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Literature Reviews

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

How to Write a Literature Review

Analyze!  Evaluate!  Synthesize!*

 

Analyze

  • 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%”)
    • Purpose – why was each article written?
    • Bias – the author, like all of us, is a product of their education and experience, and that might affect how they perform their study and write about it. Is their bias obvious in their article? Does that affect the conclusions they draw?
  • Pay attention to citation counts and which articles/authors are especially influential in the field. 


Evaluate

  • 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?
  • The conversation between researchers: Do any authors directly agree with each other? Do any disagree? Are some studies clearly responding to the work of earlier researchers?
  • What do the foundational articles (usually denoted by high citation counts and current citation even for an older article) say about the field? How has subsequent research responded/built on/diverged from the conclusions in this earlier research?
  • Do you agree/disagree with the conclusions drawn by the authors?


Synthesize

  • Use your spreadsheet (or whatever means by which you keep your articles organized) to sort the articles based on your plan in writing it, perhaps chronologically, or 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. Show your understanding of the research you've read.
  • How have the key concepts of the field evolved through the process of the research conducted?
  • Quote if necessary but sparingly, there's usually a lot of material to cover and the important part of a lit review is your explanation of the issue, not the direct words of others. 
  • Keep it succinct -- it’s a lot of material but it’s not the bulk of your paper (unless it’s your whole paper!), so make sure you stick to word limits while also including the studies and discussion of those studies you have to to meet your research objective.

 

Remember!

You are not writing an annotated bibliography, a simple summary of individual studies. You are showing the discourse in this research, the conversation these authors are having:

In other words, it is a style of writing which includes a number of different features including summarizing, description, analysis, discussion, evaluation, reflection and comparison. In order to achieve this style, a literature review cannot be brief, which explains why it is often the longest chapter in a student dissertation. (Oliver, 2012, p. 9)

You are writing this based on both what you've read and your experience with the subject. The conclusions you draw from the literature will show the reasons for your own work, so think of the review as a way to demonstrate your understanding of the subject.


*Adapted from 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.

Oliver, P. (2012). Succeeding with Your Literature Review : A Handbook for Students. McGraw-Hill Education.


For more information:

For help writing the review:

Books to Help You Write It

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

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