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The Literature Review

What is a literature review?

A literature review is "a systematic, explicit, and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating and interpreting the existing body of recorded work produced by researchers, scholars, and practitioners." (Fink, 1998, p.3) It is not simply a summary of the work you have read on a topic, but an analysis of the research that has been carried out on the topic.

Why do a literature review?

Any research project, however small, needs to start from a base of what other research has established. The literature review examines how researchers have approached a problem and the strengths and weaknesses in their work, establishes the relationships between different works, identifies any areas of controversy in the subject, and shows what questions need further research. How extensive the literature review needs to be depends on the scale of the research project, but even a small-scale project requires you to demonstrate that you have read some of the relevant literature and have an understanding of the current state of knowledge.

How do you do a literature review?

Carrying out a literature review demands skills in both information seeking and critical appraisal. The appraisal and the information search go hand in hand, with your analysis of your topic helping you focus your search appropriately. Focusing your search is crucial; otherwise you will end up trying to read everything. You are looking only for work directly relevant to your research topic, and you will discuss the work only in the context of your topic.

What is the "literature"?

For a literature review, the "literature" means the works you have consulted in order to understand your research question. These can include several different types of publication:

Journal articles are the most common source of material for literature reviews, because they offer concise and up-to-date information, and because scholarly journals offer some guarantee of the quality of the work they publish.

Books are usually less up-to-date than journal articles, because of the time they take to be published. They can be useful for providing overall summaries of the state of knowledge in an area, and as a starting point for finding more detailed information sources.

Conference proceedings may contain research that is not yet available in journals, and give an indication of who the leading practitioners in a field are.

Government and international agencies frequently commission research, and publish their findings in reports.

Theses can be a valuable source of original research but they are often hard to obtain, because there is usually only one copy available, in the university where the thesis was written.

Newspapers and magazines are unlikely to provide the sort of material you need, but may include news stories on research that you can follow up to find more detail.

The Internet carries an enormous amount of information on virtually any topic, but you need to be careful in evaluating its reliability.

Keeping track

It is vital to keep a continuing record of all the citations you find. It is extremely frustrating to find yourself at the end of your project, attempting to retrace the steps by which you found an item in order to obtain the correct reference. Rather than keeping records manually, you may prefer to use the citation management software EndNote that is available from the Library. With EndNote you can download records from Library catalogues and databases, and format references according to any desired style. Training sessions in EndNote are held at the Library.

Presenting your work

You are not simply writing a list of who has written what on a particular topic. Too many literature reviews present the work chronologically or alphabetically, focusing on the researchers rather than on their findings. Your objective is to interpret the work in the light of your own research question. You should present it thematically, according to the findings that the different researchers have made.

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. (Taylor and Proctor, 2005)

Your review should be critical - if one writer's approach seems more successful than another's, say so, and say why you think so. You should aim to draw out similarities and disagreements between different approaches. When looking at a piece of work, always ask yourself questions such as

  • what is the scope of the study?
  • how does it relate to my research question?
  • what approach has the author taken?
  • could the problem have been approached differently?
  • how justifiable are the author's conclusions?
  • how does it relate to other work in the field?

You should always keep in mind the scope of your own research question. You may well find yourself modifying it while carrying out the review. Perhaps your question has already been answered by someone else. Perhaps too much has been written on a topic for you to be able to deal with in the time available, so that you need to narrow the scope of your question. Or perhaps you need to broaden it because not enough has been written. Or you may find that what you read changes the way you think about your topic, so that you decide to approach it differently.

Accordingly, it is a good idea to get your reading out of the way as early as possible, and set yourself time limits on getting the work done. Otherwise you may find yourself changing your topic with the deadline approaching.

Getting help

All databases have online help pages that show you how to carry out different types of search and use the other features of the database. Usually the help is context sensitive - that is, the help you get varies according to the screen you are looking at.

If you are in the Library you can always speak to the librarian at the Information desk, who is keen to help you with any problems you may have. Or contact us by email: Contact Us for Help or phone:(09) 815 4321 xtn 8564 or 8107.

If you want to discuss your work in detail you can make an appointment to see the Knowledge Specialist / Liaison Librarian for your subject. See Knowledge Specialist / Liaison Librarians

Further Reading

Bell , J. (2006). Doing your research project: A guide for first-time researchers in education and social science (4th ed.). Maidenhead, England: Open University Press. 370.78 BEL

Fink, A. (2005). Conducting research literature reviews: From paper to the Internet. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 001.42 FIN

Leedy, P. D. (1997). Practical research: planning and design (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 001.4 LEE

Taylor, D. (n.d.). The literature review: A few tips on conducting it. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto.

"Literature review", in Language Center, Asian Institute of Technology. (2008). Writing up research: A guidebook. Bangkok, Thailand: The Institute.