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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.

Organizing the Review

A literature review is structured similarly to other research essays, opening with an introduction that explains the topic and summarizes how the review will be conducted, several body paragraphs organized to share your findings, and a concluding paragraph.

There are many different ways to organize the body of your review. Some possible approaches are listed below.

Subtopic/Theme

While they all share the same overarching topic, each source approaches it in a slightly different way, valuing certain aspects or methods more than others. For example, with a literature review about the impacts of the Affordable Care Act, some literature might focus on the demographic changes in access to healthcare, or the actions taken by private health insurance companies, or even the way healthcare is discussed in politics. By combining sources that discuss the same subtopics, you can organize your review to show how the articles overlap and complement one another to create a more complete view of the existing research.

For a thematic literature review, each body paragraph would consist of one of these themes, or subtopics, and the literature associated with it.

Relevance

Alternatively, you can group your resources by their relevance to your research question. Again using the ACA as an example, it might be a good idea to begin with the sources that most broadly address the impacts of the Affordable Care Act and then order the literature by increasing specificity. 

Methodology

It may be the case that your literature can be neatly defined into different types of research, such as different methods to treat an illness or ways to test a hypothesis. Examining the literature by the ways in which the authors tried to answer questions associated with the topic is a useful way to compare and contrast research results, as well as identify potential strengths or weaknesses in the methodologies used.

Varying Opinions/Problem & Solution(s)

Your various sources might not all come to the same conclusions about the topic; in fact, especially with controversial subject matter, there may be widely differing opinions on the issues and how best to approach them. Related to the thematic review, this type of literature review structure uses the first body paragraph to pose a question, then each of the body paragraphs illustrating the differing answers found in the literature. It is an excellent way to address arguments and counter-arguments if your topic is hotly contested in academic and popular works.

Chronology

If you find yourself struggling to differentiate your sources by topic or relevance because they are all about equal in these regards, it might be a good idea to organize them chronologically.

There are two major types of chronology literature reviews tend to be grouped by:

  • Publication date: Start with the earliest-published research and finish with the most current
  • By trend: Organize sources into eras based on the time period and relative events associated with the topic. For example, regarding the Affordable Care Act, it could be split into the time before the ACA was passed, the immediate aftermath (2010-2011), Obama's second term (2012-2016), etc.

Using a Synthesis Matrix

A literature review doesn't merely summarize the current research on a topic: part of your responsibility is to take this information and make something new out of it that can be used by future researchers. This process of combining other sources of information and making an original argument out of them is called synthesis, which literally means "the combination of ideas to form a theory or system." You will synthesize the literature you've selected for review to form an argument about where more research needs to be done on your topic.

One of the most important elements of synthesis in a literature review is analysis: rather than simply repeating the results of each source you've found, you are going to analyze it for similarities to your other resources, limitations and strengths of the methodology, and an examination of the conclusions drawn by the author(s) compared to the rest of the research on the topic. This is why proper organization of the literature is so important; it will allow you to group your sources by theme so that they can be more easily compared and contrasted.

In addition to the recommendations elsewhere on this page, a common method for preparing to organize your literature is by using a synthesis matrix. This is a tool to help pick out the most important aspects of each source and see where the most common themes lie. 

With the major information organized like this, it is easy to see which resources used similar methods of research, which had similar or differing results, and when chronologically the research was conducted. Grouping the literature by any of these similarities could be a useful way to organize your review.

Questions the Literature Review Should Answer

The University of the West Indies (linked below) provides a useful checklist of questions that a good literature review should address. When outlining your review, pay attention to how you will answer the following:

These will likely be answered throughout your body paragraphs, but it might be worthwhile to address some of these in the conclusion instead or in addition.