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How to Write a Literature Review

A literature review is an integral part of most theses, of all lengths and across all disciplines. A literature review offers a critical analysis of ‘the literature’ (the body of work) on any particular topic, via identification, classification, comparison, evaluation and synthesis of existing original (or primary) sources, including books and book chapters, journal articles, theses, conference proceedings, government or industry reports and other relevant resources. Because a literature review does not involve novel research or present new findings, it is considered a secondary rather than a primary source.

A literature review may have a number of purposes, including:
1. identifying and collating existing research on a topic
2. building and demonstrating familiarity with and understanding of a topic
3. evaluating and summarising the current state of knowledge in a field, including areas of contention
4. identifying the gaps in others’ work related to the topic and demonstrating why these are important to fill
5. identifying concepts or methodologies relevant to your own work and the choices you’ve made in pursuing your research.

There are four steps in conducting a literature review:
1. Define your topic.
Specific definition of a topic will allow for a more focused and functional literature review.The literature you choose to include should ideally have some relevance to your findings, and the literature review should present your survey of the field in light of your own research question.
2. Search for literature to review.
Sources of literature to review include libraries, databases, the internet and other resources. It is strongly recommended to spend time developing and documenting a ‘search strategy’, so that you are following a methodical approach to searching for and selecting literature to review. Attention should be paid to the credibility of the sources you choose to include, with peer-reviewed sources such as academic articles and books taking precedence over unverified webpages, such as entries on Wikipedia.
3. Read, analyse and evaluate.
The key here is to read critically. Each resource should be assessed for scope, accuracy, credibility, when it was written, the authority of the author, the methodology employed and how well this is specified, the relation of the resource to your own findings, and any biases in the approach or results. You are aiming to identify strengths and weaknesses, how each source compares or contrasts with others, and how they may contribute to your research.
4. Plan and start writing your literature review!
Like other forms of academic writing, a literature review is generally structured into an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. The introduction should define the topic and purpose of the review, describe the methodology followed to identify and analyse the literature, and introduce what will be discussed in the review and how this is structured. The body of the review should include categories of resources reviewed, a summary and a discussion of each source and how they contribute to a topic, an analysis of the gaps indicated and an explanation of how your research will help fill those gaps. The conclusion should provide a summary of what has been discussed, an evaluation of which sources have significantly contributed to the topic, and the import of the review for your research topic.

It is important to note that these four steps are likely to require several rounds of iteration through your candidature. For example, as you make progress with your own research, you may refine your research question (Step 1 above), which may prompt a need to work once again through Steps 2 to 4. A literature review, especially as part of a postgraduate research project, is a complex, constantly evolving undertaking—it is often one of the first things a research student starts, but also one of the last things to be finalised.

As for any piece of academic writing, whether standalone or an element of a broader whole, a literature review should be submitted to a professional academic editor to ensure it is of the highest standard.

Updated 23 April 2024.