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Literature Reviews


  • A literature review analyzes and discusses published information in a particular subject area
  • Describes the kind of search that was conducted
  • Summarizes, analyzes, and organizes the various responses found in the scholarly conversation regarding the question
  • Explains why different scholars provide different answers for the same or related questions

As a result, the literature review does more than report the conclusions of researchers; it accounts for HOW those conclusions are reached.

Conducting a Literature Review

1. Choose a topic. Define your research questions.

Your literature review should be guided by a central research question.  Remember, it is not a collection of loosely related studies in a field but instead represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, that you interpret and analyze in a synthesized way.


  • Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow.  Is it manageable?

(A topic is too broad to be workable when you find that you have too many different (but oftentimes distantly related) ideas about that topic. A manageable topic generally consists of 2 to 3 concepts.)

  • Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.
2. Decide on the scope of your review.
  • How many studies do you need to look at?
  • How comprehensive should it be?
  • How many years should it cover?
3. Conduct your searches and find the literature.
  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.
  • Write down the searches you conduct in each database so that you may duplicate them if you need to later (or avoid dead-end searches that you’d forgotten you’d already tried).
  • Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate other relevant sources.
  • Ask your professor or a librarian if you are missing any key works in the field.
4. Analyze the Literature

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions. Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited?; if so, how has it been analyzed?

Structure of a Literature Review

  • Introduction: Provides a brief overview of the topic that the literature review discusses, such as the central theme or organizational pattern. A literature review may not have a traditional thesis statement, but you do need to tell readers what to expect. Try writing a simple statement that lets the reader know what is your main organizing principle.
  • Body: Contains your discussion of sources and can be organized in several different ways:
    • Chronological: You could write about the literature you have collected according to when they were published. For example, if i was writing a literature review on evolutionary theories, I would start with biblical accounts, move to Lamarck’s Theory of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, published in 1801, then move to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species from 1859, then discuss Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene written in 1976. But there is relatively no continuity among subjects here.
    • By trend: A better way to organize these sources is to examine the sources under another trend, such as the history of evolutionary thought . Then your review would have subsections according to eras within this period. For instance, the review might examine evolutionary ideas from pre-1600-1699, 1700-1799, and 1800-1899. Under this method, you would combine the recent studies or books about Evolution, even if they were written far apart.  
    • Thematic: You can also organize your literature review around a topic or issue. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For example, a thematic review of evolutionary theories might examine how religious leaders view evolutionary theory as blasphemous.  A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.
    • Methodological: A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” of the researcher or writer. For evolutionary theory reviews, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural and religious differences between the descriptions of evolution and creation. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.
    • Note: Once you’ve decided on the organizational method for the body of the review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out. They should arise out of your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period. A thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue.
  • Conclusions/Recommendations: Discuss what you have drawn from reviewing literature so far. Where might the discussion proceed?



“Writing a Literature Review”, University of Washington, Bothell


Good examples of Literature Reviews: