Literature Review – Step-by-Step Guide

Time to read: 7 Minutes
Literature-review-Definition

In your academic course, a literature review is an essential part of the research process, as it allows you to obtain an in-depth understanding of your paper. This article provides a detailed guide to writing a literature review.

Literature Review – In a Nutshell

A literature review analyzes scholarly sources such as a publication on a specific topic. Students and academics must often write it as a standalone project or part of their thesis, dissertation, or other research papers. It shows the readers how the work relates to other published studies and the new insights it contributes.

Definition: Literature review

A literature review is an academic piece describing a particular research topic that has already been published. It gives an overview of the topic’s theoretical background and can be used to identify gaps in the existing facts about the subject at that time.

College students often write it as a standalone project or part of their dissertation or thesis. Academics also write it as part of their research paper to set the context for their research and even pinpoint gaps in existing knowledge. Writing one helps students depict what they have learned on a topic and share their ideas.1

The 5 key steps to writing a literature review

Search for relevant literature.

Evaluate and select sources.

Identify debates, themes, and gaps.

Outline your structure.

Write it.

Literature review – Purpose

A literature review…

  • familiarizes you with a particular topic before starting research.
  • informs you of what is currently known and unknown about the topic to avoid duplication.
  • pinpoints unsolved problems that your research can address.
  • provides context of existing literature to place your research and explains why a further study is necessary.
  • shows the readers how your research relates to other published works and the new insights it brings.1

Literature review – Examples

As a starting point, it may be relevant to have a look at a few examples of literature reviews before writing one:

Examples:

Step 1 to writing a literature review

Search for relevant literature

You must formulate a clearly defined topic before you start searching for literature.

Suppose you’ve been tasked with writing a literature review as a standalone assignment, in that case, you must come up with a primary question to base your search on. The question must be answerable using a review of the published works.

If writing the review as part of a thesis or dissertation, you can research literature related to the critical research questions and objectives.

Example of a research question:

What is the impact of technology on business?

Make a list of keywords

Next, formulate a list of keywords, related terms, and synonyms to help you find relevant literature on your topic. In the case of our research question above, some of the keywords we may use include:

Digital marketing, social media, Facebook ads, YouTube ads, marketing videos, e-commerce, SEO, email marketing, online shopping, etc.

Search for relevant sources

Look for relevant sources on the internet to narrow down your research. Some references are Google Scholar, EBSCO, JSTOR, MedLine, EconLit, Inspec, Project Muse, and your college’s library catalog.

Step 2 to writing a literature review

Evaluate and select sources

You may be unable to read everything written about the topic in the sources during your research, so evaluating and selecting the most relevant sources is crucial. To keep a critical approach, the following questions may be helpful:

  • What problem does the author address?
  • What are the key themes?
  • What fundamental theories, models, and methods does the author use?
  • What is the conclusion of the research?
  • Does it confirm, contribute to or challenge the existing knowledge of the topic?
  • What insights do I get from the publication?
  • What are the strengths and flaws of this publication?

A good tip is to check how many times high authority sites like Google Scholar have cited the article. A high citation count means that the article is significantly influential on the topic, and you can use it in your review. You must ensure that your sources are credible and note any significant theories or major landmarks in your study.

Keep track of your sources

You must keep track of your sources for the sake of avoiding plagiarism. You can make an annotated bibliography by gathering complete reference information and writing an analysis of each source to remember everything and save more time. You should also take notes that you can incorporate later into your review as you read.

Step 3 to writing a literature review

Identify debates, themes, and gaps

First, understanding the links between your sources, allows you to organize the structure of your review. As you read and take notes, you may look for:

Trends and patterns: Do some approaches get less popular over time?
Themes: What key concepts recur throughout the study?
Debates, conflicts, and contradictions: Do some sources disagree and where?
Pivotal publications: Which influential studies changed the direction of the topic?
Gaps: Are there missing gaps in the literature that needs acknowledgment?

This step is vital for working out the structure of your literature.

Example of trends and gaps in our earlier stated research question:

In evaluating the review on the impact of technology on business, we note that:

  • Social media is significantly transforming the way of doing business.
  • Most of the research focuses on the e-commerce sector.
  • There are gaps in research on artificial intelligence and how it could change the business realm.

Step 4 to writing a literature review

Outline your structure

There are different approaches for structuring your literature, including chronological, thematic, methodological, and theoretical. You can combine several techniques depending on your review.

Chronological

This is tracing the development of the topic over time chronologically, but you should avoid summarizing or listing sources in order. You should assess trends, critical debates, and turning points that have shaped the topic and give your view of why some developments happened.

Thematic

You can structure your review into different recurring themes addressing the topic. For instance, some of the recurring themes when viewing the impact of technology on business include digital marketing, artificial intelligence, social media, the internet of things, increased employee productivity, etc.

Methodological

It is best to compare conclusions if you draw your arguments from sources that use different research methods.

Example:

  • You can compare findings from qualitative and quantitative research.
  • Categorize the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources.
  • Explain the impact of empirical vs. theoretical scholarship on the topic.

Theoretical

You may use a theoretical approach to discuss theories, definitions of key ideas, and models. Specific theoretical approaches may be used alone or in combinations in order to structure your research.

Step 5 to writing a literature review

Writing it!

Like any other academic work, your literature review should include an introduction, body, and conclusion.

Introduction

The introduction explains the purpose and focus of your literature review. For instance, if it is a part of your dissertation, state your primary research question and briefly explain the scholarly context. A good tip is to emphasize the timelessness of the topic or pinpoint a gap in the literature. For example, many researchers have not taken ‘this’ into account.

Body

Divide the body into subheadings for each methodological approach, theme, or period. Here are some recommended writing hacks:

  • Summarize and synthesize: summarize the main points in every source and synthesize them into cohesive information.
  • Analyze and interpret: besides paraphrasing what other researchers are saying, add your contributions and interpretations. Also, discuss the relevance of the findings concerning the topic.
  • Critically evaluate: what are the strengths and weaknesses of your sources?
  • Write well-structured paragraphs: Using transition words and topic sentences are effective in making your work cohesive and drawing comparisons.

Conclusion

In the last part, you should summarize the key findings of your literature review and their impact. If the review is part of your dissertation or thesis, highlight how:

  • You have drawn existing theories to develop a framework for your research.
  • How your research acknowledges gaps and adds new knowledge.

A good tip is to enlist professional proofreading to ensure your work is grammatically correct and cohesive.2

FAQs

It is a general review of a published work on a specific topic.

Before starting research for your thesis or dissertation, you need to write a review to form the context of your research within the existing knowledge. That way, you can develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your investigation.

To demonstrate your research capabilities and show that you can critically analyze information to judge its trustworthiness and value.

A literature review is one of those papers that use research in different ways, and it essentially means finding something to say based on gaps you have identified in your study.3

Sources

1 Dundalk.”Write a literature review: What is a literature review?.” December 10, 2021. https://dkit.ie.libguides.com/literaturereview.

2 Emerald publishing,”How to… write a literature review.” Accessed September 01, 2022. https://www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/how-to/authoring-editing-reviewing/write-a-literature-review.

3 Coates Library. “Organizing Your Research.”  July 28, 2020. https://libguides.trinity.edu/organizingresearch/litreview-faqs.