A Literature Review is a critical summary of other theorists’ contributions to your subject area. It is typically 3.000 to 10.000 words in length and it provides a thorough comparison of the literature that will be relevant to your own research pursuits.
Most commonly, Literature Reviews are written as a chapter to a longer thesis or dissertation. In these cases they achieve two primary aims: 1) they demonstrate a researcher’s extensive knowledge of existing theories and the way that these relate to their current study; and 2) they provide documentation of these theories so that the author can refer back to them in later chapters.
Occasionally Literature Reviews are written as stand-alone assignments and are assessed independently from other work. In these cases examiners are looking for students to demonstrate their advanced research skills, as well as an ability to relate specific theories to recent work in the subject at large. Stand-alone Literature Reviews require students to discuss a large number of theoretical contributions according to specific sub-themes, and to relate these to one another to reveal potential gaps in academic knowledge.
Literature Reviews are somewhat unique among academic assignments because of their requirements for originality. For the most part, the content of a Literature Review will be summaries of other authors’ work. This may seem similar to the typical requirements for undergraduate study, but in reality it is quite different. Postgraduate Literature Reviews discuss other authors’ theories in precise detail, and they synthesise the theories of multiple authors to present an original viewpoint of the subject area. So, while the Literature Review may be comprised mainly of citations to other authors, the overall choices regarding content and analysis impart a higher degree of originality.
Literature Reviews are also unique due to the exhaustive nature of their content. Other types of assignments usually only require students to cite literature that supports their own arguments. However, Literature Reviews require a thorough picture of all relevant recent research. This requires a great deal of reading by students, not only in books but also in a range of academic and professional journals and online conference archives.
A Literature Review must be initiated by identifying the subsets of the subject area that a student’s research touches upon. There will be a number of subset areas that are relevant to each project, so the student should choose which ones are most influential to his or her research choices.
The Review normally contains a critical analysis of literature that falls into these broad categories:
• Literature that addresses the problem area that the research project intends to address
• Literature that utilises the same philosophical approach, especially works that elucidate the application of that philosophy in similar contexts
• Literature that makes use of the same methodological approach, particularly for similar research subjects
Without a well-researched Literature Review the student will be unable to produce original research of their own. In order to create something new and innovative it is absolutely vital to understand the theoretical and practical work that already exists in a particular subject area. Literature Reviews also provide an opportunity to explore key thematic areas related to the student’s area of interest, and this can provide essential clues to the type of research that might be appropriate for their own projects. Furthermore, the Literature Review often provides a ‘softer’ introduction to advanced research, allowing the student to get to grips with extensive reading and writing before embarking on original research of their own.
Start Reading Early. This is perhaps the most important key to a successful Literature Review! When you begin your research you will not yet have a clear idea of how to target your project and create something truly original. For this reason you will end up reading quite a lot of background literature that will not actually be included in the Literature Review itself. This should NOT be seen as irrelevant, because all of this reading provides the essential background for what will become a more focused research project.
Take Notes. Take notes of everything you read, and be sure to write down page numbers and full citations. This will make life much easier when it comes to writing the Literature Review, because you can easily go back and consult your sources again for more precise detail.
Develop a Thematic Outline. As you continue your reading you will naturally begin to discern thematic similarities among a wide variety of theorists. You can use these topics to develop a clear outline, based on which themes are most relevant to your own proposed work.
Write with Relevance. It can be tempting for Literature Review authors to simply summarise a wide range of literature along broad topical themes. However, the best – and most useful – literature reviews will keep those summaries relevant to a particular research plan or small subject area at all times. Even when the Literature Review is conducted as a stand-alone assignment, this criteria should still prevail; otherwise the Literature Review risks reading like an extended book report rather than a critical piece of scholarly writing.
Stay Motivated! Writing a Literature Review can be a long and sometimes tedious process. To avoid losing motivation, try to find opportunities to discuss your readings with colleagues. This might take the form of a seminar or academic conference, or a simple chat over coffee. Sharing your impressions of other theorists can really stimulate you to think about their work in a more exciting way. You might also keep abreast of the practical applications of your field’s research, in order to remember that your work, no matter how dull it may sometimes seem, does have impact on the real world!
Birmingham City University, 2011. How to Write a Literature Review. Available at: http://library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.04.htm. Last Accessed 01 May, 2013
David Brigden and Graham Lamont, 2010. Planning Dissertations. Available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/medev/Planning_dissertations. Last accessed 08 Apr 2013.
Kjell Erik Rudestam, 2007. Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. 3rd Edition. SAGE Publications, Inc.