This Study Guide explains why literature reviews are needed, and how they can be conducted and reported. Related Study Guides are: Referencing and bibliographies, Avoiding plagiarism, Writing a dissertation, What is critical reading?What is critical writing?
The focus of the Study Guide is the literature review within a dissertation or a thesis, but many of the ideas are transferable to other kinds of writing, such as an extended essay, or a report.
What is a literature review?
The ability to review, and to report on relevant literature is a key academic skill. A literature review:
- situates your research focus within the context of the wider academic community in your field;
- reports your critical review of the relevant literature; and
- identifies a gap within that literature that your research will attempt to address.
To some extent, particularly with postgraduate research, the literature review can become a project in itself. It is an important showcase of your talents of: understanding, interpretation, analysis, clarity of thought, synthesis, and development of argument. The process of conducting and reporting your literature review can help you clarify your own thoughts about your study. It can also establish a framework within which to present and analyse the findings.
After reading your literature review, it should be clear to the reader that you have up-to-date awareness of the relevant work of others, and that the research question you are asking is relevant. However, don’t promise too much! Be wary of saying that your research will solve a problem, or that it will change practice. It would be safer and probably more realistic to say that your research will ‘address a gap’, rather than that it will ‘fill a gap’.
Why do I need a literature review?
When readers come to your assignment, dissertation, or thesis, they will not just assume that your research or analysis is a good idea; they will want to be persuaded that it is relevant and that it was worth doing. They will ask questions such as:
- What research question(s) are you asking?
- Why are you asking it/them?
- Has anyone else done anything similar?
- Is your research relevant to research/practice/theory in your field?
- What is already known or understood about this topic?
- How might your research add to this understanding, or challenge existing theories and beliefs?
These are questions that you will already probably be asking yourself. You will also need to be ready to answer them in a viva if you will be having one.
A critical review
It is important that your literature review is more than just a list of references with a short description of each one. The Study Guides: What is critical reading? and What is critical writing? are particularly relevant to the process of critical review. Merriam (1988:6) describes the literature review as:
‘an interpretation and synthesis of published work’.
This very short statement contains some key concepts, which are examined in the table below.
|Published work||Merriam’s statement was made in 1988, since which time there has been further extension of the concept of being ‘published’ within the academic context. The term now encompasses a wide range of web-based sources, in addition to the more traditional books and print journals.||Increased ease of access to a wider range of published material has also increased the need for careful and clear critique of sources. Just because something is ‘published’ does not mean its quality is assured. You need to demonstrate to your reader that you are examining your sources with a critical approach, and not just believing them automatically.|
|Interpretation||You need to be actively involved in interpreting the literature that you are reviewing, and in explaining that interpretation to the reader, rather than just listing what others have written.||Your interpretation of each piece of evidence is just that: an interpretation. Your interpretation may be self-evident to you, but it may not be to everyone else. You need to critique your own interpretation of material, and to present your rationale, so that your reader can follow your thinking.|
|Synthesis||The term ‘synthesis’ refers to the bringing together of material from different sources, and the creation of an integrated whole. In this case the ‘whole’ will be your structured review of relevant work, and your coherent argument for the study that you are doing.||Creating a synthesis is, in effect, like building interpretation upon interpretation. It is essential to check that you have constructed your synthesis well, and with sufficient supporting evidence.|
When to review the literature
With small-scale writing projects, the literature review is likely to be done just once; probably before the writing begins. With longer projects such as a dissertation for a Masters degree, and certainly with a PhD, the literature review process will be more extended.
There are three stages at which a review of the literature is needed:
- an early review is needed to establish the context and rationale for your study and to confirm your choice of research focus/question;
- as the study period gets longer, you need to make sure that you keep in touch with current, relevant research in your field, which is published during the period of your research;
- as you prepare your final report or thesis, you need to relate your findings to the findings of others, and to identify their implications for theory, practice, and research. This can involve further review with perhaps a slightly different focus from that of your initial review.
This applies especially to people doing PhDs on a part-time basis, where their research might extend over six or more years. You need to be able to demonstrate that you are aware of current issues and research, and to show how your research is relevant within a changing context.
Who can help?
Staff and students in your area can be good sources of ideas about where to look for relevant literature. They may already have copies of articles that you can work with.
If you attend a conference or workshop with a wider group of people, perhaps from other universities, you can take the opportunity to ask other attendees for recommendations of articles or books relevant to your area of research.
Each department or school has assigned to it a specialist Information Librarian. You can find the contact details for the Information Librarian for your own area via the Library web pages. This person can help you identify relevant sources, and create effective electronic searches:
“they help you to find information, provide training in information skills and the use of databases and can help you to develop your research skills”.
Reading anything on your research area is a good start. You can then begin your process of evaluating the quality and relevance of what you read, and this can guide you to more focussed further reading.
Taylor and Procter of The University of Toronto have some useful suggested questions to ask yourself at the beginning of your reading:
- What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?
- What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research? qualitative research?
- What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, popular media)?
- What discipline(s) am I working in (e.g., nursing, psychology, sociology, medicine)?
You can add other questions of your own to focus the search, for example: What time period am I interested in? What geographical area? What social setting? What materials?
You may also want to make a clear decision about whether to start with a very narrow focus and work outwards, or to start wide before focussing in. You may even want to do both at once. It is a good idea to decide your strategy on this, rather than drifting into one or the other. It can give you a degree of control, in what can feel like an overwhelming and uncontrollable stage of the research process.
Ways of finding relevant material
Searching electronic databases is probably the quickest way to access a lot of material. Guidance will be available via your own department or school and via the relevant Information Librarian.
There may also be key sources of publications for your subject that are accessible electronically, such as collections of policy documents, standards, archive material, videos, and audio-recordings.
References of references
If you can find a few really useful sources, it can be a good idea to check through their reference lists to see the range of sources that they referred to. This can be particularly useful if you find a review article that evaluates other literature in the field. This will then provide you with a long reference list, and some evaluation of the references it contains.
Hand searching of journals
No electronic literature search can be 100% comprehensive, as the match between search terms and the content of articles will never be perfect. An electronic search may throw up a huge number of hits, but there are still likely to be other relevant articles that it has not detected. So, despite having access to electronic databases and to electronic searching techniques, it can be surprisingly useful to have a pile of journals actually on your desk, and to look through the contents pages, and the individual articles.
Often hand searching of journals will reveal ideas about focus, research questions, methods, techniques, or interpretations that had not occurred to you. Sometimes even a key idea can be discovered in this way. It is therefore probably worth allocating some time to sitting in the library, with issues from the last year or two of the most relevant journals for your research topic, and reviewing them for anything of relevance.
Blaxter et al. (2001:103) recommend this method, in addition to other more systematic methods, saying:
‘Take some time to browse – serendipity is a wonderful thing.’
To avoid printing out or photocopying a lot of material that you will not ultimately read, you can use the abstracts of articles to check their relevance before you obtain full copies.
EndNote and RefWorks are software packages that you can use to collect and store details of your references, and your comments on them. As you review the references, remember to be a critical reader (see Study Guide What is critical reading?).
Keeping a record
Keeping a record of your search strategy is useful, to prevent you duplicating effort by doing the same search twice, or missing out a significant and relevant sector of literature because you think you have already done that search. Increasingly, examiners at post-graduate level are looking for the detail of how you chose which evidence you decided to refer to. They will want to know how you went about looking for relevant material, and your process of selection and omission.
You need to check what is required within your own discipline. If you are required to record and present your search strategy, you may be able to include the technical details of the search strategy as an appendix to your thesis.
Plagiarism is regarded as a serious offence by all Universities, and you need to make sure that you do not, even accidentally, commit plagiarism.
Plagiarism is the using of someone else’s words or ideas, and passing them off as your own. It can happen accidentally, for example, if you are careless in your note-taking. This can mean that you get mixed up over what is an exact quote, and what you have written in your own words; or over what was an idea of your own that you jotted down, or an idea from some text.
A practical way to help you avoid accidentally forgetting to reference someone else’s work, is routinely to record short extracts of text verbatim i.e.: using the exact words of the author, rather than putting the idea into your own words at the point where you are still reading. You will need to put inverted commas (‘xxx’) around the exact quote, and record the page number on which it appears.
This has the advantage that, when you come to use that example in your writing up, you can choose:
- to use the exact quote in inverted commas, with the reference and page number; or
- to describe it in your own words, and use the standard reference format, without the page number, to acknowledge that it was someone else’s idea.
Help is available regarding how to avoid plagiarism and it is worth checking it out. Your department will have its own guidance. Further help is available from the Student Learning Centre’s Study Guide on the topic, and from our online tutorial on plagiarism.
When to stop
It is important to keep control of the reading process, and to keep your research focus in mind. Rudestam and Newton (1992:49) remind us that the aim is to ‘Build an argument, not a library’.
It is also important to see the writing stage as part of the research process, not something that happens after you have finished reading the literature. Wellington et al (2005:80) suggest ‘Writing while you collect and collecting while you write.’
Once you are part way through your reading you can have a go at writing the literature review, in anticipation of revising it later on. It is often not until you start explaining something in writing that you find where your argument is weak, and you need to collect more evidence.
A skill that helps in curtailing the reading is: knowing where to set boundaries. For example, a study of the performance of a clinical team working in gerontology might involve reading literature within medicine; nursing; other allied healthcare specialties; psychology; and sociology; as well as perhaps healthcare policy; and patients’ experiences of healthcare. Decisions need to be made about where to focus your reading, and where you can refer briefly to an area but explain why you will not be going into it in more detail.
Writing it up
The task of shaping a logical and effective report of a literature review is undeniably challenging. Some useful guidance on how to approach the writing up is given by Wellington et al (2005:87):
- “It should be framed by your research questions.
- It must relate to your study.
- It must be clear to the reader where it is going: keep signposting along the way.
- Wherever possible, use original source material rather than summaries or reviews by others.
- Be in control, not totally deferent to or ‘tossed about by’ previous literature.
- Be selective. Ask ‘why am I including this?’
- It is probably best to treat it as a research project in its own right.
- Engage in a dialogue with the literature, you are not just providing a summary.”
In most disciplines, the aim is for the reader to reach the end of the literature review with a clear appreciation of what you are doing; why you are doing it; and how it fits in with other research in your field. Often, the literature review will end with a statement of the research question(s).
Having a lot of literature to report on can feel overwhelming. It is important to keep the focus on your study, rather than on the literature (Wellington 2005). To help you do this, you will need to establish a structure to work to. A good, well-explained structure is also a huge help to the reader.
As with any piece of extended writing, structure is crucial. There may be specific guidance on structure within your department, or you may need to devise your own.
Examples of ways you might structure your literature review are:
- chronologically; although be careful not just to list items; you need to write critically, not just descriptively;
- by theme; this is useful if there are several strands within your topic that can logically be considered separately before being brought together;
- by sector e.g.: political background, practice background, methodological background, geographical background, literary background;
- by development of ideas; this could be useful if there are identifiable stages of idea development that can be looked at in turn;
- by some combination of the above, or by another structure you create.
There are many possible structures, and you need to establish one that will best fit the ‘story’ you are telling of the reason for your study. Once you have established your structure you need to outline it for your reader.
A narrative thread
Although you clearly need to write in an academic style, it can be helpful to imagine that you are telling a story. The thread running through the story is the explanation of why you decided to do the study that you are doing. The story needs to be logical, informative, persuasive, comprehensive and, ideally, interesting. It needs to reach the logical conclusion that your research is a good idea.
If there is a key article or book that is of major importance to the development of your own research ideas, it is important to give extra space to describing and critiquing that piece of literature in more depth. Similarly, if there are some studies that you will be referring to more than to others, it would be useful to give them a full report and critique at this stage.
As well as using tables to display numerical data, tables can be useful within a literature review when you are comparing other kinds of material. For example, you could use a table to display the key differences between two or more:
- possible theoretical perspectives;
- possible methods;
- sets of assumptions;
- sample profiles;
- possible explanations.
The table format can make the comparisons easier to understand than if they were listed within the text. It can also be a check for yourself that you have identified enough relevant differences. An omission will be more obvious within a table, where it would appear as a blank cell, than it would be within text.
Almost all academic writing will need a reference list. This is a comprehensive list of the full references of sources that you have referred to in your writing. The reader needs to be able to follow up any source you have referred to.
The term ‘bibliography’ can cause confusion, as some people use it interchangeably with the term ‘reference list’; but they are two different things. The term ‘bibliography’ refers to any source list that you want to place at the end of your writing, including sources you have not referenced, and sources you think readers may want to follow up. A bibliography is not usually necessary or relevant, unless you have been asked to produce one.
Help! I’ve spent ages reading up on Method ‘A’, and now I’ve decided to use Method ‘N’. I feel I’ve wasted all that time!
This experience is common in PhD study, but it can happen at any level, and can feel as if you have wasted a lot of effort. Looking at this positively, however, you have probably read more widely than you might otherwise have done. Also, it may still be possible to include some of this learning in your write-up, when you explain why you decided not to use Method ‘A’. It is also possible that, in a viva, you will be asked why you didn’t use that method, and you will be well-prepared to answer in detail.
Help! I thought I had a really good idea for my research, and now I’ve found that someone else has already asked the same research question!
That probably confirms that it was a good question to ask! Although this can feel very disappointing at first, it can often be transformed into a benefit. It is important that your research fits logically within the existing research in your area, and you may have found an ideal study to link with and to extend in some way. Remember that:
- if it (or something very like it) has been done before, and has been published, it is likely that this signifies it was a relevant and important topic to investigate;
- you can learn from how the previous researchers did it: what worked and what didn’t;
- did the previous researchers suggest any further research? If so, you may be able to link your own plans to fit with their suggestions;
- can you take the investigation further by doing your own similar research: in a different setting; with a different sample; over a different timescale; with a different intervention etc.;
- their literature review and reference list should be useful.
Help! I think I’ve got a great idea for a study, but I can’t find anything published about the topic.
Firstly, this is unlikely. Perhaps if you modify your search strategy you will find something. However, if there really isn’t anything, then you need to ask why this is the case. Check out whether there is an important reason why the research has not been done, which would make it sensible for you to choose a different focus. If you do decide to go ahead, then take extra care designing your research, in the absence of guidance from previous studies.
Blaxter et al. (2001:125) suggest that, if there appears to be no research in your field:
‘…you should probably consider changing your topic. Ploughing a little-known furrow as a novice researcher is going to be very difficult, and you may find it difficult to get much support or help.’
An important aspect of your thesis and your viva, is that you can show how your research fits with other research. This will be just as important when there is limited existing research in your area, as when there is an abundance.
Reviewing your review
Once you have a first draft of your literature review it is possible for you to assess how well you have achieved your aims. One way of doing this is to examine each paragraph in turn, and to write in the margin a very brief summary of the content, and the type of content e.g.: argument for; argument against; description; example; theory; link. These summaries then provide the outline of the story you are telling, and the way that you are telling it. Both of these are important and need to be critically reviewed.
Useful questions at this stage include:
- What is the balance between description and comment?
- Have I missed out any important dimension of the argument, or literature?
- Have I supported the development of each step in my argument effectively?
- Is the material presented in the most effective order?
- Are there places where the reader is left with unanswered questions?
- Is every element of my research question supported by the preceding material?
- Have I explained to the reader the relevance of each piece of evidence?
- Is there any material that is interesting but which does not contribute to the development of the argument?
- Have I explained adequately the justification for this research approach / topic / question?
- Are my references up to date?
- How effective is my linking of all the elements?
Beware of becoming too attached to your writing. You need to be ready to cross out whole paragraphs or even whole sections if they do not pass the above tests. If you find that what you’ve written is not in the best order, then re-shaping it is not a huge problem. It may be mainly a case of cutting and pasting material into a different order, with some additional explanation and linking. If this produces a more relevant and streamlined argument it is well worth the effort.
Blaxter L., Hughes C. & Tight M. (2001) How to research. Buckingham: Open University.
Merriam S. (1988) Case study research in education: a qualitative approach. San Francisco, CA:Jossey-Bass.
Rudestam K. & Newton R. (1992) Surviving your dissertation. London:Sage.
Taylor D. & Procter M. (2008) The literature review: a few tips of conducting it. Health Services Writing Centre:University of Toronto. http://www.utoronto.ca/writing/litrev.html
Wellington J., Bathmaker A., Hunt C., McCulloch G., & Sikes P. (2005) Succeeding with your doctorate. London:Sage
So, you have been tasked with writing your dissertation literature review. It’s a simple endeavour; you just dust off your books, settle down in your chair coffee in hand, ready to jot down quick summaries of your readings as you skim through the pages. Literature review done? Not quite.
What is a literature review?
In short, a dissertation literature review provides a critical assessment of the sources (literature) you have gathered and read surrounding your subject area, and then identifies a “gap” in that literature that your research will attempt to address.
There are a lot of misunderstandings about what a dissertation literature review entails. Whilst in some cases a dissertation literature review can be a simple summary of important sources, most often it requires you to critically engage with the text to convey your opinions of it, as well as any critiques that you may have. What is your interpretation of a particular source? Does this interpretation differ considerably from other viewpoints in the literature? This is the sort of critical engagement expected in a literature review.
Whereas a summary will most likely provide a simple recap of the general arguments of the source(s), the expectations concerning a literature review extend beyond this. A literature review may provide a new perspective on a classic research paper or it may combine both new and old interpretations (this is the “gap” – more on this later). A literature review may also provide a thorough and critical outline of the intellectual developments in a field with a focus on major, and often polemical, debates. In other scenarios, a literature review may also provide an assessment of a source and inform a reader about its validity, pertinence and relevance to the research subject.
"In a literature review, you're aiming to summarise and provide a critical analysis of the research arguments you have found in your readings, without making new contributions to the literature. Hence the term: “literature review”."
There tends to be confusion between literature reviews and academic papers in general, but they are not one and the same. Generally, academic papers aim to provide new research material about a particular subject, and a literature review features as part of this objective. In a research paper, the literature review forms the basis of the research – it helps to highlight any research gaps as support for a new argument or insights you intend to provide. In a literature review, you're aiming to summarise and provide a critical analysis of the research arguments you have found in your readings, without making new contributions to the literature. Hence the term: “literature review”.
Is a literature review really necessary?
Now that we know what a literature review is, the next step is to understand the point of writing one in the first place. Like it or not, a literature review is an essential part of any academic piece of writing, as it demonstrates to your tutor or reader that you have a nuanced understanding of the sources concerning your research area or question.
Although it may seem arbitrary, the literature review helps to persuade the person reading and marking your assignment that what you have written about is relevant and your arguments are justified and worthwhile. So, in short, a literature review is essential, and you need to put the necessary time into getting it right.
How do you write a dissertation literature review?
As the next section of this blog is quite lengthy, we've broken it down into several key steps which should make it easier to follow when writing your own dissertation literature review. You start by identifying your sources, then you read and re-read them. Next, you think about any gaps in the research or literature you have used, and finally, you write your review using all the preparation and information gathered in the steps prior.
To write a good dissertation literature review, you need to have a fair idea of what sources you would like to review. If you haven’t been given a formal reference list by your tutor, refer back to the techniques we recommended earlier.
Make sure that your sources are balanced; include enough books and academic journals and any useful published work from reputable scholars. To help you choose your sources appropriately, you might want to think about the parameters and objectives of your research. What are you hoping to find out? In your literature review, what theoretical issues or perspectives do you aim to tackle? How about your methodology? Will you focus on mainly qualitative or quantitative studies, or a mixture of both? These general questions should help guide you in selecting your sources and again, remember that the abstract of a source is a very useful tool. Having a quick scan of the abstract and its ‘keywords’ will often give you an indication of the whether the source will be useful for your research or not.
As you’re identifying your sources, ensure you a keep a list as it’s very easy to lose focus given the wide scope of the Internet. Reference tools such as Mendeley allow you to store your sources online and via a desktop app, and are a great way to keep your bibliography organised. The citation tools attached to these programmes will also allow you to simply export citations in a format of your choice when required later. They will save you countless hours trying to figure out how to use Harvard or APA referencing correctly.
Read your sources
Now that you have organised your sources efficiently, it’s time to read through them. As unnatural as it may feel, it’s most effective to read in a few stages, as detailed below:
First, go through all the texts to get a sense of their general content and arguments. This will also help you judge which sources you mainly want to focus on in your review. During the second stage of your reading, you can then take a more critical, in-depth look at your sources. Make a lot of notes, be critical, ask questions. What is your academic opinion on the text? Do you have any comments on the methodological approach, the theoretical argument or the general hypothesis? Note these down. It will ensure that your literature review is not merely a summary of your readings, and will encourage a clear line of argument so that your work is logical and coherent.
Consider gaps in the research
When writing a dissertation literature review, an essential thing to consider is identifying the research gap. Identifying the gap is particularly important if your review forms part of a research proposal, as it will highlight the pertinence of your research – assuming that your research has been designed to fill this gap. In other instances, identifying the gap is an indication of good critical analysis and can score you extra points.
To identify the “gap” it is important that we know what this “gap” is. A research gap is essentially the existence of a research question, perspective or problem that has not been answered in the existing literature on any field of study. Identifying the research gap is important for highlighting the originality of your research; it proves you’re not simply recounting or regurgitating existing research. It also shows that you are very much aware of the status of the literature in your chosen field of study, which in turn, demonstrates the amount of research and effort you have put into your review.
Many students, especially at post-graduate level, find it extremely difficult to identify research gaps in their subject area. For post-graduate research papers, identifying research gaps and formulating research questions that can address these gaps form the very essence of a research paper. Identifying research gaps does not have to be a difficult endeavour and there are several ways to overcome this difficulty:
Start by reading
A simple approach will be to read important parts of key articles in your research area. First, note that you’ll have to sift through many articles to identify the ones that are most suitable for your research. A quick search using keywords on Google Scholar will often give you a quick overview of the available literature. Other useful sources include databases such as JSTOR or Wiley Online Library. You can then snowball additional articles by clicking on ‘related articles’ or checking out which other papers have cited your source.
Abstracts and recommendations
Whichever avenue you choose, reading the abstract is often a good starting point to get a sense of what the articles entails. You should also do a quick examination of the introductory and concluding paragraphs of the paper as these sections always provide some information on the aims and outcomes of the research, as well as ‘recommendations for future studies.’ These recommendations typically provide some insight on the research gaps in the literature. Another route would be to simply read as much as you can on your research subject while considering which research areas still need addressing in the literature – this is usually an indication of research gaps.
Write your review
Now you’re well prepared to start putting fingers to keyboard. Consider the following pointers:
1. Use sample literature reviews
Have a look at sample dissertation literature reviews in your subject area and read them thoroughly to familiarise yourself with existing key debates and themes. This can be a good starting point for framing and structuring your own review. If you are not familiar with academic writing, going through samples will help you to get a sense of what is expected in this regard. Pay attention to the academic language and formal style used. Also, remember that the bibliography or reference section of your selected texts will help you to snowball further references if you need any.
2. Keep it simple
Keep your topic as narrowed down as possible. Remember that there are hundreds – or in some instances, thousands – of sources or perspectives concerning any subject area or topic. Researchers investigate research problems in many divergent ways and the literature available on any given subject is extremely broad. In your literature review, you won’t be expected to address every argument or perspective concerning your topic – this might actually undermine your ability to write a coherent and focused piece. You’ll make your work easier if you limit the scope of your work. In your review, ensure that you clearly state what the focus of your work will be.
3. Make sure your sources are as current as possible
If you are reviewing scientific work, it’s essential your sources are as current as possible given the advancements in the field over the years. In the medical field particularly, research is constantly evolving and a source that’s only three years old may be even out-dated. In the social sciences this rule may not apply, as many theoretical works are classics and you will be expected to be familiar with these perspectives. You might have to the review the work of Marx, or Hobbes, or any other classic scholar. You still need to balance theory with current approaches, as you will need to demonstrate the ways in which perspectives in the literature have changed over the years, or you may even want to demonstrate how scholars have used classic theories to inform their work.
4. Consider the organisation of your work
In a dissertation literature review, organising your work goes beyond having an introduction, body and conclusion. You’ll be reviewing a number of texts, so you’ll also have to think clearly about how to organise themes, topics and your argument in general. Below is a detailed guide on how to do this:
Think about the basic structure first
Like any other academic paper, a dissertation literature review will comprise a basic introduction, body, and conclusion.
The introduction of a literature review should be clear, short and focused. It should outline the focus of the review – in other words, it should clearly state the main topics to be covered. A good literature review will also state the arguments to be made, as well as underlying rationale that underpins these arguments.
The body of your literature review will include an in-depth discussion of the academic sources you have chosen to review. You may choose to organise your sources according to themes, methodology or even based on a chronological order. In the body of your review, ensure that your arguments are presented clearly and that you link these arguments with the literature. Is there a scholar that agrees with your view? Say so, in a way that the reader will understand easily. This demonstrates that you are very familiar with the academic research in your field. Remember to also make note of any views that do not agree with your position; excluding these arguments will reduce the methodological robustness of your piece. You can use direct quotations in your literature review, however do so sparingly so you don’t appear lazy. Most tutors will not approach it kindly; the purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate your ability to critically engage with a piece of text, and littering your review with direct quotes isn’t a good indication of this. Instead, try to paraphrase quotations and only use direct quotes if it really helps to illustrate your argument.
In the summary of your dissertation literature review, it’s important to give a summary of the conclusions you’ve drawn from your readings. If your literature review forms part of a broader research proposal, reiterate the gaps in the literature here, and clearly state how your proposed research will fill these gaps. Make recommendations for future research in this section too, which demonstrates your analytical skills and will score you some extra points.
Pay extra attention to the structure of the body
You now have the basic structure of your research in place, however it’s worth dedicating some time to what the body of your work should entail. The body is the main core of your work, so it’s important to consider how you will frame and organise it. You have options here – you can choose to organise the content of your work based on a chronological method, based on themes, trends or methodology, or based on arguments.
To structure the body of work chronologically, you will have to organise your sources based on when they were published. A limitation of this approach is that it inhibits continuity in your arguments and in some instances, can undermine the coherence of your work. Use with caution.
A more coherent way of organising your work is to group your sources based on the arguments they make in a ‘for versus against’ manner. This enables you to present your work in a more dynamic way and what’s more, makes the key debates in the literature more obvious. Say you were trying to convey the debates on European migration policy, you might want to start by writing something along these lines:
"While scholars such as X argue that migration policies must be made more stringent to counteract the increased flow of Syrian refugees to Europe, other scholars such as Y offer a divergent perspective. They specifically espouse a perspective based on a human rights approach…"
This approach also leaves room for you to insert your voice into the literature. Consider this statement:
"While X argues for the enactment of more stringent migration policies, this paper argues along the lines of Y that migration policies should be based on human rights considerations."
Using this technique also allows you to introduce additional literature that supports your position.
Another way of organising your content is according to theme; or sub-themes, if your review focuses on one overarching topic. This method of organisation still allows you to present an overview of any polemical debates within these sub-themes. A thematic review can easily shift between chronological periods within each sub-section too.
Structuring work using a methodological approach is quite a common approach, however it’s often used in tandem with other ways of organising sources. This method is particularly evident in introductory sections whereby researchers may simply want to state that a particular subject has been mostly studied from a qualitative or quantitative perspective (they will often then cite a number of scholars or studies to support this claim). In scientific reviews however, a methodological approach may form the basis of the discussions in the body. If this is the case for you, focus on the methods used by various researchers. How did they go about answering a particular research question? Were there any limitations to this method? If so, what method(s) would have been better?
You’ll soon realise that organising the body of your literature review is an iterative process and you’ll more often than not, use all of these approaches in your write-up. The body of your research may also include additional sections that do not necessarily form a part of its organisational structure. For instance, you might want to include a ‘context section’ that provides some insight on any background detail required for understanding the focus of the literature review. It may also focus on historical considerations. You could include a short methodology section that details the approach you used in selecting and analysing your sources.
5. Write the paragraphs of the body
Once you have settled on the approach to writing your body, you must now write each of its paragraphs in a way that is in keeping with academic conventions. Consider this paragraph from a literature review about stakeholder participation for environmental management, to clarify the discussion that follows:
Despite the rhetoric and the concerns that have been expressed, there have been few attempts to investigate the validity of the many claims that have been made for stake-holder participation (Webler, 1999; Beierle, 2002; Brody, 2003; Blackstock et al., 2007). The few attempts that have been made have tended to focus on evaluating the process rather than the outcomes (e.g. Beierle, 2002; Renn et al., 1995; Rowe and Frewer, 2000). This may be partly due to the challenge of selecting appropriate evaluation criteria and data collection methods. Blackstock et al., 2007 argue that the evaluation of participatory processes should itself be participatory, with stakeholders selecting and applying the evaluation criteria. However, this is not straightforward. Webler and Tuler (2006) found strong differences of opinion between participants that they selected from ten case studies, about what constituted a "good" participatory process. (Source: Reed, M.S., 2008. Stakeholder participation for environmental management: a literature review. Biological conservation, 141(10), pp.2417-2431).
As the example above suggests, a dissertation literature review must be written using a formal and academic style. Also, note how sources have been grouped according to both arguments and themes. Remember we noted that the process of grouping sources in the body of your literature review is never a linear one? You will often use a combination of the approaches that we have discussed. Ensure that your writing is concise, coherent and devoid of any personal or strong language. Avoid any phrases like, “I hate X’s work”; a more academic way of stating your disagreement would be to simply state: “I would argue against X’s position that…”, or “X’s argument is inconsistent with the evidence because...”, or “X’s arguments are based on false assumptions because...”.
In the sample paragraph above, notice the use of words like “argue” – this is a good academic alternative to more commonplace words such as “says”. Other good alternatives include “states”, “asserts”, “proposes” or “claims”. More academic options include “opine”, “posit”, “postulate”, or “promulgate”, however some tutors and readers find these words to be too ‘heavy’ and archaic, so ensure that you are familiar with the writing standards in your institution.
If your writing is tailored to a peer-reviewed journal, it’s worth having a look at articles within that journal to get a sense of the writing style. Most tutors will provide a guideline on writing styles, and it’s important you adhere to this brief. You will often be required to also use the third person when writing a literature review, thus phrases such as “this paper argues” or “this paper is of the view that…” are appropriate.
There are exceptions at post-graduate level or generally – like when you have conducted your own primary research or published your work widely – which give you the academic authority to boldly make claims. In cases like these, the use of first person is suitable and you may use phrases such as “I argue” or “I propose”.
Remember also to generally use present tense when referring to opinions and theories (although in the context of specific research experiments, the use of the past tense is better).
Beyond the use of the academic terms suggested above, ‘linking’ words are also particularly important when writing a literature review, since you’ll be grouping a lot of writers together with either similar or divergent opinions. Useful linking words and phrases include: similarly, there are parallels, in convergence with…
When there is disagreement, you may want to use any of the following: However, conversely, on the other hand, diverges from, antithetical to, differential from…
6. Write the conclusion
The conclusion of a dissertation literature review should always include a summary of the implications of the literature, which you should then link to your argument or general research question.
Some final notes
The overall structure of your literature review will be largely based on your research area and the academic conventions that are in line with it. Nevertheless, there are some essential steps that apply across all disciplines and that you should ensure you follow:
Do not simply describe the opinions of writers
Analyse, analyse, analyse, and ensure that your analysis is critical (what have the writers missed; where does your opinion sit with theirs, etc.).
Structure the body of your argument using various techniques
Your structure should be organised based on thematic areas, key debates or controversial issues, and according to methodological approaches. Keep your review dynamic, but coherent. Remember to identify literature gaps and link this to your own research.
Use ample evidence
This is extremely important and forms the very essence of a dissertation literature review. You must refer to various sources when making a point; see the sample paragraph above for an example of this. Your arguments and interpretation of a research topic must be backed by evidence. Do not make baseless claims, as a literature review is an academic piece of writing and not an opinion piece.
Be very selective
Not every piece of research has to be reviewed. If you are determined to show that you aware of the available literature out there, try writing techniques such as: There is robust literature available concerning the migration patterns of Syrian refugees. Notable works include: X(2015), y (2013), Z (2014). Once you have acknowledged these works, you do not have to review them in detail. Be selective about the sources that you will discuss in detail in your review.
Do not rely too much on direct quotes
Only use them to emphasise a point. Similarly, don’t rely too heavily on the work of a single author. Instead, highlight the importance of that author in your research and move on. If you need to keep going back to the work of that author, then you need to link those discussions with your work. Do not simply provide a summary of the author’s work. In what ways does your work agree or disagree with his/hers? Be critical.
Make your voice heard
Yes, the whole point of the literature review is to provide a critical analysis and summary of the viewpoints out there, but a critical analysis does include the fact that you need to make your opinion known in the context of the literature. Note how skilfully, in the earlier sample paragraph by Reed (2008), he weaves his opinions with references. Read back over the sample and try to perfect this skill.
Ensure that you reference your work correctly
And make sure you use the appropriate referencing style. For more help on this, click here.