Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students

What is a literature review? What purpose does it serve in research? What should you expect when writing one? Find out here

  • Transcript

    Writing a literature review is an inevitable part of being a graduate student. So, before spending hours of your time working on a project involving a literature review, it helps to understand what a "literature review" is, and why it is important. 

    You may need to do a literature review as a part of a course assignment, a capstone project, or a master's thesis or dissertation. No matter the context, a literature review is an essential part of the research process. 

    Some important functions of a literature review are that it helps you to understand a research topic and develop your own perspective on a problem. Not only that, it lets you show your instructor or thesis committee what you know about the topic. 

    Your instructor or advisor may assume you know what a literature review is and that you understand what they are expecting from you. You might hear phrases like: "What does the literature show us?" "Connect your ideas to the literature." "Survey the literature on the topic." 

    Well, before you can review the literature, you need to make sure you know what is meant by "the literature." A good definition of the literature is that it is a collection of all the scholarly writings on a topic. These writings can be in the form of scholarly, peer reviewed articles, books, and other sources like conference proceedings. These may be called annual meetings or conventions. The literature also includes dissertations written by other graduate students. Collectively, these make up the literature. 

    Visually, the literature might look like this. Often there are major works that have been written on a topic, and then other, later, works that build on them. These later works tend to be extending or responding to the original papers in some way. Basically, the literature is a continuously evolving network of scholarly works that interact with each other. 

    As you do your own research, you'll begin to understand the relationships in this evolving web and how your own ideas connect to it. 

    I'm John Classen, Associate Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at North Carolina State University. Research is about telling a story, kind of like a chain story where each writer starts with a partial story created by others and takes it where the imagination leads. The existing literature is the story so far. You have to know where you are before you can go forward. But research is not just one linear story; many different lines of study contribute to the story you are trying to write. 

    Your job in the literature review is to see where all the loose ends are in the various fields that are most closely related to what you want to do and to figure out what needs to be done next. The background to any good story has to be explained carefully or the reader doesn't know why one thing is important and something else is not; the reader has to understand what's going on. 

    In the same way, researchers need the background in the literature of their discipline to know what's going on in their field of study. So, how do you turn a network of articles into a cohesive review of the literature? How do you find and tell the "story" behind your research topic? 

    Reviewing the literature is like participating in a conversation. As you read and evaluate articles you begin to understand how they are connected and how they form the story that the authors are telling. Then you start to formulate your own response or contribution. 

    This process - discovering relationships in the literature and developing and connecting your own ideas to it - is what helps you turn a network of articles into a coherent review of the literature. 

    So what does a literature review look like? There are different types of literature reviews that you may encounter, or be required to write, while in graduate school. Literature reviews can range from being selective to comprehensive. They can also be part of a larger work or stand alone. 

    A course assignment is an example of a selective review. It focuses on a small segment of the literature on a topic and makes up the entire work. The literature review in a thesis or dissertation is an example of a comprehensive review that is part of a larger work. 

    Most research articles begin with a selective literature review to establish the context for the research reported in the paper. Often this is part of the introduction. Other literature reviews are meant to be fairly comprehensive and also to stand alone. This means that the entire article is devoted to reviewing the literature. 

    A literature review that introduces an article can look like this. Here is an article about cognitive behavioral therapy. Here is the literature review, in this article it is part of the introduction. You can tell that the introduction includes a literature review because it discusses important research that has already been published on this topic. 

    Here is an example of a stand alone literature review article, in this case, about employment. The article's title states that this is a review of the literature on the topic. However, not all review articles will have the term 'literature review' in their title. In-depth review articles like this are an excellent starting place for research on a topic. 

    So, at this point, you may be asking yourself just what's involved in writing a literature review? And how do I get started? 

    Writing a literature review is a process with several key steps. Let's look at each part of this process in more detail. 

    Your first step involves choosing, exploring, and focusing a topic. At this stage you might discover that you need to tweak your topic or the scope of your research as you learn more about the topic in the literature. Then, of course, you'll need to do some research using article databases, the library catalog, Google Scholar, and other sources to find scholarly information. 

    All along you'll be using your brain. You'll want to evaluate what you find and select articles, books, and other publications that will be the most useful. Then, you will need to read through these articles and try to understand, analyze, and critique what you read. 

    While researching and organizing your paper, you'll collect a lot of information from many different sources. You can use citation management software like RefWorks, EndNote, or Zotero to help you stay organized. Then, of course, you'll need to write and revise your paper and create your final bibliography. 

    One more thing: Writing a literature review is a process, but it is not always a linear process. One step does lead to another, but sometimes your research or reading will point you back to earlier steps as you learn more about your topic and the literature. 

    At this point you might be wondering how do I actually review the literature I find? Let's look at what it means to review the literature. 

    In the most general sense it means that you collect and read all the relevant papers and other literature on your topic. You want to provide an overview but also highlight key concepts and important papers. As you read you may start by describing and summarizing each article. Then you can start to make connections by comparing and contrasting those papers. 

    You will also need to evaluate, analyze, and organize the information from your reading. When you work with the literature you will read and critically examine articles and books to see what's important or out of scope and analyze arguments for strengths and weaknesses. 

    When working with the literature it is important to look for relationships between publications. Some of the important relationships between publications that you discover might include major themes and important concepts, as well as critical gaps and disagreements. 

    But don't fall into the trap of making your review a laundry list of summaries of the works you read. A literature review is not an annotated bibliography. 

    Your goal should be to go one step further and integrate and synthesize what you find in the literature into something new. Ideally, you will create your own conceptual map or outline of the literature on your topic. 

    For example, let's say as you read you discover three major concepts that are important in the literature and relevant to your research. You should then identify how the literature - that is, the content in individual articles, books, and other publications - relates to the concepts you discovered. Some publications may be relevant to several concepts; others may apply to only one concept. What's important is that you develop and present your own organization and understanding of the literature. 

    Then, when you write your literature review you will end up with a document that is organized by the concepts and relationships you found and developed based on your reading and thinking. Your review will not only cover what's been published on your topic, but will include your own thoughts and ideas. You will be telling the specific story that sets the background and shows the significance of your research. 

    Researching and writing a good literature review is a challenging and sometimes intimidating process. Don't be afraid to seek assistance, whether from your adviser or instructor, campus writing center, or your librarian. Many librarians have subject specialties and can be especially helpful in identifying valuable resources and showing you how to obtain relevant information.


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Video added on January 15, 2020

Credits

  • Eleanor Smith: Content development, scripting
  • Kim Duckett: Screencasting, editing
  • Sarah Bankston: Narration
  • Dr. John Classen: Scripting, narration
  • Andreas Orphanides: Web development
  • Susan Baker: Graphics, animation, and web design

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