A literature review is a survey of published material on a given topic. It is not research on a topic; it is a review of others’ research on the topic. It is often, but not always, conducted as part of a larger academic work such as a thesis or dissertation.

The main purposes of a literature review are to:

  1. Identify the knowledge and ideas that have been established about a topic to provide a foundation for your research.
  2. Identify the key issues within the broader area of study that you would like to focus on.
  3. Identify the strengths and weaknesses (gaps, controversies, unanswered questions) in the existing research on the topic so you can justify your own research.
  4. Avoid unintentionally repeating the work of other researchers.
  5. Identify methods that will be useful in your own research.

There are four steps in conducting a literature review.

  1. Narrow and define your topic
    The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of your sources to a manageable size. You should know the topic you will be researching and be able to define it.
  2. Search for literature to review
    You can find relevant sources such as books, journals, theses, reports, papers, monographs and articles in libraries, databases and the internet. Ask for guidance from your instructor or supervisor and your subject librarian.
  3. Analyse and evaluate
    You need to analyse and evaluate the sources you have found to identify their strengths and weaknesses and whether they contribute to your research. Organise them into topics and subtopics.
  4. Start writing the literature review!

A literature review is like a self-contained critical review of a subject. Like other kinds of academic writing, a literature review consists of an introduction, a body and a conclusion.

The introduction should describe the key topics that will be discussed in the review and explain how the review is structured.

The body of a literature review should be organised into categories. These can be chronological (when they were published), moving from broad to specific, thematic or methodological, or whatever else seems appropriate. Each paragraph should deal with a different category and include a critical analysis and synthesis of the sources within that category.

The conclusion should summarise what has been discussed and identify which sources make the most significant contribution to the area of study, the gaps in the literature and how the gaps will be filled in your study.

As with any kind of academic writing, the completed literature review should be submitted to a professional academic editor for editing so that it will be of the highest standard.


Updated 08 October 2018

Dr Ellen McRae,

Managing Editor,

Elite Editing.