Writing a literature review

The primary objective of a literature review is to summarise and synthesise the available research on a given topic. It establishes that you are aware of the relevant literature, and have the capacity to understand it and set it in context.

Planning the Literature Review

  • Define the topic
  • Conduct a broad search to assemble a long list of references
  • Evaluate the long list to create several key references
    • Pay particular attention to the academic merits of each publication
      • How prestigious is the journal that it was published in?
      • How much impact has it had on future work?
      • How renowned is the author?
    • But don’t neglect less established work that you feel has significant merit
  • Analyse the findings by identify key themes
    • Group references into similar categories: you should analyse themes (ideas) rather than each individual paper (sources)
    • Each section in the literature review should focus on a separate category
    • These categories can be organised in different ways
      • Methodologically
      • Thematically
      • Empirically
      • Chronologically
      • Geographically

Writing it Up

  1. Set the scene
    • The introduction should define the key topic and outline the basis of your argument
  2. Be wary of chronology
    • For each category introduce papers in a chronological order, especially if using phrases such as “in response”, “then”, “leading to” etc.
  3. Be critical, not merely descriptive
    • A descriptive literature review merely describes the key points of each paper
    • A critical literature review demonstrates your personal judgement
    • What are the limitations of the papers?
    • What are the holes in the literature?
  4. Illuminate the interplay between the literature
    • Which papers are parts of a similar/common trend?
    • Which papers are critical of each other – and what are the strengths/weaknesses of each side?
    • Highlight controversy
  5. Be succinct
    • A good literature review will summarise a complex argument in one sentence. An excellent literature review will arrange those sentences so that the simplification doesn’t lose the context/meaning.
  6. Use references and quotations for supportive evidence
    • When you refer to a concept that is associated with one particular paper, cite the paper
    • Use quotations to support your points
    • Short quotations can be made within a paragraph
    • Longer quotations should be a separate paragraph
    • You must document all sources. If in doubt always provide more information than you think is necessary
    • Be wary of Ariel Rubinstein’s warning, relating to interdisciplinary research, that “often the citation is just intended to demonstrate the breadth of our horizons” (2012, p.200)
  7. Draw things together
    • The conclusion should summarise the key argument and draw your analysis together
    • Provide a full bibliography
  8. Revise the document, edit, re-read, revise, edit, re-read etc…
    • Remember: “All writing is work, and all work is work-in-progress” James Buchanan