Writing literature reviews

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If you are conducting your own original research for a Master's thesis or doctoral dissertation, you would begin with a lit review. Also, if you are doing a term paper in which you propose your own hypothetical experiment, you would begin with a lit review before proposing your own study. A lit review examines the previous research in the area, assesses its strengths and weaknesses, and identifies a particular problem that needs to be addressed in the research, in order to evaluate the past research and provide a rationale for your own research. In fact, most research articles have an introductory section or sections, which are essentially a lit review that leads up to the author's own study.


1 Purpose

  • To provide background or history of research on the topic
  • To provide a theoretical framework for what follows
  • To identify what others have said, done, or discovered on the topic
  • To extract and synthesize the main points, issues, findings, and research methods of previous studies
  • To show relationships between previous research work
  • To place the papers topic in the context of other scholarship and research in the field
  • To show a need or gap; to establish a need for research in the area
  • To identify possibilities for further research
  • To become familiar with difficulties in research in the area and to avoid potential pitfalls that others have faced


2 Contents

  • It provides a history of discoveries and/or relevant research on the topic
  • Shows how different people build on each others work
  • Reports on previous studies (this is not necessarily chronologically organized)
  • Compares and contrasts between what has been done and what the current author (you) will do
  • Shows sources of the theoretical framework, lays out the theoretical basis for the work
  • Makes generalizations on the basis of studies; summarizes evidence
  • Points out problems with past research
  • Provides justification and shows a need for the author's current research
  • Points out what is not known and suggests areas for future research


3 Procedures

  1. Write a preliminary statement of your research problem.
  2. Search preliminary sources on electronic databases or search engines for the field or particular issue.
  3. Check secondary sources – articles, monographs,and other papers written by others who refer to, summarize, or cite primary sources in their bibliographies and in in-text citation.
  4. Read primary sources – abstracts and documents by those who conducted the original research or theoretical work; also check their references for more ideas.
  5. Synthesize the literature.

Now synthesize the information from all your sources. Summarize the information in a coherent format that is organized chronologically or in some logical manner. Paraphrase and summarize using appropriate reporting verbs, transitional expressions (e.g., conjunctions), and evaluative / argumentative expressions – commenting on and evaluating the quality of the research and how well it addresses the research question. Inform the reader about what is known, what is not yet known, and what you plan to investigate. Make clear how your proposed study relates to and builds upon the existing knowledge base in the literature.

4 Pitfalls

Avoid mistakes that some researchers make when they...

  • do not clearly relate the findings of the literature review to the researcher's own study.
  • do not take sufficient time to define the best descriptors and identify the best sources to use in reviewing the literature on ones topic.
  • rely on secondary sources too much and make insufficient use of primary sources – the actual research articles themselves.
  • uncritically accept another researchers findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis.
  • report isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in a more global, coherent discussion
  • do not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations in discussing the literature.


5 See also

  1. Reporting verbs (introduction)
  2. Reporting verbs

5.1 Other pages on referencing and sources: