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A general guide on how to conduct and write a literature review.
Please check course or programme information and materials provided by teaching staff , including your project supervisor, for subject-specific guidance.
What is a literature review?
A literature review is a piece of academic writing demonstrating knowledge and understanding of the academic literature on a specific topic placed in context. A literature review also includes a critical evaluation of the material; this is why it is called a literature review rather than a literature report. It is a process of reviewing the literature, as well as a form of writing.
To illustrate the difference between reporting and reviewing, think about television or film review articles. These articles include content such as a brief synopsis or the key points of the film or programme plus the critic’s own evaluation. Similarly the two main objectives of a literature review are firstly the content covering existing research, theories and evidence, and secondly your own critical evaluation and discussion of this content.
Usually a literature review forms a section or part of a dissertation, research project or long essay. However, it can also be set and assessed as a standalone piece of work.
What is the purpose of a literature review?
…your task is to build an argument, not a library. Rudestam, K.E. and Newton, R.R. (1992) Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process. California: Sage, p49.
In a larger piece of written work, such as a dissertation or project, a literature review is usually one of the first tasks carried out after deciding on a topic. Reading combined with critical analysis can help to refine a topic and frame research questions. Conducting a literature review establishes your familiarity with and understanding of current research in a particular field before carrying out a new investigation. After doing a literature review, you should know what research has already been done and be able to identify what is unknown within your topic.
When doing and writing a literature review, it is good practice to:
- summarise and analyse previous research and theories;
- identify areas of controversy and contested claims;
- highlight any gaps that may exist in research to date.
Conducting a literature review
Focusing on different aspects of your literature review can be useful to help plan, develop, refine and write it. You can use and adapt the prompt questions in our worksheet below at different points in the process of researching and writing your review. These are suggestions to get you thinking and writing.
Developing and refining your literature review (pdf)
Developing and refining your literature review (Word)
Developing and refining your literature review (Word rtf)
Writing a literature review has a lot in common with other assignment tasks. There is advice on our other pages about thinking critically, reading strategies and academic writing. Our literature review top tips suggest some specific things you can do to help you submit a successful review.
Literature review top tips (pdf)
Literature review top tips (Word rtf)
Our reading page includes strategies and advice on using books and articles and a notes record sheet grid you can use.
Reading at university
The Academic writing page suggests ways to organise and structure information from a range of sources and how you can develop your argument as you read and write.
The Critical thinking page has advice on how to be a more critical researcher and a form you can use to help you think and break down the stages of developing your argument.
As with other forms of academic writing, your literature review needs to demonstrate good academic practice by following the Code of Student Conduct and acknowledging the work of others through citing and referencing your sources.
Good academic practice
As with any writing task, you will need to review, edit and rewrite sections of your literature review. The Editing and proofreading page includes tips on how to do this and strategies for standing back and thinking about your structure and checking the flow of your argument.
Editing and proofreading
Guidance on literature searching from the University Library
The Academic Support Librarians have developed LibSmart I and II, Learn courses to help you develop and enhance your digital research skills and capabilities; from getting started with the Library to managing data for your dissertation.
Searching using the library’s DiscoverEd tool: DiscoverEd
Finding resources in your subject: Subject guides
The Academic Support Librarians also provide one-to-one appointments to help you develop your research strategies.
1 to 1 support for literature searching and systematic reviews
Advice to help you optimise use of Google Scholar, Google Books and Google for your research and study: Using Google
Managing and curating your references
A referencing management tool can help you to collect and organise and your source material to produce a bibliography or reference list.
Referencing and reference management
Information Services provide access to Cite them right online which is a guide to the main referencing systems and tells you how to reference just about any source (EASE log-in may be required).
Cite them right
Published study guides
There are a number of scholarship skills books and guides available which can help with writing a literature review. Our Resource List of study skills guides includes sections on Referencing, Dissertation and project writing and Literature reviews.
Study skills guides
- Essay Guide
- Alex Essay Writing Tool
- Dissertation Guide
- Ask The Elephant
What is a literature review?
If you have to write an undergraduate dissertation, you may be required to begin by writing a literature review. A literature review is a search and evaluation of the available literature in your given subject or chosen topic area. It documents the state of the art with respect to the subject or topic you are writing about.
A literature review has four main objectives:
- It surveys the literature in your chosen area of study
- It synthesises the information in that literature into a summary
- It critically analyses the information gathered by identifying gaps in current knowledge; by showing limitations of theories and points of view; and by formulating areas for further research and reviewing areas of controversy
- It presents the literature in an organised way
A literature review shows your readers that you have an in-depth grasp of your subject; and that you understand where your own research fits into and adds to an existing body of agreed knowledge.
Here’s another way of describing those four main tasks. A literature review:
- demonstrates a familiarity with a body of knowledge and establishes the credibility of your work;
- summarises prior research and says how your project is linked to it;
- integrates and summarises what is known about a subject;
- demonstrates that you have learnt from others and that your research is a starting point for new ideas.
- Knox College Library
- Research Guides
- 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.
- Next: Finding Literature Reviews >>
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Literature Review: A Definition
What is a literature review, then.
A literature review discusses and analyses published information in a particular subject area. Sometimes the information covers a certain time period.
A literature review is more than a summary of the sources, it has an organizational pattern that combines both summary and synthesis. 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. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.
But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?
While the main focus of an academic research paper is to support your own argument, the focus of a literature review is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others. The academic research paper also covers a range of sources, but it is usually a select number of sources, because the emphasis is on the argument. Likewise, a literature review can also have an "argument," but it is not as important as covering a number of sources. In short, an academic research paper and a literature review contain some of the same elements. In fact, many academic research papers will contain a literature review section. What aspect of the study (either the argument or the sources) that is emphasized determines what type of document it is.
( "Literature Reviews" from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill )
Why do we write literature reviews?
Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone.
For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field.
For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper's investigation.
Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.
Journal Articles on Writing Literature Reviews
- Research Methods for Comprehensive Science Literature Reviews Author: Brown,Barry N. Journal: Issues in Science & Technology Librarianship Date: Spring2009 Issue: 57 Page: 1 more... less... Finding some information on most topics is easy. There are abundant sources of information readily available. However, completing a comprehensive literature review on a particular topic is often difficult, laborious, and time intensive; the project requires organization, persistence, and an understanding of the scholarly communication and publishing process. This paper briefly outlines methods of conducting a comprehensive literature review for science topics. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR];
- Research: Considerations in Writing a Literature Review Authors: Black,K. Journal: The New Social Worker Date: 01/01; 2007 Volume: 14 Issue: 2 Page: 12 more... less... Literature reviews are ubiquitous in academic journals, scholarly reports, and social work education. Conducting and writing a good literature review is both personally and professionally satisfying. (Journal abstract).
- How to do (or not to do) A Critical Literature Review Authors: Jesson,Jill; Lacey,Fiona Journal: Pharmacy Education Pub Date: 2006 Volume: 6 Issue: 2 Pages:139 - 148 more... less... More and more students are required to perform a critical literature review as part of their undergraduate or postgraduate studies. Whilst most of the latest research methods textbooks advise how to do a literature search, very few cover the literature review. This paper covers two types of review: a critical literature review and a systematic review. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]
- Conducting a Literature Review Authors: Rowley,Jennifer; Slack,Frances Journal: Management Research News Pub Date: 2004 Volume: 27 Issue: 6 Pages:31-39 more... less... Abstract: This article offers support and guidance for students undertaking a literature review as part of their dissertation during an undergraduate or Masters course. A literature review is a summary of a subject field that supports the identification of specific research questions. A literature review needs to draw on and evaluate a range of different types of sources including academic and professional journal articles, books, and web-based resources. The literature search helps in the identification and location of relevant documents and other sources. Search engines can be used to search web resources and bibliographic databases. Conceptual frameworks can be a useful tool in developing an understanding of a subject area. Creating the literature review involves the stages of: scanning, making notes, structuring the literature review, writing the literature review, and building a bibliography.
Some Books from the WU Catalog
- The SAGE handbook of visual research methods [electronic resource] by Edited by Luc Pauwels and Dawn Mannay. ISBN: 9781526417015 Publication Date: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2020.
- "How to do a Literature Review" from Ferdinand D. Bluford Library
- "The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It." from the University of Toronto
- << Previous: Creating an Abstract
- Next: Creating a Poster >>
- Last Updated: Mar 7, 2023 9:14 PM
- URL: https://libguides.wustl.edu/our
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4.1 What is a literature review?
- Describe the components of a literature review
- Recognize commons errors in literature reviews
Pick up nearly any book on research methods and you will find a description of a literature review . At a basic level, the term implies a survey of factual or nonfiction books, articles, and other documents published on a particular subject. Definitions may be similar across the disciplines, with new types and definitions continuing to emerge. Generally speaking, a literature review is a:
- “comprehensive background of the literature within the interested topic area” (O’Gorman & MacIntosh, 2015, p. 31). 
- “critical component of the research process that provides an in-depth analysis of recently published research findings in specifically identified areas of interest” (Houser, 2018, p. 109). 
- “written document that presents a logically argued case founded on a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge about a topic of study” (Machi & McEvoy, 2012, p. 4). 
Literature reviews are indispensable for academic research. “A substantive, thorough, sophisticated literature review is a precondition for doing substantive, thorough, sophisticated research…A researcher cannot perform significant research without first understanding the literature in the field” (Boote & Beile, 2005, p. 3).  In the literature review, a researcher shows she is familiar with a body of knowledge and thereby establishes her credibility with a reader. The literature review shows how previous research is linked to the author’s project by summarizing and synthesizing what is known while identifying gaps in the knowledge base, facilitating theory development, closing areas where enough research already exists, and uncovering areas where more research is needed. (Webster & Watson, 2002, p. xiii).  Literature reviews are often necessary for real world social work practice. Grant proposals, advocacy briefs, and evidence-based practice rely on a review of the literature to accomplish practice goals.
A literature review is a compilation of the most significant previously published research on your topic. Unlike an annotated bibliography or a research paper you may have written in other classes, your literature review will outline, evaluate, and synthesize relevant research and relate those sources to your own research question. It is much more than a summary of all the related literature. A good literature review lays the solidifies the importance of the problem your study aims to address, defines the main ideas of your research question, and demonstrates their interrelationships.
Literature review basics
All literature reviews, whether they focus on qualitative or quantitative data, will at some point:
- Introduce the topic and define its key terms.
- Establish the importance of the topic.
- Provide an overview of the important literature on the concepts in the research question and other related concepts.
- Identify gaps in the literature or controversies.
- Point out consistent finding across studies.
- Arrive at a synthesis that organizes what is known about a topic, rather than just summarizing.
- Discuss possible implications and directions for future research.
There are many different types of literature reviews, including those that focus solely on methodology, those that are more conceptual, and those that are more exploratory. Regardless of the type of literature review or how many sources it contains, strong literature reviews have similar characteristics. Your literature review is, at its most fundamental level, an original work based on an extensive critical examination and synthesis of the relevant literature on a topic. As a study of the research on a particular topic, it is arranged by key themes or findings, which should lead up to or link to the research question.
A literature review is a mandatory part of any research project. It demonstrates that you can systematically explore the research in your topic area, read and analyze the literature on the topic, use it to inform your own work, and gather enough knowledge about the topic to conduct a research project. Literature reviews should be reasonably complete, and not restricted to a few journals, a few years, or a specific methodology or research design. A well-conducted literature review should indicate to you whether your initial research questions have already been addressed in the literature, whether there are newer or more interesting research questions available, and whether the original research questions should be modified or changed in light of findings of the literature review. The review can also provide potential answers to your research question, help identify theories that have previously been used to address similar questions, as well as provide evidence to inform policy or decision-making (Bhattacherjee, 2012). 
In addition, literature reviews are beneficial to you both as a researcher and as a social work scholar. By reading what others have argued and found in their work, you become familiar with how people talk about and understand your topic. During the process, you will refine your writing skills and your understanding of the topic you have chosen. The literature review also impacts the question you want to answer. As you learn more about your topic, you will clarify and redefine the research question guiding your inquiry. By completing a literature review, you ensure that you are neither repeating a study that has been done numerous times in the past, not repeating mistakes of past researchers. The contribution your research study will have depends on what others have found before you. Try to place the study you wish to do in the context of previous research and ask, “Is this contributing something new?” and “Am I addressing a gap in knowledge or controversy in the literature?”
In summary, you should conduct a literature review to:
- Locate gaps in the literature of your discipline
- Avoid “reinventing the wheel,” by repeating past studies or mistakes
- Carry on the unfinished work of other scholars
- Identify other people working in the same field
- Increase the breadth and depth of knowledge in your subject area
- Read the seminal works in your field
- Provide intellectual context for your own work
- Acknowledge opposing viewpoints
- Put your work in perspective
- Demonstrate you can find and understand previous work in the area
Common literature review errors
Literature reviews are more than a summary of the publications you find on a topic. As you have seen in this brief introduction, literature reviews are a very specific type of research, analysis, and writing. We will explore these topics more in the next chapters. As you begin your literature review, here are some common errors to avoid:
- Accepting another researcher’s finding as valid without evaluating methodology and data
- Ignoring contrary findings and alternative interpretations
- Using findings that are not clearly related to your own study or using findings that are too general
- Dedicating insufficient time to literature searching
- Simply reporting isolated statistical results, rather than synthesizing the results
- Relying too heavily on secondary sources
- Overusing quotations from sources
- Failing to justify an argument by using specific facts or theories from the literature at hand
For a quick review of some of the pitfalls and challenges a new researcher faces when they begin work, see “ Get Ready: Academic Writing, General Pitfalls and (oh yes) Getting Started! ”.
- Literature reviews are the first step in any research project, as they help you learn about the topic you chose to study.
- You must do more than summarize sources for a literature review. You must have something to say about them and demonstrate you understand their content.
Literature review – a survey of factual or nonfiction books, articles, and other documents published on a particular subject
Book library by MVA CC-0
- O’Gorman, K., & MacIntosh, R. (2015). Research methods for business & management: A guide to writing your dissertation (2nd ed.). Oxford: Goodfellow Publishers. ↵
- Houser, J., (2018). Nursing research reading, using, and creating evidence (4th ed.) . Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett. ↵
- Machi, L., & McEvoy, B. (2012). The literature review: Six steps to success (2nd ed) . Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. ↵
- Boote, D., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher 34 (6), 3-15. ↵
- Webster, J., & Watson, R. (2002). Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: Writing a literature review. MIS Quarterly , 26 (2), xiii-xxiii. https://web.njit.edu/~egan/Writing_A_Literature_Review.pdf ↵
- Bhattacherjee, A., (2012). Social science research: Principles, methods, and practices. Textbooks Collection . 3. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/oa_textbooks/3 ↵
Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-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.
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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.
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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).
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.
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
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.
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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.
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- Simple random sampling
- Stratified sampling
- Cluster sampling
- Likert scales
- Null hypothesis
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- Probability distribution
- Effect size
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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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How to write a literature review
What is a literature review.
The literature review is a written overview of major writings and other sources on a selected topic. Sources covered in the review may include scholarly journal articles, books, government reports, Web sites, etc. The literature review provides a description, summary and evaluation of each source. It is usually presented as a distinct section of a graduate thesis or dissertation.
Purpose of the literature review
The purpose of the literature review is to provide a critical written account of the current state of research on a selected topic:
- Identifies areas of prior scholarship
- Places each source in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the specific issue, area of research, or theory under review.
- Describes the relationship of each source to the others that you have selected
- Identifies new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
- Points the way forward for further research.
Components of the literature review
The literature review should include the following:
- Objective of the literature review
- Overview of the subject under consideration.
- particular position, those opposed, and those offering completely different arguments.
- Discussion of both the distinctiveness of each source and its similarities with the others.
Steps in the literature review process
Preparation of a literature review may be divided into four steps:
- Define your subject and the scope of the review.
- Search the library catalogue, subject specific databases and other search tools to find sources that are relevant to your topic.
- Read and evaluate the sources and to determine their suitability to the understanding of topic at hand (see the Evaluating sources section).
- Analyse, interpret and discuss the findings and conclusions of the sources you selected.
In assessing each source, consideration should be given to:
- What is the author's expertise in this particular field of study (credentials)?
- Are the author's arguments supported by empirical evidence (e.g. quantitative/qualitative studies)?
- Is the author's perspective too biased in one direction or are opposing studies and viewpoints also considered?
- Does the selected source contribute to a more profound understanding of the subject?
Examples of a published literature review
Literature reviews are often published as scholarly articles, books, and reports. Here is an example of a recent literature review published as a scholarly journal article:
Ledesma, M. C., & Calderón, D. (2015). Critical race theory in education: A review of past literature and a look to the future. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(3), 206-222. Link to the article
Additional sources on writing literature reviews
Further information on the literature review process may be found below:
- Booth, A., Papaioannou, D., & Sutton, A. (2012). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review
- Fink, A. (2010). Conducting research literature reviews: From the Internet to paper
- Galvin, J. (2006). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences
- Machi, L. A., & McEvoy, B. T. (2012). The literature review: Six steps to success
Adapted with permission and thanks from How to Write a Literature Review originally created by Kenneth Lyons, McHenry Library, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Learn how to write a review of literature
What is a review of literature.
The format of a review of literature may vary from discipline to discipline and from assignment to assignment.
A review may be a self-contained unit — an end in itself — or a preface to and rationale for engaging in primary research. A review is a required part of grant and research proposals and often a chapter in theses and dissertations.
Generally, the purpose of a review is to analyze critically a segment of a published body of knowledge through summary, classification, and comparison of prior research studies, reviews of literature, and theoretical articles.
Writing the introduction
In the introduction, you should:
Define or identify the general topic, issue, or area of concern, thus providing an appropriate context for reviewing the literature.
Point out overall trends in what has been published about the topic; or conflicts in theory, methodology, evidence, and conclusions; or gaps in research and scholarship; or a single problem or new perspective of immediate interest.
Establish the writer’s reason (point of view) for reviewing the literature; explain the criteria to be used in analyzing and comparing literature and the organization of the review (sequence); and, when necessary, state why certain literature is or is not included (scope).
Writing the body
In the body, you should:
Group research studies and other types of literature (reviews, theoretical articles, case studies, etc.) according to common denominators such as qualitative versus quantitative approaches, conclusions of authors, specific purpose or objective, chronology, etc.
Summarize individual studies or articles with as much or as little detail as each merits according to its comparative importance in the literature, remembering that space (length) denotes significance.
Provide the reader with strong “umbrella” sentences at beginnings of paragraphs, “signposts” throughout, and brief “so what” summary sentences at intermediate points in the review to aid in understanding comparisons and analyses.
Writing the conclusion
In the conclusion, you should:
Summarize major contributions of significant studies and articles to the body of knowledge under review, maintaining the focus established in the introduction.
Evaluate the current “state of the art” for the body of knowledge reviewed, pointing out major methodological flaws or gaps in research, inconsistencies in theory and findings, and areas or issues pertinent to future study.
Conclude by providing some insight into the relationship between the central topic of the literature review and a larger area of study such as a discipline, a scientific endeavor, or a profession.
For further information see our handouts on Writing a Critical Review of a Nonfiction Book or Article or Reading a Book to Review It .
To learn more about literature reviews, take a look at our workshop on Writing Literature Reviews of Published Research.
Sample Literature Reviews
An important strategy for learning how to compose literature reviews in your field or within a specific genre is to locate and analyze representative examples. The following collection of annotated sample literature reviews written and co-written by colleagues associated with UW-Madison showcases how these reviews can do different kind of work for different purposes. Use these successful examples as a starting point for understanding how other writers have approached the challenging and important task of situating their idea in the context of established research.
- Sample 1 (PDF) A brief literature review within a political scientists’ National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship grant
- Sample 2 (PDF) A several-page literature review at the beginning of a published, academic article about philosophy
- Sample 3 (PDF) A brief literature review at the beginning of a published, academic article about photochemistry
Academic and Professional Writing
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Using Literary Quotations
Writing a Rhetorical Précis to Analyze Nonfiction Texts
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Planning and Writing a Grant Proposal: The Basics
Additional Resources for Grants and Proposal Writing
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Proposals and Dissertations
Resources for Proposal Writers
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Writing Annotated Bibliographies
Creating Poster Presentations
Writing an Abstract for Your Research Paper
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Reading for a Review
Writing a Review of Literature
Scientific Report Format
Sample Lab Assignment
Writing for the Web
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Writing for Social Media: A Guide for Academics