Literature Review

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A literature review makes connections across research in an existing area of study. It evaluates multiple sources and draws conclusions about the primary themes. It also suggests opportunities for future research and may be presented either as a standalone document or part of a larger research project.

When you do a literature review, you find, read, analyse, and synthesize existing research. You demonstrate that you understand what has been written on the subject so far, and are now in a position to contribute to further research.

Your steps

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Step 1: Get started Percent time spent on this step: 10%

A. Understand the assignment

Determine exactly what the assignment asks you to do. Read the assignment carefully to determine the topic, purpose, audience, format, and length. For more information, see Understand your assignment.

B. Develop your research question

A research question guides your research. It provides boundaries, so that when you gather resources you focus only on information that helps to answer your question. See Develop a research question

Step 2: Research Percent time spent on this step: 30%

A. Design your research strategy

When conducting research for the literature review, you should put some thought into where and how you will search.

B. Search

For help on how to conduct research, see Conducting research and note taking (PDF).

C. Evaluate sources for alignment with your topic

After collecting resources, evaluate and appraise the content for fit with your topic. The following resources provide guidance on making these choices:

D. Read critically

Read critically and take quality notes to ensure a thorough understanding of the material. The following resources provide guidance on these tasks:

Step3: Organize your literature review Percent time spent on this step: 20%

A. Identify themes  

Analyze your research to find trends and relationships across different sources. Here are some organizational patterns to look for:

  • Similar concepts, theories, themes
  • Organizational patterns
  • Regional focus
  • Data range
  • Historical development
  • Problem-solution

See the resource How to think: moving from research to writing for information on how to use your sources to establish themes and find connections.  

B. Organize 

Using the organizational patterns previously identified, plan your literature review. See Organizing your research: the outline approach (DOC) to get started.

C. Develop a thesis

Using the themes and conclusions you identified in the previous steps, develop a thesis statement that captures the overall state of the current research for your topic. See the resource Thesis statements.

Step 4: Write the first draft Percent time spent on this step: 20%

A. Verify the style guide requirements

Check with your syllabus or course instructor for the style guide you need to use. These are some common citation styles. 

Chicago style guide (PDF)

APA style guide

IEEE style guide (PDF)

MLA style guide

B. Write the introduction  

Give the reader background on your topic and explain why the topic is worth studying. The introduction can also include:

  • Scope
  • A clear articulation of the problem
  • Your thesis
  • An overview of how you’ve organized your literature review

C. Write your body paragraphs

Build each body paragraph on one of the connecting themes you discovered. Consider what several different sources have said about that theme and synthesize the information to show connections across the various sources.

Sometimes the sources will agree, sometimes they will not, and sometimes they may agree partially but with certain limits. It is your job to describe and interpret how the sources interact, then evaluate the current trends in research.

A special note about integrating sources

Integrating sources and citing them takes on significant importance in a literature review. Since you are synthesizing many other sources, be careful about how you reference them. Ensure your sources flow smoothly into the main text of your review. See the following resources for tips on how to do this well.

Making sources talk to each other (PDF)

Author prominent vs information prominent citations (PDF)

D. Write a conclusion 

Write a conclusion that summarizes the themes and key findings of your review. Key findings most often reveal something is missing in the literature, often referred to as the gap. If your literature review is a standalone document, the gap will suggest a possible path for future research. If your literature review is a part of a larger project, the gap provides a justification for the rest of your research.

If you would like to see a sample format for the final literature review, see this link: WriteOnline - Literature Reviews (PDF).

Step 5: Revise and Proofread Percent time spent on this step: 20%

A. Evaluate your first draft and conduct additional research as needed

Determine if there are any gaps in your draft. Do you have enough evidence to support your arguments? If you do not, you should conduct further research.

B. Revise your draft

Print out your paper and work from a hard copy. Read it carefully and look for higher order problems first, such as organization, structure, and evidence and analysis. For more help with these higher order issues, check out Tips for revision.

C. Evaluate your second draft and rewrite as needed

Narrow your focus to paragraph-level issues such as flow and transitions. See Transitions words for help. 

D. Proofread and put your paper into its final format

Last step! Read carefully to catch all those small errors. Here are some Proofreading strategies. Also take time to make sure your paper adheres to the conventions of the style guide you're using. Think about titles, margins, page numbers, reference lists, and citations.

Tips for writing:

Active and passive voice (PDF)

Writing concisely (PDF)

Writing checklist (PDF)