To the uninitiated, a literature review is something featured in the Sunday paper about the latest ponderous tome, racy thriller or convoluted novel.
For the record, such articles can also be found in the British magazine Literary Review.
For any postgraduate student preparing their dissertation, writing a literature review is a serious, often confounding business. What is the purpose and scope of such a review? Why is it an integral part of one’s dissertation? What does a good literature review look like?
Your Superprof takes matters in hand, helping you to understand all of the critical aspects of this all-important document you must draft.
What Is a Literature Review?
Simply put, a literature review is an academic paper written to present a dissertation topic’s theoretical positions, its methodological contributions and other relevant findings. In short, it represents a summary of the current knowledge about a specific topic.
A literature review does not reflect any new work.
In writing your literature review, you are not to include any original work that you’ve done; this portion of your dissertation is meant to show the depth of the research you’ve done on your topic, as well as your observations and conclusions about that existing literature.
Let’s say that you want to write your dissertation on rare diseases. That being too broad a subject, your adviser will help you narrow your focus to which specific rare disease you would target.
The narrower your topic focus, the more concise and authoritative your dissertation will be.
For our illustration, we call on St Vitus’ Dance, the so-called dancing plague that struck Germany more than 640 years ago, which subsequently spread throughout Europe. Still today, patients present with Sydenham’s Corea – another name for this odd affliction.
You will search for and read everything you can get your hands on about this choreomania, from ancient literature such as The Black Death and The Dancing Mania (1888) to modern-day literature that likens this phenomenon to Kawasaki’s Syndrome.
You might even reference The Pied Piper, who was said to lead dancing children out of their German village (Hamelin). Even though it is a supposed fairy tale, it has a basis in fact, namely that over a hundred children disappeared shortly after the onset of the dancing plague.
Again, we emphasise: you are not to include your thoughts, ideas or prejudices in your literature review.
It is strictly a secondary source document so, whether you believe that The Pied Piper charmed village children to follow him out of town or not, the dancing plague that struck Hamelin is relevant to your topic and should be included in your literature review.
Note: this article is one of a series on how to write a dissertation.
The Different Types of Literature Review
With the two most important ‘rules’ for you literature review laid out – a narrow focus on a specific topic and no original work, you need to consider what type of literature review you will write.
It goes almost without saying that your literature review will be more than a list of sources you read and cited throughout your dissertation. You should evaluate everything you read on the subject and show how it connects to your broader dissertation research.
This narrative review should illustrate inconsistencies and/or gaps in the topic’s existing body of knowledge. It should also present the conclusions you draw from all that you’ve read on the subject.
Again: regardless of what you dis/agree with, you should include all aspects in your review and, to eliminate the perception of bias, indicate which points you agree and disagree with.
By contrast, an argumentative literature review is structured to support or refute anything from a widely-made assumption to an argument you found repeated in the literature.
The trouble is such a literature review is its potential for bias, generally seen as an unfavourable characteristic in academic circles.
Integrated literature reviews could be thought of a more proactive, calling on the doctoral candidate to find new perspectives and build new topic frameworks through critique and synthesis of secondary data.
Contrary to the integrated literature review, the theoretical review focuses on theories already expressed throughout the written works and the relationship, if any, between them. They invite the review writer to expound on them and to develop new hypotheses.
Regardless of which literature review type you choose, you must specify, at the outset, which type of review you present and the reasons you chose that type.
What about the Systematic Literature Review?
This type of review demands the most rigorous approach to researching your topic. It is a comprehensive work that details both meta-analysis and meta-synthesis of your chosen topic.
A meta-analysis examines findings from many studies of the same topic. It presents the patterns and relationships you detected and the conclusions you drew from them.
A meta-synthesis follows an inductive research approach to integrate, evaluate and interpret findings.
Helpful hint: cross-referencing your literature review with your research analysis section is a good way to link the common points of your argument.
The Literature Review Structure
So far, we've revealed three major criteria of the literature review:
- You may not include any original work
- It must be narrow in focus and show gaps and/or inconsistencies in the existing body of work on the subject
- You must specify which type of literary review you present
Unlike other aspects of academic writing, you have plenty of latitude in structuring your literature review… that is unless your institution or university specifies certain requirements.
If they don’t, you might consider a macro-to-micro approach, starting with an overall view of the topic and narrowing down to the specific point your dissertation will examine.
You may also consider a chronological format if your topic has a long history or grouping by theme – historical, actual, theoretical and, finally, conclusions.
Your review should read more like a narrative than a listicle – a series of bulleted points or a laundry list of sources. It should be engaging and informative, logical and effective at communicating what you see as the points lacking in the current body of knowledge.
Never assume that the body you will defend your dissertation in front of, those academics who will read your literature review are authorities or experts on the subject. By no means should you write at primary grade level but nor should your writing be so jargon-laced that an average reader will not understand it.
If your topic has its own vernacular, be sure to explain highly technical terms early in your review so that, later, you may resort to acronyms, abbreviations and/or other designations in the place of hard-to-understand terms.
Learn more about the steps to take in writing your dissertation.
How to Cite Sources
Finding quality research materials may be easy thanks to the internet but how will you cite all that you’ve read?
The most effective way of keeping track of your sources is by compiling an annotated bibliography.
As you read through various texts, you will find passages – or maybe just ideas that you want to include in your review.
Take a moment to jot down in your notebook the citation information – authors’ names, publication title and date published. While you’re at it, write a summary paragraph that analyses each passage/concept.
With this information neatly compiled, once you start writing your literature review, you can always refer back to those materials for a quick refresher on what struck you as noteworthy before. Doing so will also save you time.
Rather than furiously flipping back and forth or conducting internet searches anew, all of your citation information will be neatly listed in the order you found it.
Tip: you may choose to number these citations from most to least relevant to make the macro-to-micro format easier to follow.
Once you start writing your review, you will cite works in-text, just like any other academic paper you’ve written, with a reference list at the end showing every source you’ve cited.
Keep in mind that if your university or academic body has different specifications for citing sources, you must meet their standards.
You may want to follow this step-by-step guide to writing your research methodology section…
How to Research Your Literature Review
All journal articles are not created equal; even Albert Einstein refuted his theories – more than once, at that!
Does that mean you should exclude disproven articles? No, but you must state that the paper in question was disproven.
The secret to a solid literature review is quality articles from reputable journals.
The trick is finding reputable work that is relevant to your thesis. While the internet is a treasure trove of information, your favourite search engine will cast far too broad a net in searching for results. You may waste a lot of time combing through all of those hits and still not find the sources you need.
Sites like Google Scholar may further stymie your search by offering up potentially suitable material only to confront you with a paywall.
If you have the funds, you might not mind paying but the better solution is to note the source of those web articles and search for them in your university library. Speaking of your school’s library…
Do you have access to ResearchGate? That is another invaluable source of quality material for your dissertation and literature review.
Finally, consider the adage: ask the right question.
All any search engine, academic or general, can do is throw out results based on the keywords in your queries so using the right keywords is essential to refining your search and getting closer to the information you need to write an effective literature review.
Tip: while historical literature is essential for certain topics, overwhelmingly, you should rely more on recent sources to formulate your conclusions.
Did you know that researching your literature review could impact what you choose as your dissertation topic?