A literature review is an essential part of an academic research project; it helps you see—and demonstrate to your readers—how your research question and your research findings, discoveries or conclusions fits into an ongoing academic conversation. It establishes that you, as a researcher or scholar, know and understand your field and are capable of being a contributor to knowledge in that field.
What exactly is a literature review?
A literature review typically consists of summaries, comparisons, and appraisals of current published materials—or literature—focused on a specific topic or comprising a scholarly conversation. A literature review will either (1) situate research you are doing within a scholarly conversation; or, (2) explain where current research stands on a topic and what directions it might take in the future (sometimes called a state-of-the-art review). It can be a stand-alone essay or part of a longer article, thesis, dissertation, or even a book chapter.
What make a literature review successful?
A successful literature review is focused and effectively organized. It describes a body of research that is appropriate in scope, relevance, significance, credibility, and currency, although these characteristics may differ based on field and project. Generally, a literature review should give an accurate, balanced, and thorough understanding of how your research fits into a scholarly conversation. You should explain the major ideas circulating, the most relevant or current research being done, and the most contentious or contested points.
Don’t simply list sources in random order and summarize/evaluate each one. Instead, tell a story by explaining how your work and the work of others contribute to our knowledge and understanding. You may be exploring:
- a topic (e.g., vaccinations),
- a research question (e.g., if there are risks in vaccinating children under age 5),
- a method (e.g., if the best way to determine the risk is by surveying physicians or by examining medical records)
- a theory (e.g., how modular analysis has contributed to our understanding of vaccination).
In reviewing the literature, you may lose sight of your own work, but that is a mistake. As you read what others have said on your topic, keep your own work front and center. Think of your work as part of a larger scholarly conversation and use the literature review to show how it fits into that conversation.
In other words, your literature review will summarize, compare/contrast and appraise the sources you discuss but will also synthesize them into a story. Additionally, keep your audience in mind; you must be able to convey why someone else should care. Your story might trace the progression of a scholarly conversation or express its limitations and/or gaps, limitations or gaps your work can help fix. It might describe a body of research moving toward a consensus or degenerating into a contentious stalemate, and then show how your research can help resolve any arguments.
It helps to check out a literature review in your field, of a type similar to what you are writing. If you are writing a dissertation, see how others in your field have managed literature reviews. If you are writing an article, check out journals in your field to see how other authors have handled the literature review sections (usually in the introduction). Be aware, also, of the formatting and citation style to use (e.g., MLA, APA, or something else).
Find the literature
Once you know what form your literature review should take, find sources that are representative of the conversation surrounding your topic. Don’t cherry pick sources that support a point you want to make. And remember, a research project is iterative, meaning that it rarely goes in orderly stages; you will continually return to or revisit the literature throughout your process.
As you research, ask questions about currently published literature:
- What is the history or development of the subject of my research question?
- Are there experts on this topic in my field? Who are they?
- How current or enduring do my sources need to be?
- Has anyone done similar research? If so, how is it different in method or scope?
- What am I offering to my field, to my community, etc., that is unique?
- Are there limitations to my research that I must be aware of as I move forward?
- Most importantly, is the literature I have found appropriate for my audience, scope, and purpose? Is there an abundance or lack of evidence?
Take advantage of the help of a research librarian. Research librarians are trained specifically in the art of research. At Texas A&M, each field has a research librarian specialist, who has expertise in finding sources and resources pertinent to the interests of that field. To find the research librarian in your field, go to the library web site directory and select the Find My Librarian tab.
Organize and write
Once you have gathered and explored appropriate sources and found the story your research tells, you are ready to begin drafting. If the literature review is being written as a stand-alone chapter or essay, it is usually are organized with an introduction, a body and a conclusion. If it is a section within an article, it will still take this basic shape, but in an abbreviated form.
- Introduction – Your introduction should convey the following:
- Your topic
- The main point of the story your research tells
- An indication of how you will organize the body of your review
- Body – The body is where you relate the story the sources you have consulted tell. Some ways you can organize this story include:
- Trend – Explain how the conversation surrounding your topic has evolved over time to where it stands currently.
- Theme – If you have identified disparate themes that emerge through the process of your research, organize by theme, for example, history, current methods, gaps in the knowledge.
- Methodology – If you used a variety of research methods, organize by relating information gathered from each methodology, one at a time, for example, empirical, ethnographic, case study.
- Conclusion – Summarize how your interests align with the conversation at large. Or use the conclusion to speculate on what research is needed going forward.