Literature Reviews in Academic Writing

access_timeApril 2, 2018


Undergraduate and postgraduate students do literature reviews as part of a wider body of work or as a standalone paper. Don’t confuse this with an essay or thesis, however. Literature reviews have a distinct purpose in academic writing.

What it a literature review?

An academic essay, paper, or thesis argues a topic using credible sources to back up the argument. A literature review is a research, analysis, and critical commentary on those very sources. It can be an embedded introduction in your paper, or relevant parts of the review can appear in relevant sections of the paper.

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Why do a literature review?

Reasons for doing a literature review include:

  • To improve your own understanding of the essay topic which you choose for a research paper.

  • To update the reader on current views on a subject. Those who critique your findings or who take an interest in your research should have enough contextual data to follow your theories.

  • To show gaps in existing findings. When there is minimal knowledge on a subject, or none at all, tertiary education students have the chance to fill the gap with sound, well-researched material.

What it is not

The review is not an essay. It does not:

  • Prove or develop main points. This is done in the paper it is supporting.

  • Argue a topic. It presents findings, compares different fields of thoughts on the topic, and proposes further studies.

  • Merely summarize a list of sources.

Selecting sources

When doing a literature review for an academic paper, wide or narrow topics result in too much or too little source material. The first step, therefore, is to make sure the topic of a research paper is suitably focused.

A strong paper is supported by credible, peer-reviewed sources. This means that school textbooks and a large portion of online content are weak foundations on which to base your work. These contain a broad range of information and have little, or no, academic assessment. Search for strong literature in:

  • Journals

  • Academic databases

  • Dissertations

  • Government and respected bodies’ reports and studies

  • University libraries

  • Monographs

  • Empirical studies

  • Suggested readings from your academic advisor

Investigate the sources cited by authors within their own reports. This will yield further data on your topic.

Choosing material for inclusion

The literature review proves that the research conducted is valid. The source material must:

  • Cover all the vital areas of your topic

  • Identify inadequacies in existing research

  • Point out areas lacking research

  • Reveal a need to update current research

Because of the quantity of information, as well as time limits and deadlines, you must be able to locate relevant data efficiently. Skim and scan texts for content that supports your work. Use keyword searches in electronic databases. As you accumulate information, make notes on thoughts and reactions and critique findings systematically. Remember to record the necessary details for complete citations of facts and quotes used in your paper.

Organizing a literature review

The review follows an introduction, body, and conclusion structure. There are different ways to organize the commentary on the collection of sources. The most popular systems are chronological and topical. Chronological organization presents an analysis of the oldest to most recent studies. Topical organization groups findings by themes, or common issues they address. You can also arrange work in order of importance. Whichever system you choose, make sure:

  • The organization system is apparent

  • Headings and paragraphs distinguish findings

  • The relationship between the review and the topic you are researching is clear

  • Key studies are highlighted

  • Transition words and summaries show progress from one study, or group of studies, to the next

Writing a literature review

Before writing, collect adequate data that has been analyzed, criticized, and compared. Forming the backbone of your research paper, the review should cover every appropriate angle that gives cause to your work. Refine content, as appropriate, to form a comprehensive and strong report that lends weight to the research you have undertaken. It must:

  • Show that you have a thorough understanding of your own topic

  • Cover all essential aspects of the topic

  • Clarify key terminology

  • Critique research findings and their presentation

  • Expose opportunities for future research

It is easy to lose focus because of the abundance of available information. A lack of clarity on the central topic blurs the point of the review, and if objectives are unclear, outcomes fall short. Therefore, employ critical thinking and questioning techniques, such as Boolean logic, to stay on the right track.

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