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Writing a Literature Review

This guide will help you get started on your literature review by providing basic information on what a review is, how to write it and where to do the research.

About literature reviews

Image Source: "Literature Review" by Raul Pacheco-Vega is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What is a literature review?

A literature review is an evaluative critique of scholarly literature that has been published on a particular subject. The aim of a literature review is to demonstrate that you have read and understood the main trends and concepts in your chosen discipline taking in any contrasting or opposing views. A comprehensive literature review can identify gaps in the literature and provide direction for future research

A literature review is not a summary - it analyses,  critically evaluates and synthesises to give a clear picture of the current knowledge base of a subject.

Literature reviews can be part of undergraduate and postgraduate work or a standalone project.

Why are you asked to do a literature review?

They are necessary for several reasons. They are an essential part of the research process. They give an overview of a topic's theoretical background. Researchers use literature reviews to identify gaps in existing knowledge and to set the context for their research studies. Students can be asked to complete a literature review as part of their course to help them understand a topic more deeply. Writing a literature review can enable a student to demonstrate what they have learned about a topic and further develop their own insights within that topic .

A literature review shows that

  • You have an in-depth grasp of your topic
  • You understand where your own research fits into and adds to an existing body of knowledge

It demonstrates

  • Your literature searching abilities
  • Your critical appraisal skills
  • That you have learnt from others
  • That your research can be a starting point for new ideas

Before you start

If a literature review is part of your undergraduate or postgraduate research paper, it is important to ask your instructor for clarification on the following:

  • How many databases you are expected to use
  • The types of sources that should be consulted (e.g. is grey literature to be included)
  • How in-depth you should evaluate and explore your sources, searching for common themes and/or controversies

Why conduct a literature review?

Reasons for doing a literature review
  • Acquire a comprehensive knowledge of the critical works in your discipline and how the research has progressed.
  • Identify your niche and focus on this area of study
  • Explore a research question from different perspectives
  • Discover previously unexplored research design and methodology, and provide possible direction for future studies
  • Determine if there are any contrasting or contradictory views within an area of research
  • Avoid repeating existing research

Necessary skills

Steps in a literature review

  • Constructing a clear research question is essential to a successful literature review. It may take time and its important to discuss it with your supervisor.
  • Decide on the scope and emphasis of your question. You may have to change it depending on what you find in the literature. This is quite common and part of the process. Designing a clear research question will save you much time in the long run so it worth spending time initially to get it right
  • Searching the literature that has been published in the area - decide what formats and why
  • Managing the literature search results - the Library has software that will help you with this
  • Synthesising and analysing the research literature

Literature review: An overview for students

Check out North Carolina State Library’s video on literature reviews. This nine-minute video provides a definition for a literature review, the purpose it serves, and what pitfalls to avoid when writing your review. While targeted toward graduate students, it's useful for anyone conducting a literature review.