Research Skills: Literature Review Tips

What is a Literature Review?

What is a literature review?

“A literature review is both a summary and explanation of the complete and current state of knowledge on a limited topic as found in academic books and journal articles. There are two kinds of literature reviews you might write at university: one that students are asked to write as a stand-alone assignment in a course, often as part of their training in the research processes in their field, and the other that is written as part of an introduction to, or preparation for, a longer work, usually a thesis or research report”

Source: University of Guelph Library – Writing a Literature Review

You may be asked to write a stand alone literature review on a given topic, or you may be required to conduct a literature review as part of a larger piece of research, such thesis or dissertation.

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  1. Learn about a topic in preparation for a large research project.
  2. Review writings by other researchers on a given topic
  3. Update a previous literature review

What to include

You will want to do a broad survey of the existing literature on your topic. This will include scholarly research articles, books, theses, dissertations. When you are searching in library databases, be sure to use the scholarly journal/research article/peer reviewed limiters to get appropriate results.

As stated on the SFU Academic Writing: What is a Literature Review page:

Don’t provide a lot of detail about the procedures used in your sources. Don’t mention every study conducted on the topic. Include only the ones that are most relevant for the purpose and scope of your review”


Nine Steps to Writing a Literature Review

Steps for writing a literature review

The University of Guelph Library has prepared a helpful list of nine steps to writing a literature review.

1. Find a Working Topic

Look at your specific area of study. Think about what interests you, and what is fertile ground for study. Talk to your professor, brainstorm, and read lecture notes and recent issues of periodicals in the field.

2. Review the Literature

  • Using keywords, search a computer database. It is best to use at least two databases relevant to your discipline
  • Remember that the reference lists of recent articles and reviews can lead to valuable papers
  • Make certain that you also include any studies contrary to your point of view

3. Focus Your Topic Narrowly and Select Papers Accordingly

Consider the following:

  • What interests you?
  • What interests others?
  • What time span of research will you consider?

Choose an area of research that is due for a review.

4. Read the Selected Articles Thoroughly and Evaluate Them

  • What assumptions do most/some researchers seem to be making?
  • What methodologies do they use? what testing procedures, subjects, material tested?
  • Evaluate and synthesize the research findings and conclusions drawn
  • Note experts in the field: names/labs that are frequently referenced
  • Note conflicting theories, results, methodologies
  • Watch for popularity of theories and how this has/has not changed over time

5. Organize the Selected Papers By Looking For Patterns and By Developing Subtopics

Note things such as:

  • Findings that are common/contested
  • Two or three important trends in the research
  • The most influential theories

6. Develop a Working Thesis

Write a one or two sentence statement summarizing the conclusion you have reached about the major trends and developments you see in the research that has been done on your subject.

7. Organize Your Own Paper Based on the Findings From Steps 4 & 5

Develop headings/subheadings. If your literature review is extensive, find a large table surface, and on it place post-it notes or filing cards to organize all your findings into categories. Move them around if you decide that (a) they fit better under different headings, or (b) you need to establish new topic headings.

8. Write the Body of the Paper

Follow the plan you have developed above, making certain that each section links logically to the one before and after, and that you have divided your sections by themes or subtopics, not by reporting the work of individual theorists or researchers.

9. Look At What You Have Written; Focus On Analysis, Not Description

Look at the topic sentences of each paragraph. If you were to read only these sentences, would you find that your paper presented a clear position, logically developed, from beginning to end? If, for example, you find that each paragraph begins with a researcher’s name, it might indicate that, instead of evaluating and comparing the research literature from an analytical point of view, you have simply described what research has been done. This is one of the most common problems with student literature reviews. So if your paper still does not appear to be defined by a central, guiding concept, or if it does not critically analyse the literature selected, then you should make a new outline based on what you have said in each section and paragraph of the paper, and decide whether you need to add information, to delete off-topic information, or to restructure the paper entirely.

For example, look at the following two passages and note that Student A is merely describing the literature and Student B takes a more analytical and evaluative approach, by comparing and contrasting. You can also see that this evaluative approach is well signalled by linguistic markers indicating logical connections (words such as “however,” “moreover”) and phrases such as “substantiates the claim that,” which indicate supporting evidence and Student B’s ability to synthesize knowledge.

Source: University of Guelph Library: Writing a Literature Review.

Helpful Resources

Helpful resources:

Print books:

Efrat, S., & Ravid, R. (2019). Writing the literature review: A practical guide. New York: The Guilford Press. Call number LB2369 E289 2019

Garrard, J. (2011). Health sciences literature review made easy: The matrix method. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett Publishers. Call number R118.6 G37 2011

Petticrew, M. (2006). Systematic reviews in the social sciences: A practical guide. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Call number H62 P457 2006

Online articles:

Badke, W. (2017). The literature review in a digital ageOnline Searcher41(3), 57-59.

Neill, C. (2017). Writing & research. Writing a literature reviewRadiation Therapist26(1), 89-91.

Online resources:

Concordia University: How to Write a Literature Review

Guelph University Library: Writing a Literature Review

University of Toronto: The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting it