The Literature Review: A Few Tips

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What is a review of the literature?

A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. Occasionally you will be asked to write one as a separate assignment (sometimes in the form of an annotated bibliography), but more often it is part of the introduction to an essay, research report, or thesis. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries.

Besides enlarging your knowledge about the topic, writing a literature review lets you gain and demonstrate skills in two areas:

1.      information seeking: the ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles and books

2.      critical appraisal: the ability to apply principles of analysis to identify unbiased and valid studies.

A literature review must do these things:

a.       be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you are developing

b.      synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known

c.       identify areas of controversy in the literature

d.      formulate questions that need further research

Ask yourself questions like these:

1.      What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?

2.      What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research (e.g. on the effectiveness of a new procedure)? qualitative research (e.g., studies )?

3.      What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, popular media)? What discipline am I working in (e.g., nursing psychology, sociology, medicine)?

4.      How good was my information seeking? Has my search been wide enough to ensure I've found all the relevant material? Has it been narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material? Is the number of sources I've used appropriate for the length of my paper?

5.      Have I critically analysed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them? Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?

6.      Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?

7.      Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate, and useful?

Ask yourself questions like these about each book or article you include:

1.      Has the author formulated a problem/issue?

2.      Is it clearly defined? Is its significance (scope, severity, relevance) clearly established?

3.      Could the problem have been approached more effectively from another perspective?

4.      What is the author's research orientation (e.g., interpretive, critical science, combination)?

5.      What is the author's theoretical framework (e.g., psychological, developmental, feminist)?

6.      What is the relationship between the theoretical and research perspectives?

7.      Has the author evaluated the literature relevant to the problem/issue? Does the author include literature taking positions she or he does not agree with?

8.      In a research study, how good are the basic components of the study design (e.g., population, intervention, outcome)? How accurate and valid are the measurements? Is the analysis of the data accurate and relevant to the research question? Are the conclusions validly based upon the data and analysis?

9.      In material written for a popular readership, does the author use appeals to emotion, one-sided examples, or rhetorically-charged language and tone? Is there an objective basis to the reasoning, or is the author merely "proving" what he or she already believes?

10.  How does the author structure the argument? Can you "deconstruct" the flow of the argument to see whether or where it breaks down logically (e.g., in establishing cause-effect relationships)?

11.  In what ways does this book or article contribute to our understanding of the problem under study, and in what ways is it useful for practice? What are the strengths and limitations?

12.  How does this book or article relate to the specific thesis or question I am developing?

Final Notes:

A literature review is a piece of discursive prose, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another. It's usually a bad sign to see every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher. Instead, organize the literature review into sections that present themes or identify trends, including relevant theory. You are not trying to list all the material published, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question.

Why do a literature review?

Source: ( - Central Queensland University

While the form of the literature review may vary with different types of studies, the basic purposes remain constant.  In general, the literature review should:

      provide a context for the research

      justify the research

      ensure the research hasn't been done before (or if it is repeated, that it is marked as a "replication study")

      show where the research fits into the existing body of knowledge

      enable the researcher to learn from previous theory on the subject

      illustrate how the subject has been studied previously

      highlight flaws in previous research

      outline gaps in previous research

      show that the work is adding to the understanding and knowledge of the field

      help refine, refocus or even change the topic

Selecting the topic

Ideas for topics come from myriad sources - some will be generated by interest in a particular area of previous work, others by discussing issues with peers and academics and some by reading the literature.  Initial ideas can also be in various stages of development - some will be vague, others clear and well defined and many will be in the middle of the two extremes.

Like a seed, most research ideas have an inherent potential for growth and development.

When thinking about a suitable topic it is important to consider the implications of your choice:

    • can information be gathered locally?
    • are you in a position to travel to use various sources?
    • what are your interests and will this interest be maintained for the duration of the research?
    • who will be interested in this research ?
    • is it sufficiently interesting to keep you, the author, working for the next 2 3 4 years?
    • is the scope wide enough to be able to ascertain a particular niche?
    • is the scope so broad that it will lose direction?
    • does it involve technology that is readily available?
    • is training in technology and / or software readily available?

In the early stages it is probably wise to give all topics under consideration a title and write them down.  Include a brief description of the content of each idea and a plan of how each topic could be developed.  Writing sometimes helps define ideas and helps you to plot a course of action.  Although the topic may change or aspects of it may change, it is still useful to record thoughts.  It is also interesting to look back once the research has been completed and see how the topic evolved!

While thinking about research topics:

  • discuss ideas with colleagues
  • browse the literature, especially journals
  • discuss ideas with your supervisor - he/she is an expert within the discipline and can help you decide on an appropriate topic.

Setting the topic in context

To grow, the seed must be placed within an appropriate context - a pot and some soil.

For your topic to grow there must also be a context and this is influenced by existing knowledge. Other influences include your work and study environment, your interaction with colleagues, peers and supervisors, and current opinions and attitudes towards your discipline. The role of the literature review is to analyse the existing literature and give justification as to how your research will fit into the existing body of knowledge.  "This means that the literature review provides the general understanding which gives meaning to the discussion of findings, conclusions, and recommendations.  This allows the author to demonstrate how his research is linked to prior efforts and how it extends our understanding of this general line of scholarly inquiry". []

When placing your topic in context it is often useful to think about the following:

    • what is the scope of the topic?
    • what is the purpose of the research?
    • who is the intended audience?
    • what is the time period?
    • what is the geographical coverage?
    • what are the relevant/related disciplines?


Looking at information sources

Further roots are now starting to grow from the seed.  They are healthy and the wider the range of sources the firmer the foundation.

You will need to consult a wide range of information sources. Informal sources include contact with peers, colleagues, other researchers, your Faculty Liaison Librarian, and your supervisor. Just as important as the network of informal contacts are the formal sources, including:


  • not all relevant material is published - you may need to seek interviews with individual authors and ask for access to unpublished documents.
  • not all appropriate sources of information will be relevant all of the time.
  • discipline specific sources need to be identified.
  • informal and formal sources are both necessary.

Organising information (information management)

Good organisation will ensure the plant has the opportunity to grow.

Early in your research select a strategy for managing your information.  Whether it is via a manual card file, a list of references on a word processor, a computer cardfile or bibliographic formatting software such as Endnote it is vital that full citations be recorded accurately for later use.  Everyone has experienced the frustration associated with not being able to locate a known reference when it is needed.

It is also a good idea to be systematic with your approach to searching, Record your searches and the date they were done. This makes searches easier to update and reminds you which databases and sources retrieved useful information and which ones didn't.


Tips and tricks from the experts

From Dr Tony Ward:

         keep complete and accurate records of everything read (especially references)

         identify referencing requirements and learn the style as soon as you can

         summarise every paper you read

         think holistically (get the big picture)

         do not be afraid to think 'outside the square' - it is your review so try to find your own insights rather than just copy previous work

         break the review into thematic sections, treat each thematic area as a 'mini' review

The aim of a literature review is to find the relevant literature and read it. However people often have trouble starting there so I would suggest that you:

1.      identify parent disciplines

2.      go to leading journals and search for the recent issues for the latest information on the topic area. Use the references in those articles, and for "snowballing" - bouncing back and going through the history of the topic area.

3.      From these articles it is possible to recognise names that reappear. They are often the leading people in the field.  This is necessary because when an examiner looks at a literature review they will expect to see certain names, leading names, and if they are not there you are not going to get the marks or approval.

There are certain skills that are learnt from doing a literature review. These include:

         learning to identify a topic

         learning how to search literature and obtain legal copies of literature

         improving reading skills - in particular the skill of reading critically

         improving writing skills - academic writing is different in style to what you would use in business for example.

         learning to reference properly

         learning to place a topic within a discipline or framework

         learning to view a collection of papers holistically

         improving evaluative skills

         learning to identify research problems and gaps in literature.

         learning to focus a topic

Finally you obtain a detailed knowledge of the topic area and at the end of the day you should be regarded as the expert of that area in the world.

From Mr Aaron Coutts:

While writing the discussion part of the literature review, defining your key points, keep the web browser open with SportDiscus (for example). So when you are looking for key points when writing, do a search to get the abstracts (in that key area). This helps formulate ideas. A great way of keeping rhythm going in your writing.  

From Dr Peter Reaburn:

Students will get a pile of articles and will regurgitate what article one said, what article two said. I can't emphasise enough, a well written literature review must evaluate all the literature, must speak generally, with general concepts they have been able to lift from all the articles, and they must be able to evaluate and critically analyse each one, then link and make a flow of ideas. Rather than separate little boxes, each box representing an article, make a flow of ideas, generalise and use specifics from one or two articles to back up a statement.

I think the student has gone to the supervisor generally because they see the supervisor as the expert, with some knowledge in the topic area. There will be journals the post graduate supervisor can identify and there will be names of researchers, either in journal articles or books. I think the supervisor has a major role in leading the student to the relevant literature.

From Dr Daniela Stehlik:

If you are reading something, take notes then and there. Don't think you will come back to it later, because you never do.

         take good notes

         keep your references

         write down the dates you took the notes

         keep a type of record eg. front page and abstract, or be like me a complete control freak and photocopy everything.

For students who haven't done any writing before, there are a number of texts (on writing theses) available at the library or from your supervisor. I would encourage students to do some drafting. The drafting process is tiresome and many students feel that they can do it in one sitting and that is why they leave it to the last minute. It is important to do several drafts and I would, as part of my responsibility (as a supervisor), comment on these drafts, give feed back and we would discuss it and move on to the next version.


Citing your work


You can choose from any standard citation method, although we recommend the American Psychological Association (APA) Citation Style. The most important thing is to choose a citation style and use it consistently.

Good sources:;