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Writing a Literature Review

This guide will help you get started on your literature review by providing basic information on what a review is, how to write it and where to do the research.

Getting Started

This guide is a starting point for anyone new to literature review. It provides information and tips on searching for literature and managing your resources.

About Literature Reviews

Image Source: "Literature Review" by Raul Pacheco-Vega is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a systematic, comprehensive survey and evaluation of current known/unknown information about a particular research question. It is a discursive process that analyses, connects and identifies biases, inconsistencies and/or controversies among different findings in the field. A comprehensive literature review helps researchers identify unanswered questions and make a case for further studies. Literature review can be a continual process; as more information comes to light, researchers may reassess or reframe their research questions.

Who writes literature reviews?

The humanities, social science and science disciplines use literature reviews to gather and explore prior knowledge, and to identify areas that need further study. These reviews can be part of an undergraduate research paper or a graduate thesis/dissertation; they can also be stand-alone pieces.

If literature review is part of your undergraduate research paper, it is important to ask your instructor for clarification on the following:

  • How many sources you are expected to use
  • The types of sources that should be consulted (e.g. books, scholarly articles, conference papers)
  • How in-depth you should evaluate, explore and summarize your sources, searching for common themes and/or controversies

Why Conduct a Literature Review?

Here are some of the reasons for doing a literature review:

  • Acquire a comprehensive knowledge of the critical works in one’s discipline and how the research area has evolved overtime
  • Identify one’s niche, and focus within this area of study
  • Explore a research question from different theoretical perspectives
  • Discover previously unexplored research design and methodology, and provide possible direction for future studies
  • Determine if there are any disagreements within an area of research
  • Avoid repeating existing research

Necessary Skills

Here are some of the necessary skills for conducting a literature review:

  • Identify a research question
  • Search relevant databases and bodies of literature
  • Manage information in an organized and systematic manner
  • Evaluate and synthesize information critically
  • Incorporate your assessment of available information/research coherently

Literature Review: An Overview for Students

Check out North Carolina State Library’s video on literature review. This nine-minute video provides a definition for literature review, the purpose it serves, and what pitfalls to avoid when writing your review. While targeted toward graduate students, it's actually useful for anyone conducting a literature review.

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