A literature review is an examination of scholarly sources on a particular subject.
It gives you a broad perspective of current knowledge, helping you to spot pertinent ideas, methodologies, and research gaps.
Finding relevant publications (such as books and journal articles), critically examining them, and summarising what you discovered are all part of writing a literature review.
There are five important stages to follow:
- Look up related material
- Examine the sources
- Determine the themes, arguments, and gaps.
- Create a blueprint for the structure.
- Prepare a literature review.
A competent literature review does more than summarise sources; it also analyses, synthesises, and critically evaluates them to provide a comprehensive picture of the current state of knowledge on the topic.
What is the purpose of a literature review?
You’ll need to do a literature review to contextualise your research within current knowledge when writing a thesis, dissertation, or research paper.
The literature review provides you with the opportunity to:
- Demonstrate your understanding of the subject and scholarly context.
- Create a theoretical framework and research approach for your study.
- Place yourself in relation to other theorists and researchers.
- Demonstrate how your research fills a void or contributes to a debate.
As a standalone task, you may be required to prepare a literature review.
The goal here is to assess the current level of research and exhibit your understanding of scholarly arguments on a given issue.Each case will have slightly different content, but the processes for performing a literature study will be the same.
If you want to apply to graduate school or pursue a career in research, writing literature reviews is a crucial ability.
Step 1: Conduct a literature search.
You’ll need a well defined topic before you start looking for books.You will look for literature linked to your research problem and questions if you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper.
If you’re doing a literature review as a standalone project, you’ll need to decide on a focus and formulate a primary topic to guide your research. This question, unlike a dissertation
research question, must be answered without the use of original data. You should be able to respond to it only based on a review of available literature.
Example of a research question
What effect does social media have on Generation Z’s body image?
Make a keyword list.
Make a list of terms that are relevant to your research query.
List any synonyms and similar terms for each of the primary topics or variables you’re
interested in. If you come across new terms while conducting your literature search, you can add them to this list.
Example of keywords
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and TikTok are all examples of social media.
Mental health, body image, self-perception, and self-esteem
Adolescent, adolescent, adolescent,
Look for relevant resources.
Begin your search for sources by using your keywords. The following databases are useful for finding journals and articles:
- The catalogue of your university’s library
- Scholar on Google
- Project Muse is a software programme that allows you to create (humanities and social sciences)
- MedlinePlus (life sciences and biomedicine)
- EconLit is an acronym for economic literature (economics)
- Examine (physics, engineering and computer science)
To assist you narrow down your search, you can use boolean operators:
AND to locate sources that include several keywords (e.g. social media AND body image AND generation Z)
OR to locate sources that include one of a number of synonyms (e.g. generation Z OR teenagers OR adolescents)
TO INCLUDE RESULTS WHICH CONTAIN CERTAIN TERMS (e.g. apple NOT fruit)
To see if an article is related to your topic, read the abstract. You can utilise the bibliography to identify other relevant sources after you’ve found a useful book or article.
Take note of repeated citations to find the most important articles on your topic.
Make a point of seeking out the same authors, books, or articles if they keep appearing in
Step 2: Evaluate and select sources
You probably won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic—you’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your questions.
For each publication, ask yourself:
- What question or problem is the author addressing?
- What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
- What are the key theories, models and methods? Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
- What are the results and conclusions of the study?
- How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
- How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?
Make sure the sources you use are credible, and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.
You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar—a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.
The scope of your review will depend on your topic and discipline: in the sciences you usually only review recent literature, but in the humanities you might take a long historical perspective (for example, to trace how a concept has changed in meaning over time).
Take notes and cite your sources
As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.
It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism. It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography, where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.
Step 3: Identify themes, debates, and gaps
To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, you need to understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:
- Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results):do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
- Themes:what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
- Debates, conflicts and contradictions:where do sources disagree?
- Pivotal publications:are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
- Gaps:what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?
This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.
Example of trends and gapsIn reviewing the literature on social media and body image, you note that:
- Most research has focused on young women.
- There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
- But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.
Step 4: Outline your literature review’s structure
There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.
Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).
The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.
Try to 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.
If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address 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:
- Look at what results have emerged inqualitative versus quantitative research
- Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources
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.
Step 5: Write your literature review
The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.
Dissertation literature reviewIf you are writing the literature review as part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate your central problem or research question and give a brief summary of the scholarly context. You can emphasize the timeliness of the topic (“many recent studies have focused on the problem of x”) or highlight a gap in the literature (“while there has been much research on x, few researchers have taken y into consideration”).Stand-alone literature review if you are writing a stand-alone paper, give some background on the topic and its importance, discuss the scope of the literature you will review (for example, the time period of your sources), and state your objective. What new insight will you draw from the literature?
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, you can follow these tips:
- Summarizeand synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers—add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically evaluate:mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs:use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts
The emphasis and objective of the literature review should be clearly stated in the opening.
Review of the literature for a dissertation
If you’re preparing a literature review for a dissertation or thesis, restate your main topic or research question and provide a quick overview of the scholarly context. You might underline the topic’s relevance (“many recent studies have concentrated on the problem of x”) or point out a gap in the literature (“while much research has been done on x, few academics have taken y into account”).
Literature criticism on its own
If you’re writing a standalone paper, provide some context for the issue and its significance, define the extent of the literature you’ll be reviewing (for example, the time span of your sources), and state your goal. What fresh knowledge will you glean from the research?
You may choose to break the body of your literature review into subsections depending on how long it is. Each theme, time period, or analytical approach might have its own subheading.
You can use the following suggestions as you write:
- Summarize and synthesise: provide a summary of each source’s important ideas and blend them into a logical whole.
- Analyze and interpret: don’t just repeat what other researchers have said; add your own interpretations when appropriate, and describe the relevance of findings in the context of the entire literature.
- Examine your sources critically, noting their advantages and disadvantages.
- Use transition words and topic sentences to generate links, parallels, and contrasts in well-structured paragraphs.
In the conclusion, you should summarise and stress the significant results from the literature that you have gathered.
Review of the literature for a dissertation
If your literature review is part of your thesis or dissertation, explain how your study fills gaps and adds new knowledge, or how you built a framework for your research by drawing on existing theories and methodologies.
Literature criticism on its own
If you’re writing a stand-alone paper, you can analyse the literature’s broader implications or make recommendations for future study based on the gaps you’ve discovered.
Don’t forget to proofread your literature review properly when you’ve completed writing and rewriting it. You’re not a linguist? Take advantage of Thephdcoach’s expert proofreading and editing service!