure you watch the little video on the upper left-hand side of your screen, in addition to reading the material.

Edited academic books

An edited academic book is a collection of scholarly scientific papers written by different authors. The works are original papers, not published elsewhere (Wikipedia, 2018).  The papers within the text also go through a process of review; however, the review is often not a blind review because the authors have been invited to contribute to the book. Consequently, edited academic books are fine to use for your literature review, but you also want to ensure that your literature review contains mostly peer reviewed journal papers.

Articles in professional journals.

Articles from professional journals should be used with caution, as far as it relates to a source for your literature review.  This is because articles in trade journals are not usually peer reviewed, even though they may appear as such. A good way to find out is to read the “About us” section of the professional journal.  They should state there if the papers are peer reviewed. You can also google the name of the journal and add peer reviewed to the search and you should be able to find out that way.

Statistical data from governmental websites.

Governmental websites can be excellent sources for statistical data.  For examples, Statistics Canada collects and publishes data related to the economy, society, and the environment.

Website material from professional associations

Material from other websites can also serve as a source for statistics that you may need for your literature review.  As you want to justify the value of the research you are interested in, you might make use of a professional association´s website to learn how many members they have, for example.  As a hypothetical example, you might want to demonstrate, as part of the introduction to your literature review, why more research on the topic of PTSD in police officers is important.  You could use peer reviewed journal articles to determine the prevalence of PTSD in police officers in Canada in the last ten years and then use the Ontario Police Officers´ Association website to determine the approximate number of police officers employed in the Province of Ontario over the last ten years. This might help you create an approximation of how many police officers could be suffering with PTSD in Ontario.  That number could potentially help to justify a research grand down the road. But again, this type of website-based material should be used with caution and sparingly.

Text Attributions

  • This chapter has been adapted from Unit 2: Literature Review in  Research Methods by Joseph K. Adjei. © Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License .

The Literature Review by Valerie A. Sheppard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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  • How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

Table of contents

What is the purpose of 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, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • 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 sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility

 Statistics

  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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  • Research Guides

Literature Reviews

  • What Is It?
  • Finding Literature Reviews

A literature review is both a process and a product. As a process, it involves searching for information related to your topic, to familiarize yourself with the relevant research and to identify issues and gaps in the research. In most cases you're seeking to identify the key authors and key arguments that are relevant to your topic, not to exhaustively read everything written on the subject. 

Types of Literature Reviews

A stand alone literature review can be a single work in its own right.  Examples include:

  • A class assignment
  • A review article

Literature reviews can also be component parts of larger bodies of work. Examples include:

  • A thesis / dissertation
  • An academic journal article introduction

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is the writing process of summarizing, synthesizing and/or critiquing the literature found as a result of a literature search. It may be used as background or context for a primary research project.

There are several reasons to review the literature :

  • Identify the developments in the field of study
  • Learn about the information sources and the research methodologies
  • Find gaps in the literature that can become research questions
  • Validate the originality of a research project
  • Evaluate the methods
  • Identify errors to avoid
  • Highlight the strengths, weaknesses and controversies in the field of study
  • Identify the subject experts

When writing your review, there are objectives you should keep in mind :

  • Inform the audience of the developments in the field
  • Establish your credibility
  • Discuss the relevance and significance of your question(s)
  • Provide the context for your methodological approach
  • Discuss the relevance and appropriateness of your approach.

​The level of detail or comprehensiveness of your literature review may depend on many things, but especially the purpose and audience of your review. For example, if you're writing a literature review that will aid you in writing a thesis or dissertation, you may want to have a very comprehensive lit review that reviews all relevant literature on a topic, as well as relevant sources beyond what is immediately and freely available (e.g. foundational scholarly articles not available through library collections).

Purpose of a Literature Review

Watch this YouTube video to understand the purpose of a literature review.

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