What Is a Literature Review?

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A literature review summarizes and synthesizes the existing scholarly research on a particular topic. Literature reviews are a form of academic writing commonly used in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. However, unlike research papers, which establish new arguments and make original contributions, literature reviews organize and present existing research. As a student or academic, you might produce a literature review as a standalone paper or as a portion of a larger research project.

What Literature Reviews Are Not 

In order to understand literature reviews, it's best to first understand what they are not. First, literature reviews are not bibliographies. A bibliography is a list of resources consulted when researching a particular topic. Literature reviews do more than list the sources you’ve consulted: they summarize and critically evaluate those sources.

Second, literature reviews are not subjective. Unlike some of the other well-known "reviews" (e.g. theater or book reviews), literature reviews steer clear of opinion statements. Instead, they summarize and critically assess a body of scholarly literature from a relatively objective perspective. Writing a literature review is a rigorous process, requiring a thorough evaluation of the quality and findings of each source discussed.

Why Write a Literature Review? 

Writing a literature review is a time-consuming process that requires extensive research and critical analysis.

So, why should you spend so much time reviewing and writing about research that’s already been published?  

  1. Justifying your own research. If you’re writing a literature review as part of a larger research project, the literature review allows you to demonstrate what makes your own research valuable. By summarizing the existing research on your research question, a literature review reveals points of consensus and points of disagreement, as well as the gaps and open questions that remain. Presumably, your original research has emerged from one of those open questions, so the literature review serves as a jumping off point for the rest of your paper.

  1. Demonstrating your expertise.  Before you can write a literature review, you must immerse yourself in a significant body of research. By the time you’ve written the review, you’ve read widely on your topic and are able to synthesize and logically present the information. This final product establishes you as a trustworthy authority on your topic.

  2. Joining the conversation. All academic writing is part of one never-ending conversation: an ongoing dialogue among scholars and researchers across continents, centuries, and subject areas. By producing a literature review, you’re engaging with all of the prior scholars who examined your topic and continuing a cycle that moves the field forward.

​Tips for Writing a Literature Review

While specific style guidelines vary among disciplines, all literature reviews are well-researched and organized. Use the following strategies as a guide as you embark on the writing process.  

  1. Choose a topic with a limited scope. The world of scholarly research is vast, and if you choose too broad a topic, the research process will seem never-ending. Choose a topic with a narrow focus, and be open to adjusting it as the research process unfolds. If you find yourself sorting through thousands of results every time you conduct a database search, you may need to further refine your topic.
  1. Take organized notes. Organizational systems such as the literature grid are essential for keeping track of your readings. Use the grid strategy, or a similar system, to record key information and main findings/arguments for each source. Once you begin the writing process, you’ll be able to refer back to your literature grid each time you want to add information about a particular source.

  2. Pay attention to patterns and trends. As you read, be on the lookout for any patterns or trends that emerge among your sources. You might discover that there are two clear existing schools of thought related to your research question. Or, you might discover that the prevailing ideas about your research question have shifted dramatically several times over the last hundred years. The structure of your literature review will be based on the patterns you discover. If no obvious trends stand out, choose the organizational structure that best suits your topic, such as theme, issue, or research methodology. ​

    Writing a literature review takes time, patience, and a whole lot of intellectual energy. As you pore over countless academic articles, consider all the researchers who preceded you and those who will follow. Your literature review is much more than a routine assignment: it's a contribution to the future of your field.

     

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    Your Citation
    Valdes, Olivia. "What Is a Literature Review?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 21, 2018, thoughtco.com/literature-review-research-1691252. Valdes, Olivia. (2018, March 21). What Is a Literature Review? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/literature-review-research-1691252 Valdes, Olivia. "What Is a Literature Review?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/literature-review-research-1691252 (accessed May 27, 2018).