This guide is for students who are new to writing literature reviews, for example as part of an assignment or for an initial investigation for designing your own research topic.
Note: If you are required to write a literature review for a research proposal, you might also want to browse the Library guide to systematic and systemic-like reviews.
What is a literature review?
The purpose of a literature review is to locate peer-reviewed sources that inform you of key ideas in your field of study. By ‘literature’ we mean books, academic journal articles and other sources. The information you gather from reading these sources can then be used to identify potential gaps in knowledge, or to investigate new issues that may not have noticed before. A literature review is often used to develop research questions for future research.
As a general rule, your literature review should:
- explain why your research topic is important
- provide a critical analysis of the ideas in the literature rather than just describe the findings
- organise ideas into themes rather than by source
- identify similarities and differences in opinions, evidence and the findings of sources
- identify areas of controversy, or limitations of research methods
- include citations of sources and a reference list or bibliography (according to your required referencing style).
The number of sources referred to in a literature review may vary. An undergraduate literature review may be a short assessment, so you may only need to review a small number of sources; you may be given a set of sources to review or you may be asked to find your own sources. At an Honours or postgraduate level, a literature review will include a larger number of sources. Generally, the higher the word count, the greater the number of sources you are expected to include. As with any assignment or research project, it is important to discuss and determine your topic, word count and referencing style with your lecturer or supervisor before you begin.
Literature review or annotated bibliography?
Don’t confuse a literature review with an annotated bibliography! Although they are two different ways of reviewing the literature, these are two distinct genres of academic writing.
A literature review has a beginning, middle and end (like an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion). It requires you to analyse and evaluate key literature on a given topic – to identify, compare and contrast common themes explored in the literature.
In contrast, an annotated bibliography is a list of short descriptive summaries of readings on a particular topic or area of research. It does not compare and contrast sources. The sources are ordered in a list format according to the source reference.
Reading and researching
To produce a good literature review you must show that you have researched and read widely. A wide-ranging review will often include books, journal articles, reports, government documents and credible web resources. The quality of your review will be judged by the quality of your sources. This is why it is important to manage your time by selectively reviewing the abstract, table of contents and headings before you start reading to see if the source is relevant to your topic.
Ask yourself the following questions to help you start your literature review:
- What is the purpose of the review?
- Which themes will I focus on?
- What questions do I need to ask about the literature?
- What types of sources are suitable for the questions?
- How much time do I have to research, read, analyse and synthesise the literature?
- Which referencing style am I required to use (e.g. Harvard, APA etc)?
Selecting and evaluating sources
Use a set of questions such as these to help choose appropriate sources and evaluate and analyse those sources.
What categories will you use to select sources?
Why are these categories/themes relevant to the question?
Do you have enough time to include all the categories?
Is there a geographic limit to your studies?
What is the relevance of the geographical location to the question?
Is there a time limit to your studies?
What is the relevance of the historical context to the question?
Which literature did you reject and why?
What have you included?
To show you have critically analysed the literature you will need to evaluate your sources:
How relevant is this article to your topic?
How authoritative and credible is this source?
What are the major patterns and trends presented?
How has the author structured the arguments, and why?
Analysing and note taking
Keep critical notes as you read
It can be useful to keep a daily journal of your personal responses and thinking processes on what you are reading for your literature review. Doing this on a regular basis will also improve your disciplinary vocabulary and help you to write about the literature in your own words.
In your journal:
- analyse the findings from each source will help you to build a whole picture of the topic you are exploring
- consider using a table, matrix or mind map to identify findings, common themes, disagreements and key ideas that are common throughout the papers.
Use this notetaking matrix to help you analyse and synthesise texts you are researching for you literature review.
Try using a brainstorming and mind mapping tool like Xmind to assist with organising your research.
Writing your review
The structure of a review is similar to an essay in that it contains an introduction, a body and a conclusion. However, a literature review will also include: a description of your search methods; paragraphs organised into themes; and a concluding summary of key themes and how the review contributes to understanding the topic you are investigating. Writing your literature review can take some time, so expect to write a few different drafts before you complete your final copy.
Your introduction should help your reader with the context and purpose of your literature review. Tell your reader:
- the aim of your review
- why you are writing a review, and why the topic is important
- what aspects will be discussed
- the scope of your review e.g. what points you will include
what methods you used to find readings and the limitations
- an overview of the themes you will discuss.
The body paragraphs of your review will contain your review of the literature relevant to your research topic. To write your body paragraphs you will need to synthesise your reviewed readings, so that there is a clear link between the various sources. You will need to critically analyse each source for how they contribute to the themes you are researching.
The body might include paragraphs that focus on:
- background and methodologies
- other studies on the topic
- key questions being asked
- conclusions that are being drawn.
In your conclusion, give a summary of:
- the main agreements and disagreements in the literature
- any gaps or areas for further research
- your perspective on the topic.
Further language tips
Review the this sample literature review for further tips.