How to Write a Literature Review

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review should not be mistaken for a book review. This type of assignment is used to review books, academic articles, and other scholarly sources such as conference notes, dissertation papers, and so on. In fact, it covers any material that is relevant to a given issue, research area, or theory. It describes, summarizes, and critically evaluates each piece of work. The primary purpose of a literature review is to provide an overview of any notable literature that has been published on a given topic.

The Component Parts

Writing a literature review can be likened to undertaking primary research and it is a four-stage process: 

  • Formulating the problem: What topic or which field does the review relate to and what issues does it comprise of?
  • A search through literature: This step involves locating relevant topic-related materials;
  • Evaluating information or data: Here, the writer needs to determine which works of literature contribute significantly to understanding the topic;
  • Interpretation and analysis: This stage deals with discussing any findings and/or conclusions taken from the most relevant and important pieces of literature.

A literature review should be made up of certain elements as follows:

  • The writer should provide an overview of the topic, theory, or issue they are examining, as well as outlining the objective of the review.
  • The works being reviewed should be divided into suitable categories, for example, works that support a particular stance, works opposed to that stance, and works that offer a completely different viewpoint.
  • It is important to explain the similarities between different works and how one differs from others. 
  • It is necessary to come to conclusions about which works have well-considered arguments, have convincing opinions, and contribute most to understanding and developing the research topic.

When evaluating each work, you need to consider:

  • How objective is the work: Is the viewpoint of the author prejudiced or balanced? Has the author considered an alternative perspective or has some important information been disregarded to prove the point the author wants to make.
  • How persuasive is the work: Which of the opinions or theses put forward by the author are convincing or unconvincing?
  • How much value can be attributed to the work: Does the arguments and/or conclusions put forward by the author seem credible? Does the author’s work contribute much or in any important way to understanding the topic or subject matter?
  • What is the provenance of the work: What credentials does the author have? Have they provided any or enough evidence to support their arguments e.g. the latest scientific source material, statistical information, case studies, historical data, and so on?   

Definition and Purposes/Uses

Essentially, a literature review can be presented as a chapter in a dissertation or thesis, or it can be a standalone review of any literature that is available on a particular subject.

In any case, the purpose of such a review is: 

  • To put each piece of work in the order it has contributed to the existing understanding and/or knowledge of the topic or subject;
  • To describe the relationships between all the works being considered;
  • To resolve possible conflicts in previous studies that seem to contradict each other;
  • To identity previous studies on a subject to avoid duplication;
  • To find new perspectives or ways of interpreting or identifying any lapses or gaps in earlier studies;
  • To signal the direction for further study on a subject;
  • To put the writer’s own original paper – e.g., thesis or dissertation – into its rightful place among other scholarly works on a given topic.