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Conducting a Literature Review

This guide will help you understand what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done.

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of the principal research about the topic being studied. Your literature review should contain the following information:

  • The most pertinent studies and important past and current research and practices in the field
  • An overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic
  • An explanation to your readers as to how your research fits within a larger field of study.

The review helps form the intellectual framework for the study.

Purpose

At its core, a literature provides a summary of existing knowledge on a subject or topic and identifies areas where research is lacking: missing information, incomplete studies or studies that draw conflicting conclusions, or perhaps even outdated methods of research.

This can be especially helpful if you intend to conduct research of your own on this topic; by explaining where the previous studies have fallen short or leave openings for further examination, you provide a strong foundation and justification for the research project you intend to embark on.

Literature reviews can stand on their own as an article or assignment for a class, or they can serve as an introduction to a larger work, such as an article describing a study or even a book. They can also vary in granularity: a literature review in the beginning of an article might only summarize the largest or most influential studies, while an academic literature review will not only describe the research so far but look for common themes, analyze the quality of the research, and explain gaps where further research is needed.

Parts of a Literature Review

When preparing your literature review, keep these questions in mind:

  1. What is your literature review about?
  2. Why are you studying this topic?
  3. How will you organize your sources? (You could group them by themes or subtopics, or perhaps keep them in chronological order. The way you present your sources is important, so make sure you think hard about this!)
  4. What are the major themes/subtopics that you discovered when reading your sources?
  5. Where could more research be done to increase our understanding of this topic?

For each individual source, be prepared to analyze:

  • The quality of the research and the conclusions it draws
    • Who were the key researchers and what are their qualifications?
    • How was the research conducted?
  • The similarities and differences between this source and the others in your literature review
  • How this source contributes to greater understanding of the topic as a whole
  • Any questions you have about the research done, which could identify opportunities for further study

When preparing your literature review, examine these elements and determine which ones would be best for your paper. (Tip: If you're not sure which parts of the literature review to include, ask your professor!)