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Literature Reviews: A Research Guide

This guide offers information on what a literature review is, how to go about conducting one, and links to library resources that will help you with the process.

About Literature Reviews

A literature review is both a process and a product. This guide focuses on the process of doing a literature review. As a process, it involves searching for information related to your topic, to familiarize yourself with the relevant research and to identify issues and gaps in the research. In most cases you're seeking to identify the key authors and key arguments that are relevant to your topic, not to exhaustively read everything written on the subject. 

What is a literature review?

  • "Literature reviews are systematic syntheses of previous work around a particular topic" -- Card, Noel A. "Literature Review." In Encyclopedia of Research Design, edited by Neil J. Salkind, 726-29. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010. 
  • Note the term "syntheses" - most literature reviews go beyond mere summarization and involve a certain level of analysis
  • While most literature reviews are written to introduce a particular research study, some types of literature reviews, such as systematic reviews or qualitative evidence synthesis, are research methods in and of themselves.

Why do a literature review?

  • To broaden your own knowledge of the research area
  • To clarify and focus your research question
  • To situate your research in the context of related research, and identify gaps in the literature that your research may address
  • To improve your methodology by learning what tools and approaches other researchers have used

Source: Barron, Lee. "LITERATURE REVIEW." In The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods, edited by Victor Jupp, 163-64. London, England: SAGE Publications, Ltd., 2006. 

When should the review be conducted?

  • BEFORE you start your project. Remember, it’s meant to inform the rest of the project – don’t bake the cake, then try to concoct the recipe!

How comprehensive/systematic should it be?

  • That depends – there are different types of literature reviews, some of which aim to identify every published study on the topic. For a thesis or dissertation you may focus more on specific literature that informs your research question.

Read more about looking for relevant literature: Maxwell, J. A.. (2006). Literature Reviews of, and for, Educational Research: A Commentary on Boote and Beile's "Scholars before Researchers". Educational Researcher35(9), 28–31.