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Literature Reviews

Resources and tips to help you write an academic Literature Review.

The 4 Tasks of the Literature Review

Keep these central goals in mind when writing your literature review:

1.     Provide a tightly-organized investigation of a single thesis or research question by identifying key research on the topic area.

2.     Synthesize the results of previous research into a summary of   

             a.     what is understood to be historically accurate or accepted practice

             b.    what practices or policies are still under question or investigation

             c.     what practices or policies have not been well addressed by existing research

             d.    what areas of the topic still require investigation

3.     Identify distinct areas of controversy among previous researchers/research results.

4.     Devise questions that need further research.

The Development of a Literature Review Diagram (text only is below the image)

This graphic image illustrates several of the questions that go into the development of a literature review. (See text-only in box below) 

Image taken from The University of New South Wales. "Getting Started on Your Literature Review." Retrieved 17 August, 2012 from http://www. lc.unsw. edu. au/onlib/litrev.html

[The following is a transcript of the text in the diagram image above.]

Some of the questions the review of the literature can answer:

  1. What are the key sources?
  2. What are the major issues and debates about the topic?
  3. What are the political standpoints?
  4. What are the origins and definitions of the topic?
  5. What are the key theories, concepts, and ideas?
  6. What are the epistemological and ontological grounds for the discipline?
  7. How is knowledge on the topic structured and organized?
  8. What are the main questions and problems that have been addressed to date?

How have approaches to these questions increased our understanding and knowledge?

Elements of the Literature Review

There are many different ways to organize your references in a literature review, but every review should have certain basic elements.

Introduction – an overview of the topic, and the author’s objectives in completing the literature review.

Review – works divided into categories according to whatever structure the author is using (thematic, historical, by methodology ect.) and a comparison of each work in the context of the others.

Conclusion – the author’s analysis and evaluation of the reviewed works.


So now you know that the introduction comes first and the conclusion comes last, but how should you organize the sources within your review?  Well, there are several different options, but it’s important to keep in mind that the purpose of the literature review is to develop a scholarly context for research in a particular field.  With that goal in mind you should try to organize your review in a way that makes connections and/or discrepancies between sources apparent.  Some of the best methods of organizing your review are listed below.  

1.     Chronologically – Organizing your sources by the date of publication can show how scholarly perspective on a topic has changed over time.

2.     Thematically – Organizing by theme puts all of the sources with a similar focus together, making it very easy to see where differences in perspective emerge.

3.     Methodologically – Organizing by method, much like organizing by theme, puts similar sources together and illustrates what effect method has on final product.   


As with any other writing assignment, proper citing is very important in your literature review.  These links will keep you on the right track!