How important is the literature review and how to write a good one?
A literature review is much more than just another section in your research paper. It forms the very foundation of your research. It is a formal piece of writing where you analyze the existing theoretical framework, principles, and assumptions and use that as a base to shape your approach to the research question.
Curating and drafting a solid literature review section not only lends more credibility to your research paper but also makes your research tighter and better focused. But, writing literature reviews is a difficult task. It requires extensive reading, plus you have to consider market trends and technological and political changes, which tend to change in the blink of an eye.
What is a literature review?
A literature review is a collation of survey, research, critical evaluation, and assessment of the existing literature in a preferred domain. Eminent researcher and academic Arlene Fink, in her book Conducting Research Literature Reviews [Los Angeles, 2019], defines it as the following:
A literature review surveys books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated.
Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic, and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within a larger field of study.
Simply put, a literature review can be defined as a critical discussion of relevant pre-existing research around your research question and carving out a definitive place for your study in the existing body of knowledge. Literature reviews can be presented in multiple ways: a section of an article, the whole research paper itself, or a chapter of your thesis.
A literature review does function as a summary of sources, but it also allows you to analyze further, interpret, and examine the stated theories, methods, viewpoints, and, of course, the gaps in the existing content.
As an author, you can discuss and interpret the research question and its various aspects and debate your adopted methods to support the claim.
What is the purpose of a literature review?
A literature review is meant to help your readers understand the relevance of your research question and where it fits within the existing body of knowledge. As a researcher, you should use it to set the context, build your argument, and establish the need for your study.
What is the importance of a literature review?
The literature review is a critical part of research papers because it helps you:
- Gain an in-depth understanding of your research question and the surrounding area
- Convey that you have a thorough understanding of your research area and are up-to-date with the latest changes and advancements
- Establish how your research is connected or builds on the existing body of knowledge and how it could contribute to further research
- Elaborate on the validity and suitability of your theoretical framework and research methodology
- Identify and highlight gaps and shortcomings in the existing body of knowledge and how things need to change
- Convey to readers how your study is different or how it contributes to the research area
What are the different types of literature reviews?
All literature reviews are not the same. There are a variety of possible approaches that you can take. It all depends on the type of research you are pursuing. Here are the different types of literature reviews:
It is called an argumentative review when you carefully present literature that only supports or counters a specific argument or premise to establish a viewpoint.
It is a type of literature review focused on building a comprehensive understanding of a topic by combining available theoretical frameworks and empirical evidence.
This approach delves into the ”how” and the ”what” of the research question — you cannot look at the outcome in isolation; you should also review the methodology used.
This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research and collect, report, and analyze data from the studies included in the review.
Meta-analysis uses statistical methods to summarize the results of independent studies. By combining information from all relevant studies, meta-analysis can provide more precise estimates of the effects than those derived from the individual studies included within a review.
Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, or phenomenon emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and identify future research’s likely directions.
This form aims to examine the corpus of theory accumulated regarding an issue, concept, theory, and phenomenon. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories exist, the relationships between them, the degree the existing approaches have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested.
The Scoping Review is often used at the beginning of an article, dissertation, or research proposal. It is conducted before the research to highlight gaps in the existing body of knowledge and explains why the project should be greenlit.
The State-of-the-Art review is conducted periodically, focusing on the most recent research. It describes what is currently known, understood, or agreed upon regarding the research topic and highlights where there are still disagreements.
Can you use the first person in a literature review?
When writing literature reviews, you should avoid the usage of first-person pronouns. It means that instead of “I argue that” or “we argue that,” the appropriate expression would be “this research paper argues that.”
Is a literature review written in the past tense?
Yes, the literature review should ideally be written in the past tense. You should not use the present or future tense when writing one. The exceptions are when you have statements describing events that happened earlier than the literature you are reviewing or events that are currently occurring; then, you can use the past perfect or present perfect tenses.
How many sources for a literature review?
There are multiple approaches to deciding how many sources to include in a literature review section. The first approach would be to look level you are at as a researcher. For instance, a doctoral thesis might need 60+ sources. In contrast, you might only need to refer to 5-15 sources at the undergraduate level.
The second approach is based on the kind of literature review you are doing — whether it is merely a chapter of your paper or if it is a self-contained paper in itself. When it is just a chapter, sources should equal the total number of pages in your article’s body. In the second scenario, you need at least three times as many sources as there are pages in your work.
Outline and Identify the Purpose of a Literature Review
As a first step in how to write a literature review, you must know what the research question or topic is and what shape you want your literature review to take. Ensure you understand the research topic inside out, or else seek clarifications. You must be able to the answer below questions before you start:
– How many sources do I need to include?
– What kind of sources should I analyze?
– How much should I critically evaluate each source?
– Should I summarize, synthesize or offer a critique of the sources?
– Do I need to include any background information or definitions?
Additionally, you should know that the narrower your research topic is, the swifter it will be for you to restrict the number of sources to be analyzed.
Search Relevant Literature by Creating a List of Keywords
Dig deeper into search engines to discover what has already been published around your chosen topic. Make sure you thoroughly go through appropriate reference sources like books, reports, journal articles, government docs, and web-based resources.
You must prepare a list of keywords and their different variations. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.
You can start your search from any library’s catalog, provided you are an active member of that institution. The exact keywords can be extended to widen your research over other databases and academic search engines like:
– Google Scholar
– Microsoft Academic
Examine and Assess the Sources
It is nearly impossible for you to go through every detail in the research article. So rather than trying to fetch every detail, you have to analyze and decide which research sources resemble closest and appear relevant to your chosen domain.
While analyzing the sources, you should look to find out answers to questions like:
– What question or problem has the author been describing and debating?
– What is the definition of critical aspects?
– How well the theories, approach, and methodology have been explained?
– Whether the research theory used some conventional or new innovative approach?
– How relevant are the key findings of the work?
– In what ways does it relate to other sources on the same topic?
– What challenges does this research paper pose to the existing theory
– What are the possible contributions or benefits it adds to the subject domain?
Be always mindful that you refer only to credible and authentic resources. It would be best if you always take references from different publications to validate your theory.
At this stage, you must start deciding on the argument and structure of your literature review. To accomplish this, you must discover and identify the relations and connections between various resources while drafting your abstract.
A few aspects that you should be aware of while writing a literature review include:
– Rise to prominence: Theories and methods that have gained reputation and supporters over time.
– Constant scrutiny: Concepts or theories that repeatedly went under examination.
– Contradictions and conflicts: Theories, both the supporting and the contradictory ones, for the research topic.
– Knowledge gaps: What exactly does it fail to address, and how to bridge them with further research?
– Influential resources: Significant research projects available that have been upheld as milestones or perhaps, something that can modify the current trends
Once you join the dots between various past research works, it will be easier for you to draw a conclusion and identify your contribution to the existing knowledge base.
Plan a Structure for a Literature Review
There exist different ways of planning and executing the structure of a literature review. The format of a literature review varies and depends upon the length of the research.
Nevertheless, a good literature review can be structured according to the chronological, thematic, methodological, or theoretical framework approach.
- a) Chronological
The chronological approach to building the structure of a literature review has been described as one of the most straightforward approaches. However, do not just make a list or summarize the reference resources. Instead, try to put in a brief discussion and analysis of the critical arguments, research, and trends that have shaped the current status of your subject domain. Additionally, you must provide an interpretation of these events in your curated version.
- b) Thematic
The format of a literature review is structured in sections and sub-sections. Every part stays dedicated to presenting a different aspect of your chosen topic. Unlike the chronological approach, the primary focus here is on a topic or issue instead of the progression of certain events.
- c) Methodological
You can present your structure in a form by showing a comparison between crucial findings, gatherings, and outcomes from different research methods. These portions may include drawing insights and analysis of:
– Gatherings extracted from qualitative vs. quantitative methods.
– Leveraging the empirical and theoretical methods to validate your key findings and results.
– Classification of resources based upon the context of history, culture, and economy.
- d) Theoretical
Literature reviews are often used to discuss and analyze vital concepts and theories. Adopting this approach, you can significantly put forth the relevance and critical findings of a particular theoretical method. Proceeding in the same way, you can also outline an entirely new research framework.
Like any other research paper, the literature review format must contain three sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. The goals and objectives of the research question determine what goes inside these three sections.
- a) Introduction for a good literature review
Since it happens to be the first paragraph, you must include and define its purpose and critical aspects.
If you are writing the literature review for your thesis or dissertation, you should restate the research question. Likewise, you can even go towards presenting a summary of the whole context and highlighting the gaps existing within.
- b) Body of the literature review
To write a good literature review, the format and structure of the central body part play a pivotal role. Thus, you must use sections and subsections to divide the body for each methodological approach or theme aspect.
While writing the literature review, you can choose to adopt either or all of the following measures:
– A general overview or summary must be provided, focusing on the critical points of each source and coherent sync among all the references.
– It would be best to put your interpretations towards every source you opted to include. Paraphrasing others’ work is something you should avoid altogether.
– Justify and validate your results per your research.
– Be specific about the strengths and weaknesses of specified sources.
– Transitions and topic sentences can be advantageous while writing nicely oriented body paragraphs.
- c) Conclusion of the literature review
The conclusion of your literature review must be focused on your key findings, their results, and an elaborated emphasis on the significance of all aspects.
Describing the research gaps and your contributions can be helpful in case you are writing for a dissertation or thesis. Moreover, you must specify the procedure and research methodology for developing the framework for your research topic.
Lastly, you must ensure that your research paper does not miss any critical aspects and must not contain any grammatical or spelling mistakes. For this, you must proofread and edit it to perfection.
Final tips on how to write a literature review
A massive chunk of time and effort is required to write a good literature review. But, if you go about it systematically, you’ll be able to save a ton of time and build a solid foundation for your research. We hope this guide has helped you answer several key questions you have about writing literature reviews.