The literature review is a cornerstone of academic writing that’s often shrouded in mystery and misconceptions. If you’ve ever found yourself pondering, “What exactly is this thing?” or “Why is it even important?” you’re not alone. Even seasoned academics sometimes wrestle with crafting a literature review that’s both comprehensive and compelling. But fear not, because we’re about to demystify this academic staple.
In today’s post, we’ll peel back the layers of the literature review, exploring its purpose, its structure, and its vital role in research. This is your roadmap to not just understanding what a literature review is, but also to creating one that holds its own. So whether you’re a student grappling with your first research paper or an educator looking to impart this skill onto others, consider this your go-to guide for all things literature review. Let’s dive in.
What is a Literature Review?
A literature review is a critical summary and analysis of existing research literature on a specific topic. It provides an overview of the current state of knowledge and highlights gaps in the literature that should be addressed by further research. A literature review can also include an evaluation of any text, arguments or hypotheses on a given topic.
Steps to Conduct a Literature Review
To help you plan and conduct your literature review, here are some practical steps to keep in mind along the way:
1. Choose a topic: Start by selecting a research question or hypothesis that you want to explore.
2. Search literature: Conduct literature searches in databases and other sources to find literature related to your topic. Here are some useful academic search engines to help you in your search.
3. Assess literature: Read through relevant literature and analyze the ideas, arguments, and evidence presented in the literature. As you read, jot down notes on the margin, annotate, and hightlight key passages. Use these annotation tools to help with assessing the literature.
4. Synthesize literature: Assemble your notes and highlights into a consolidated and coherent piece. Summarize long ideas and synthesize the whole into a readable narrative. Here are some useful note taking tools and apps to help you in this regard.
5. Make connections: Go through the synthesized piece and try to make connections with other insights and research you have read. The purpose is to show depth of thinking and understanding of your topic by creating interconnections and cross references. Use these bibliography tools to organize your references.
6. Identify gaps: Identify any gaps that exist in the literature related to your topic. use these gaps as guide for future research projects.
Purpose of a Literature Review
A literature review can take different forms. It can be a stand-alone piece, as is the case with classroom assignments or even publications, or it can be part of a research paper or dissertation/thesis. As part of a class assignment, a literature review serves to familiarize students with the scholarship published in their area of study. It helps them identify seminal works that they need to read and the key authors shaping the scholarship in their area of study.
A literature review is also an effective way for students to identify gaps in extant research that they can work on in their own research. As part of a published work, a literature review provides scientific rigor to the research. It demonstrates that the researcher is not only familiar with the existent scholarship in their field but also builds on it to contribute unique research findings.
USC summarized the purposes of a literature review into the following points:
- “Provide foundation of knowledge on topic
- Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication and give credit to other researchers
- Identify inconstancies: gaps in research, conflicts in previous studies, open questions left from other research
- Identify need for additional research (justifying your research)
- Identify the relationship of works in context of its contribution to the topic and to other works
- Place your own research within the context of existing literature making a case for why further study is needed.”
What Are the Main Parts of a Literature Review?
A standard literature review typically consists of three parts:
The introduction serves to provide an overview of the literature that is being discussed and provides a context for the literature review.
The body contains the main content. It includes analysis of the literature related to the research topic, as well as an evaluation of any text, arguments or hypotheses concerning the topic.
The conclusion summarizes your literature review and presents some insights gained from it. It should also include recommendations for further research or how existing literature can be used in new contexts.
Books on literature review
There are several books that can assist you with writing a literature review. Some of my favorites books on how to write a literature review include:
- Published: a guide to literature review, outlining, experimenting, visualization, writing, editing, and peer review for your first scientific journal article, by Thomas Deetjen
- Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Research Imagination, by Chris Hart
- Doing a Systematic Review: A Student’s Guide, by Angela Boland (Editor), Gemma Cherry (Editor), Rumona Dickson (Editor)
- An Introduction to Systematic Reviews, by David Gough (Editor), Sandy Oliver (Editor), James Thomas (Editor)
- 5Introduction to Meta-Analysis, by Michael Borenstein, Larry V. Hedges, Julian P. T. Higgins, Hannah R. Rothstein
- Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review, by Andrew Booth, Anthea Sutton, Mark Clowes, Marrissa Martyn-St James
- Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper, by Arlene G. Fink
- Systematic Reviews in Educational Research: Methodology, Perspectives and Application, by Olaf Zawacki-Richter et al.
- Searching the Grey Literature: A Handbook for Searching Reports, Working Papers, and Other Unpublished Research, by Sarah Bonat
- Publication Manual (OFFICIAL) 7th Edition of the American Psychological Association, by American Psychological Association
- The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success, by Lawrence A. Machi, Brenda T. McEvoy
As we wrap up this exploration into the fascinating world of literature reviews, I hope the fog has lifted and the path ahead looks a bit clearer. This isn’t just another box to tick off on your academic to-do list; it’s a critical exercise that bridges past and present research, giving your own work a meaningful context.
In my years of teaching and research, I’ve seen firsthand how a well-crafted literature review can elevate a study from interesting to invaluable. Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned academic, the understanding and skills you gain in mastering the literature review are tools you’ll use throughout your research journey.