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Literature Reviews: Introduction

This guide will help you with the process of doing a literature review, as well as with producing the product of the literature review.

What is a literature review?

Put simply, a literature review is a piece of writing that analyses (not just summarises) what scholarly material has been published on a topic that you've chosen. The idea is that you search for information and analyse what you've found is and is not being talked about on the topic. You then use this to justify why what you're researching is worthwhile. 

The point of doing this is that you're showing how you got information for your research and your ability to link it and back to your research question. You are showing an in-depth understanding of your topic and how it fits in and fills a gap in an existing body of knowledge.

First steps

Each literature review is different, so ask the following questions of your lecturer to help guide you towards what your literature review should look like:

  • Ask whether the literature review is a stand-alone piece of work or whether it is to be a part of a thesis or research paper. 
  • Ask how many sources you should consult, how many databases in the Library you should search.
  • Ask the types of sources you should use - for example, is grey literature to be included? Do they want you to only rely on certain sources?
  • Ask how in-depth they want you to go when you talk about common themes and how you evaluate the sources. 

Types of literature reviews

The literature review as an end product can vary in what it looks like. Depending on the nature of the assignment, you can find literature reviews in the following types:

  • Undergraduate research paper
  • Research Study
  • Final-year thesis
  • Masters thesis
  • Doctoral dissertation
  • Research article
  • Grant proposal
  • Evidence-based practice

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A literature review is:

  • a critical analysis and evaluation of the research already undertaken on your topic.
  • something which helps build the foundation of your own research.
  • the place in the assignment or thesis where you show your ability to identify relevant information and synthesise knowledge
  • something which illustrates the literature that provides background information on your topic.
  • something which shows how your research is going to fit in with what's already there. 
  • the part of your assignment or thesis where you will defend why you have chosen to research what you are researching. 


A literature review can be a standalone assignment, or a part of a larger work, like a final-year or postgraduate thesis. 

A literature review is not:

  • an annotated bibliography.
  • a summary of sources (without analysis).
  • a grouping of broad, unrelated sources.
  • a compilation of absolutely everything that has been written on a particular topic.
  • a book review or criticism of the literary style. 
  • A traditional research paper, meaning it does not argue a certain viewpoint or side. It is unbiased and shows all sides of an argument, and areas of agreement and disagreement should be highlighted. 


Why is a literature review important?

A literature review is important because it:

  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates the significance of a topic to a subject area.
  • Helps focus your own research questions or problems
  • Identifies critical gaps, points of disagreement, unexplored ideas, or potentially flawed methodology or theoretical approaches.
  • Indicates potential directions for future research.


Can you relate?

Comic - it takes all day to read a research paper

This will probably be you, but don't worry! Keep a document where you write down short summaries of each article as you read it. This will save you time trying to remember what each one was about.


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