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Graduate Student Library Services: Literature Reviews

Peer Reviewed Articles

What is a Literature Review?

The Purpose of the Literature Review is to:

  • Set the background on what has been researched on a topic.
  • Show why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Discover relationships between ideas.
  • Identify major themes & concepts.
  • Identify critical gaps & points of disagreement.
  • Help the researcher turn a network of articles into a coherent view of the literature.

Source Quality

What is a 'quality' source?

Why should you be concerned about source quality as you research your topic? In fact, there are several reasons:

  • Faculty will consider the choices you made as they evaluate your work
  • A key skill of the digital age is evaluating information on the basis of credibility
  • Biased, incorrect, or misleading information will quickly diminish the credibility of your writing
  • As a participant in scholarly conversations, you have a responsibility to share only that information that contributes to the continuity of truth and discovery

How will you measure 'quality'? First consideration: What is your purpose?

Even within the sphere of academic writing, the manner in which you make use of sources can vary. Sources can provide:

  • Definitions and background to inform the reader
  • Illustrative examples for clarification of your assertions
  • Real-life examples or case studies to enliven your writing
  • Expert quotes, opinions or the findings of scholarly research
  • Data and statistics to support your assertions or conclusions

For the first three of the above, news sources, such as magazine and newspaper articles, and general books could provide excellent background and detail for more compelling writing.

How can you evaluate sources?

See the checklist below to decide between a good source and a questionable one:

Image: Source checklist for academic writing

Bias can be hard to detect!

  • Psychologists have shown that we naturally tend to accept any information that supports what we already believe, as true, even if the information isn't reliable.
  • The information should be objective, fair, and balanced.
  • The absence of a viewpoint could present a bias.
  • Products and services can be sold...and so can ideas (religious, political, etc.)
  • Be especially careful when the viewpoint isn't apparent.

Annotated Bibliographies

A successful annotated bibliography consists of two sections, each comprising important aspects which give your source relevance and support for your research.

Section 1: the citation

The correct citation is important for your reader in order for them to access and refer to your descriptions, if need be.  While many search engines and databases provide system-generated citations for a number of different writing styles, they are not always correct.  If you choose to copy a system-generated citation it is important to know the format for your paper, and to review every citation you copy for accuracy.

Section 2: the annotation

For an effective and thorough annotated bibliography section 2 should consist of 3 parts:

Part A: The importance of the author

Part B: The importance of the article

Part C: The importance of the article to your study

Section 2: the annotation

For an effective and thorough annotated bibliography section 2 should consist of 3 parts:

Part A: The importance of the author

Part B: The importance of the article

Part C: The importance of the article to your study

Part A: (0.5-1 sentence)

Part A need not be more than one sentence, and it is sufficient to simply introduce your annotation with a brief background of the author leading into Part B.  A quick internet search may find what professional standing they have and where they are based.  The author’s title, place of employment and educational background are often enough to give the reader a good idea of the importance of the author in their field of study.

Part B: (2-3 sentences)

The next few sentences are crucial to tying the text into your study.  Part B is not a summary, but a descriptive interpretation of the author’s work.  Highlight the important aspects of the author’s argument.  Your description should give the reader an idea of what they can find in the article if they choose to look more into it.  These brief overviews need only be 2 or 3 sentences at the most, so it is important to be clear and concise.

Part C: (1 sentence)

The end of your annotation helps the reader understand why you have chosen to include this work in your study.  Part C is not a “Here is why I chose this article” sentence, but rather a continuation of Part B that connects the author’s points with your argument or specific focus of study.  This one, final sentence should tie the author’s impact on the discussion with your topic, in terms that relate to the reader the importance of the text to your study using a scholarly voice.

Literature Review Overview

A literature review is an explanation of what has been published on a subject by recognized researchers. Occasionally you will be asked to write one as a separate assignment (sometimes in the form of an annotated bibliography), but more often as part of the introduction to a research report, essay, thesis, or dissertation.

Critical literature reviews help to write your literature review more effectively. A literature review must do these things:

  1. Be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you are developing.
  2. Synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known.
  3. Identify areas of controversy in the literature
  4. Formulate questions that need further research.

Before writing literature review ask yourself questions like these:

  1. What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my review of literature helps to define?
  2. What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory, methodology, policy, quantitative research (e.g. on the effectiveness of a new procedure), or qualitative research (e.g. studies )?
  3. What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, websites, popular media)? What discipline am I working in (e.g., psychology, criminal justice, education)?
  4. How good was my information seeking? Has my search been wide enough to ensure I've found all the relevant material? Has it been narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material? Is the number of sources I've used appropriate for the length of my paper?
  5. Have I critically analyzed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them? Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?
  6. Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?
  7. Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate, and useful?

The goal of the literature review is to show that you understand the 'bigger picture' and can put your research and recommendations in context of others working in the field.

  1. Try to find the most recent articles that deal with your topic; many of them will summarize the prior literature in the area, saving you valuable time. Search for key authors who have contributed to the topic. It can be overwhelming. Just find the literature mist relevant to your topic. You can't find/use everything.
  2. Use current sources - include chronological, thematic, methodological.
  3. Use quotes sparingly and keep your own voice.
  4. Remember to attiribute even if you paraphraze.

A Literature Review...

  • Provides comprehensive discussion of the scholarly research that has already been done on a topic.
  • Includes some summary of important articles on a topic.
  • Includes comparison: between how different authors discuss the same topic and how the topic has been handled over time.
  • Synthesizes previous ideas on a topic, but also looks for gaps in the literature: what needs to be investigated further?

A Literature Review should...

  • Relate directly and clearly to your thesis or research question.
  • Synthesize and contextualize results, not just report them.
  • Identify areas of controversy in the literature.
  • Formulate questions that need further research.

Analyzing a Literature Review

In writing your own literature review, it is helpful to analyze others. 

Consider the following when reading someone else's thesis or dissertation literature review: 

  • How long is it? 
  • How is it structured? 
  • Is the structure and objective of the literature review described to the reader? 
  • What is the tone of the author? What verb tense does the author use?

Find Literature Reviews

In order to find these articles quickly, add "Literature Review" OR "Review of the Literature" as a title field search in a database such as ERIC or PsycInfo

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Or, if available, select the research methodology limit for "literature review". 

literature review limit in psycinfo

Organizing Research for Literature Reviews

Organizing Research for Writing Literature Reviews

There are numerous ways to organize the material in a lit. review. For example, one might organize the selected readings by

  • different theoretical approaches
  • specific concepts or issues
  • different methodologies employed
  • level of support or otherwise that they lend to one’s own hypothesis/theory.

Such methods are generally better than organizing chronologically or by author. 

(From Writing a Literature Review Phase 5: Organizing the Review, Boston College Libraries)

This section contains links to guides from various universities on how to conduct literature reviews.