Literature Review

The majority of students across a wide variety of disciplines, particularly in the Sciences and Social Sciences, are frequently required to write literature reviews. Whether the assignment is a short one for an Honours degree or a fuller length review for a PhD paper, a lot of students find it difficult to transform vast amounts of different types of research material into a properly-organised critique. The completed literature review chapter of a paper shows that the student has sifted through a number of literature review topics, chosen one, and read up on that topic. This process will have given them a wide understanding of previously undertaken research in their field, as well as the limitations of that research.

When writing a literature review, it is the task of the student to summarize the most critical facts and most notable viewpoints from the literature they have examined as these relate to the selected topic.


What are Literature Reviews? 

Regardless of the literature review topics that have been chosen, these chapters are summaries of work that has been published on a particular topic or in some area or field of expertise. A literature review can form one section of a much larger article or paper, or it may be the entire centerpiece of a paper. A review of literature shows that the writer has examined a wide range of existing material with a view to justifying a particular research question or thesis. They also act as beneficial tools for other students looking for a summary related to that specific field.

A literature review differs from an annotated bibliography in that the former seeks to synthesize relevant sources into a concise thesis-based summary. By contrast, a bibliography is a list of research sources.

There are different stages to writing a literature review. A first stage review is used to show how familiar you are with a particular topic or field of study. A literature review, however, should continue to change and develop as research work progresses, and it will need revising at various points as your study likewise progresses.

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The Aims and Objectives of a Literature Review

One of the primary aims of a literature review is comparing and contrasting the thoughts, ideologies, concepts and current thinking in a particular topic area or field. It is a student’s opportunity to compare and contrast, to reflect on, and to critically evaluate relevant literature while also having a platform to air their own opinions and thoughts on why certain literature is important to their assignment. Additionally, it helps the reader to understand what is already known about a particular topic without needing to locate and examine several sources.

These reviews act as stage-setters for further reading of new topic material (particularly when they are included in the introductory sections of bulky papers). Essentially, they give context and background.

What is The Purpose of a Literature Review?

A literature review has several purposes. For example, it helps writers and readers to:

  • Understand the main ideas, concepts, theories, practises, and terminology in the chosen field. 
  • Learn about the main problem, issues and/or theories. 
  • Learn who the key players or experts in the particular field are. 
  • Understand the state of existing knowledge in that field. 
  • Identify and evaluate appropriate research methodologies. 
  • Understand technology developments in the relevant field. 
  • Prevent duplication. 
  • Identify gaps in the given field or create scope for new/additional research. 
  • Understand why this research work is significant. 
  • Understand how this work builds on existing work or adds to previous effort. 
  • Understand how this work is different from previous efforts. 
  • Stay up-to-date with current trends and developments in the given field. 
  • Understand how the research question(s) need or can be refined.

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Literature Reviews – Are There Different Types?

Literature reviews do not all conform to the same type. There are various types with each one having its own purpose, approach and analysis method(s). To make matters more confusing, the names of the different types are not consistent. Below, we describe some of the more popular types:

These two types of reviews are quite rigorous, and require some form of appraisal:

  • Systematic literature reviews: These are commonly used in medical settings, in the healthcare profession, and in other subject areas where data and methodolgy matter. By reviewing specific literature in a rigorous and analytical way, this type of review finds and compares results to answer questions related to healthcare. These reviews often include meta-analysis as well as meta-synthesis, and this links to...
  • Qualitative and quantitative meta-analysis reviews: Both of these reviews can form part or the entirity of a systematic review. Both types are comprehensive and thorough in the way they condense and interpret large quantities of research. Qualitative research is used in a qualitative meta-analysis review. It interprets or evaluates (i.e. is subjective) and it aims to identify new concepts and/or themes. Quantitive research is used in a quantitative meta-analysis review. This type is entirely objective and analyzes statistical data.

The following types do not necessarily include formal analysis or assessment:

  • Literature reviews (or narrative-style reviews): This type is often presented as one chapter of a dissertation or thesis. It provides a description of any relevant research that has been undertaken already, how this supports the paper’s thesis, and the manner in which the thesis and research fit into the given field of study.
  • Critical reviews: These are similar to literature reviews. However, they expect the literature to be examined in greater detail so that different perspectives can be compared and evaluated.
  • Conceptual reviews: These types of review attempt to group literary material by category, theme or concept. The aim is to identify how a particular research subject is currently understood. It describes how the current understanding was arrived at, and it tries to establish if a better understanding of the topic is possible.
  • Scoping reviews: Studies of this type are frequently presented at the start of a research paper, dissertation or article. These reviews are undertaken before research work commences and they set the scene by drawing attention to any gaps that come to light in existing literature. They also explain why the planned research, which is set out in the rest of the paper, is needed.

Guide to Writing a Good Literature Review

  1. Define the scope of the research. What research question(s) will your literature review attempt to define? Should your review include a specific number of sources e.g. a minimum or maximum number? In the event you have any difficulties selecting suitable literature review topics, need clarification on research methods, need help with citation, or would like some writing tips, contact
  2. Identify suitable literature. Begin with a broad search. You will typically find relevant literature by examining journal articles, academic textbooks and/or dissertations. Understand what is available; which terms are helpful and accurate, and so on. Use an appropriate tool for organizing and keeping track of all your sources. And do not forget to contact us if you require assistance. Learn how students add to and interact with existing research by:
  • Examining related citations or reference sections to locate additonal important sources.
  • Using Scopus or Google Scholar to locate sources that cite a specific work.
  1. Analyze your chosen literature with a critical lens. A comprehensive and critical analysis of literature you collect on your topic is key to writing a good literature review. Your analysis should examine important themes, relationships and crucial gaps in existing research materials. Every source needs to be read carefully and summarized with a view to analyzing coverage, currency, methodologies used, relationship with other literary works, and source authority. You can get a full list of questions that can be used for analyzing sources from
  2. Resources need to be categorized. Begin by dividing all resources that are relevant to your particular research into logical categories that reflect how they will help you address your paper’s research question(s). The following are possible categories for organizing materials:
  • Chronological order
  • Methodology
  • Philosophical or theoretical approach
  • Theme 

Irrespective of how you divide your materials, it is important that every category is supported with extensive discussion as well as explanation of the strong and weak points, how it compares with like sources, and its overall value to your study. Searching through several relevant databases and other media such as repositories, websites, and so on should yield sufficeint sources to give you a number of different perspectives on your chosen topic.

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How are Literature Reviews Structured?

A literature review is generally structured in a way that is unique to this chapter and is usually as follows:

Introductory Section

Once you have examined a number of literature review topics and selected one, you should begin your paper with one or more introductory paragraphs. These describe the content you will cover, the manner in which your material will be organized (or structured) and a description of the boundaries that pertain to the topic or subject you are covering (you should list anything that falls outside the scope of your study).

The Main Body

The main body consists of several sections and as many sub-sections as necessary to discuss the examined literature in a coherent and logical manner. Each individual section should evaluate and discuss the relevant literature according to the most significant concepts or topics as these relate to your area of study. End each section with well-chosen sentences and a summary that relate back to the main focus of your research. It is important that body paragraphs are well-structured and clearly organised. 

The Concluding Section

The conclusions in a literature review are developed by taking the most important points from each summary in the last chapter. These are then used to make suggestions and/or recommendations regarding the need for the research study that is being undertaken. It ends with a concluding paragraph that connects the examined literature back to the project’s research design i.e. the methodology.

The Structure in Summary

The accepted literature review definition recommends you begin by introducing the chosen topic and this part should show how ideas progress in a logical manner with regards to structure, the connections between the different sections, and the final conclusions that have been drawn. End your paper by indicating how your research will help to address the questions or issues highlighted throughout the review.

The aims of a literature review should be to draw everything together and show the writer is able to compare and contrast, critically analyze, paraphrase, synthesize, summarize, cite sources, and include in-text references. It should also demonstrate their skill at writing, proofreading, editing and creating an accurate reference list prior to submission.  

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