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Literature Review

What is a literature review?

According to Cooper (1988) '... a literature review uses as its database reports of primary or original scholarship, and does not report new primary scholarship itself. The primary reports used in the literature may be verbal, but in the vast majority of cases reports are written documents. The types of scholarship may be empirical, theoretical, critical/analytic, or methodological in nature. Second a literature review seeks to describe, summarise, evaluate, clarify and/or integrate the content of primary reports.'

The review of relevant literature is nearly always a standard chapter of a thesis or dissertation. The review forms an important chapter in a thesis where its purpose is to provide the background to and justification for the research undertaken (Bruce 1994). Bruce, who has published widely on the topic of the literature review, has identified six elements of a literature review. These elements comprise a list; a search; a survey; a vehicle for learning; a research facilitator; and a report (Bruce 1994).

Why do a literature review?

A crucial element of all research degrees is the review of relevant literature. So important is this chapter that its omission represents a void or absence of a major element in research (Afolabi 1992). According to Bourner (1996) there are good reasons for spending time and effort on a review of the literature before embarking on a research project. These reasons include:

  • to identify gaps in the literature
  • to avoid reinventing the wheel (at the least this will save time and it can stop you from making the same mistakes as others)
  • to carry on from where others have already reached (reviewing the field allows you to build on the platform of existing knowledge and ideas)
  • to identify other people working in the same fields (a researcher network is a valuable resource)
  • to increase your breadth of knowledge of your subject area
  • to identify seminal works in your area
  • to provide the intellectual context for your own work, enabling you to position your project relative to other work
  • to identify opposing views
  • to put your work into perspective
  • to demonstrate that you can access previous work in an area
  • to identify information and ideas that may be relevant to your project
  • to identify methods that could be relevant to your project

As far as the literature review process goes, the goal for students is to complete their review in the allocated time and to ensure they can maintain currency in their field of study for the duration of their research (Bruce 1990).

The literature review process and the library

A good literature review requires knowledge of the use of indexes and abstracts, the ability to conduct exhaustive bibliographic searches, ability to organise the collected data meaningfully, describe, critique and relate each source to the subject of the inquiry, and present the organised review logically, and last, but by no means least, to correctly cite all sources mentioned (Afolabi 1992). The Library offers a range of training for research students that will assist with the production of literature reviews including sessions on electronic databases, using the bibliographic management software EndNote to download records, Internet searching using Netscape, Library catalogue searching, cloud (online) student orientation, subject resources, and research skills. Please contact your Liaison Librarian for more details.

EndNote reference management software

EndNote is a reference database that enables you to create your own list of bibliographical references. The EndNote software is provided on the Software Essentials CD or via the ITS Software Library and makes it possible to connect to selected library catalogues and online databases and to incorporate references directly into an EndNote database. It is also possible to export bibliographic records whilst you are searching the Deakin Library catalogue into EndNote. EndNote is a bibliography maker which can locate cited works in its databases and build and format appropriate lists automatically. It can be used in conjunction with a word processing package.

Links to relevant sites

Bibliography of cited references and other relevant sources

Afolabi, M. (1992) 'The review of related literature in research' International journal of information and library research, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 59-66.

Bourner, T. (1996) 'The research process: four steps to success', in Greenfield, T. (ed), Research methods: guidance for postgraduates, Arnold, London.

Bruce, C. S. (1990) 'Information skills coursework for postgraduate students: investigation and response at the Queensland University of Technology' Australian Academic & Research Libraries, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 224-232.

Bruce, C. (1993) 'When enough is enough: or how should research students delimit the scope of their literature review?', in Challenging the Conventional Wisdom in Higher Education: Selected Contributions Presented at the Ninteeth Annual National Conference and Twenty-First Birthday Celebration of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Inc., HERDSA, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. pp. 435-439.

Bruce, C. S. (1994) 'Research student's early experiences of the dissertation literature review' Studies in Higher Education, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 217-229.

Bruce, C. (1994) 'Supervising literature reviews', in Zuber-Skerritt, O. and Ryan, Y. (eds), Quality in postgraduate education, Kogan Page, London.

Bruce, C. S. (1997) 'From Neophyte to expert: counting on reflection to facilitate complex conceptions of the literature review', in Zuber-Skerritt, O. (ed), Frameworks for postgraduate education, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Caspers, J. S (1998) 'Hands-on instruction across the miles: using a web tutorial to teach the literature review research process', Research Strategies, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 187-197.

Cooper, H. M. (1988) 'The structure of knowledge synthesis' Knowledge in Society, vol. 1, pp. 104-126

Cooper, H. M. (1989) Integrating research : a guide for literature reviews, 2nd ed, Sage Publications, Newbury Park, Calif.

Leedy, P. D. (1997) Practical research: planning and design, 6th ed, Merrill, Upper Saddle River, N.J.

Libutti, P. & Kopala, M. (1995) 'The doctoral student, the dissertation, and the library: a review of the literature' Reference Librarian, vol. 48, no. 5, pp. 5-25.

Mauch, J. E. & Birch, J. W. (2003) Guide to the successful thesis and dissertation: a handbook for students and faculty, 5th ed, Marcel Dekker, New York.

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