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The Literature Review

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

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

What They Are
  • A summary of the relevant literature of a subject.
  • Depending on your subject and your field, can be chronologically broad or narrow.
    • Sciences tend to emphasize currency.
  • BUT in whatever field, if there is some fundamental text that defined the field or topic of study, that must be included no matter how old it is.
  • Lit reviews range from a few paragraphs to a few pages.
    • Or can be extended into a paper solely reviewing recent literature.
  • Annotated bibliographies are literature reviews but not in essay form.


Why They're Important
  • “Analyzing the past to prepare for the future.”*
  • To discover the patterns that emerge within the large body of work devoted to one issue.
  • How do the studies speak to each other?  Does one find one thing and another find something contradictory?  Does one ask a question that another follows up?
  • To establish an evidentiary basis of common thought and current questions about a subject at the given moment.

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

How to Write a Literature Review

Analyze!  Evaluate!  Synthesize!

Froese, A. D., Gantz, B. S., & Henry, A. L. (1998). Teaching students to write literature reviews: A meta-analytic model. Teaching of Psychology 25, pp. 102-105.


  • Keep an eye out for:
    • Pertinent info – who/what/where/when/why
    • Methods – the ever important how
    • Page numbers if you quote something (for easy transfer into your paper!)
    • Numbers (not just “increase/decrease” but “up 50%” or “down 24%”)
  • Why was each article written?


  • Do you observe any patterns between articles? Is there a common thread in the research done in this field?
  • Conversely, do you see any gaps in research? This is a good way to figure out what you can study yourself.
  • How does each article compare to the others?


  • Use your spreadsheet (or whatever means by which you keep your articles organized) to sort the articles by pattern or theme
  • Write what you found into a linear narrative, tying all the studies together by their subject matter and findings, grouping certain studies by pattern/theme
  • Quote if necessary but sparingly
  • Keep it succinct -- it’s a lot of material but it’s not the bulk of your paper (unless it’s your whole paper!)

For more information:

Examples of Literature Reviews

Section Within an Article

Bakar, N. A. A., Zulkifli, A. N., & Mohamed, N. F. F. (2011). The use of multimedia, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Environment (VE) in enhancing children's understanding of road safety. In 2011 IEEE Conference on Open Systems (149-154). doi:10.1109/ICOS.2011.6079288

Full Article

Stone, M. J., and J. F. Petrick. (2013). The educational benefits of travel experiences: a literature review. Journal of Travel Research 52(6), 731-744. doi:10.1177/0047287513500588

One Way To Track What You Read

This is an image of the spreadsheet one of our librarians used to track dozens of articles for a research article literature review. Your needs may vary, but attached below is a template of this spreadsheet for you to use yourself, if it works for you.

Finding Relevant Articles

When you need to include every article written on your topic for your project's report, there is no single place to look to make sure you've found everything. However, the job is made somewhat easier by databases known as citation indexes.

Scopus and Web of Science track how often papers are cited, and it is through this citation analysis that you can get a sense of what people have written and what, based on the citations, are considered foundational papers in the field. You should do your search in both to make sure you're catching everything; while there is a fair amount of overlap, they draw from different collections of publications.

Reference Books on Academic Research and Writing

The books here all include mention of lit reviews and how to do them.

Need Help?

Vicky Ludas Orlofsky's picture
Vicky Ludas Orlofsky