A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. Through a literature review, a researcher will identify related research that has been accomplished, and may explore appropriate methodology for that research. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research.
You need to provide context for your research in relation to what is already known. What is the existing knowledge and where does your research sit within this context? How is your project unique from other similar projects? The literature review gives you a chance to:
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.
Once you have you have clearly defined your topic and have your keywords/phrases ready, search a wide range of sources to find relevant literature, including: WorldCat and the Library's catalog to find books and documents, Google Scholar, and core databases in your field. Don't forget to search technical reports, patents, and government documents too
Remember to use Boolean operators to refine your search.
You can't read everything, so try this approach to make an initial decision on articles:
When you find useful book or article, check the bibliography/references to find other relevant sources. The number of of citations an article has (i.e. the number of times other authors have cited a publication) can be an indicator of its importance to the field, but beware of self-citing and ghost citations that can make an article look more critical than it is.
When you get to the point in your search that you are seeing the same articles and authors over and over, you've done a good, comprehensive search.
As you search, be thinking about the following questions as you do your research:
As you do your research, 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:
This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge or how it fits into the whole.
There are various approaches to organizing a literature review:
The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. Make sure you 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.
You can organize your literature review into subsections that address recurring, central themes or 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:
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.
Or Combine Approaches
You may find it helpful to combine several of these strategies, particularly if your literature review is long. For example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically.
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:
Finding introductory information for subject areas that are unfamiliar can help you identify appropriate search terms, help you familiarize yourself with materials and chemical properties, and help you focus on issues related to your research process
Handbooks, Encyclopedias and other multi-volume reference works can help, as can graduate level textbooks. Go to the tab Find Books, Documents & More on Your Topic in this guide for how to find these resources.
Literature reviews are particularly helpful in finding past research on a specific topic because someone else summarizes the research in an area up to a particular date, essentially doing some of your research for you, and providing some context for that research.
Some databases provide a way to limit a search to reviews in journal articles. The following databases provide access to reviews across a wide range of disciplines:
When you find relevant articles, look at the bibliographies - the references the author used to write the article. This will lead you to additional sources. Some databases offer links to these references, and to articles that cite the relevant article you found. For example:
If you find a articles that are cited repeatedly or know of key individuals in the field, use an author search to find additional sources by these experts.
Writing a good literature review can be tough. You might want to take a look at examples of literature reviews others have written.
Some of the materials in this guide originated from How to Write a Literature Review: Guide, Examples, & Templates, by Shona McCombes. Scribbr.com, February 22, 2019. URL: https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/literature-review/