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Literature Reviews

How to understand and write a literature review for an academic paper or research article.

Literature Reviews: Make a Plan

The literature review is a means of “[a]nalyzing the past to prepare for the future,”* to discover the patterns that emerge within the large body of work devoted to one issue, and establish an evidentiary basis of common thought and current questions about a subject at the given moment. 

The specifics of a literature review vary by type, which is determined by your intention in writing one: Are you trying to establish a knowledge of the field for your own research article? Or are you writing a full-length review paper to show the current state of the research on a topic?

Either way, the plan is generally the same, though the degree to which you collect and read the literature will vary based on what you're working on.

 

THE PLAN

  1. Identify the research question

  2. Develop criteria for inclusion/exclusion

  3. Perform the search

  4. Analyze the literature

  5. Evaluate the work done

  6. Synthesize into a narrative

 

This guide will give you more information on the different types of review and how to perform the review you need. Also consider looking to articles, review papers or past theses/dissertations in your field to get a sense of how others have structured and written their literature reviews as examples for your own.

 

*Webster, J., & Watson, R. (2002). "Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: Writing a literature review." MIS Quarterly 26(2), xiii-xxiii.


Lit review toolbox

"Researching & Writing a Literature Review," February 2021

To download the slides, which are based on the information in this guide, use this Kaltura link.


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Literature Reviews: What They Are and Why They're Important

What They Are

  • A critical summary of the relevant literature of a subject.
  • Depending on your subject, your field, and the type of review you're conducting, the chronological focus can be broad (historical) or narrow (state of the art).
    • Sciences tend to emphasize currency.
  • In whatever field, if there is some fundamental text that defined the field or topic of study, that must usually be included no matter how old it is (unless the focus of your review is limited to current research, as in a state-of-the-art review).
  • Literature reviews range in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages.
    • Or can be extended into an article solely reviewing recent literature, which are called review articles and which can be structured in different ways listed here.

 

Why They're Important

  • Think of a review as “[a]nalyzing the past to prepare for the future.” (Webster & Watson, 2002)
  • "Good review papers ... help bring structure and understanding to the often disjointed and contradictory work that is at the forefront of a research field." (Moldwin et al, 2017)
  • To discover the patterns that emerge within the large body of work devoted to one issue.
  • To establish an evidentiary basis of common thought and current questions about a subject at the given moment.

References

Moldwin, M. B., Florindo, F., Okin, G., et al. (2017). Why and how to write a high‐impact review paper: Lessons from eight years of editorial board service to Reviews of Geophysics. Reviews of Geophysics, 55, 860–863. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017RG000587

Webster, J., & Watson, R. (2002). "Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: Writing a literature review." MIS Quarterly 26(2), xiii-xxiii.

Reference Books on Academic Research and Writing

These Library ebooks include or focus on the literature review and how to perform one.

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