As the name suggests, you’re writing a review of the literature you’ve read as part of your research. In this post we’ll look at understanding what a literature review is, some of the factors to consider when looking for the resources for your study and some pointers for taking notes and keeping track of references. We will also look at writing it up.
When you’re working on your research project you are better to think about the individual sections (Chapters) you’re working on – but your Literature Review and your Findings and Analysis are going to be the two largest sections. Normally the Findings and Analysis will be the longer of the two, but not always. Your Literature Review will probably be around 30% of your word count (the findings and analysis should be around 30-35%)
What is the purpose of a literature review?
You are reviewing the current literature to establish what theorists and their critics are thinking on a particular subject. lets say for example, we take the hypothesis that fat in our diet is bad for us, in our literature review we would need to provide the evidence from literature that proves this point. However, with a literature review we are looking for you to present arguments for and against the ideas or concepts we’re exploring so I’d be looking for you to produce arguments that disagree that fats are bad for us. You are reviewing the literature so we would expect you to be reviewing literature from a range of sources, not simply one paper for each argument.
Your literature will review and present arguments for and against the hypothesis that fats are bad for us, but through your critical analysis of the literature you may reach the conclusion that some fats are worse than others, that we need some (healthy) fats in our diet. Your literature review allows you to formulate the questions you are going to test in your own primary research which in this case would be to explore the nature of fats in more depth, to test the ideas/theories that we’ve come up with – are some fats indeed good for us.
Identifying the topics to explore
We need to ensure that we carry out extensive research when completing our literature review, to ensure we have looked at all the key ideas and theories in that field. However this can tend to grow arms and legs as we get distracted by some themes that are really interesting, but not related. In an attempt to avoid that it can be useful to plan ahead a little about related and connected themes. If we imagine we want to do some research into writing the literature then there are some related areas that might also be worth considering, so as well as searching for information on literature reviews you may also want to investigate:
- what are appropriate sources
- evidence based practice
- how to write critically
- using quotes and paraphrasing
- avoiding plagiarism
- how to reference
Identifying these themes will mean more reading but it is more focused, and they will give you much more insight and understanding of your topic, in this case, how to write an effective literature review.
Sometimes students can struggle to get started identifying what to explore. You may find the concept of decision trees useful here. However, if you are struggling either to get started or because you feel overwhelmed with the volume of information you should reach out to your supervisor.
Producing evidence based analysis
To produce a quality literature review its important to use the right resources. You will be using these to defend your work, the arguments you put forward, supporting your conclusions and any recommendations you may be making so you want to ensure you are using the best materials you can.
You want to ensure you are using resources that are reliable and trustworthy, relevant and up-to-date. While you should not focus on any particular organisation in the literature review you should make sure that any case studies you decide to use are appropriate and relevant for your purposes. For example, you would need to decide if looking like a global company like Google would help when applying the learning to a small, local charity.
There are a few posts you might find helpful in this area:
Organising your information
Generally for a piece of work on this scale you will be reviewing a lot of material so you will need to find a way to organise your notes efficiently. Everyone has their own way of working so I believe it would be a bad idea to direct you in a particular direction here; you should have an idea of what works or doesn’t work for you but I believe there are various apps that can be used to help organise electronic notes, and might even aid compiling lists of references.
Hopefully you will already have developed useful reading skills, including skimming and scanning but Improve your reading skills will provide guidance if necessary so you maximise your reading. You will possibly be reviewing hundreds of sources to get a feel for your topic(s), to decide what resources are most relevant and useful for your needs so it will be important for you to find the best way to organise your notes and highlight parts of text you may wish to return to or even to take a quote from. Personally I’d always recommend paraphrasing in place of using quotations. Just remember that even when paraphrasing, you still need to reference the sources.
I would encourage you, even if you’re not writing a draft of your literature review straight away, you should put the ideas you’ve been reading about into your own words so you can develop your thinking and your arguments, and you can pull everything together later.
The one thing I would definitely suggest you do is to keep a list of all the sources you used as you work. There is nothing worse than having a great quote and not being able to remember where it came from and unless you have the time and inclination to reread everything to find the quote, you won’t be able to use it.
Although referencing tools and apps have streamlined the process of referencing, you still need to create your references, and bibliography if you’re providing one. This can be very time consuming, so for that reason, its also better to create your citations for your references as you go.
Writing up your literature review
Students panic with writing the literature review but even though its a bit more focused and you are purely concentrating on the literature rather than any organisational practices, you are really doing the same as you have been (or should have been) doing in all your previous assessments. You read books, articles etc about a subject or theory and present an analysis, your interpretation of your reading. You should have read quite a few pieces of work with differing, sometimes opposing views. In writing the literature review you are critiquing all these different opinions and presenting an interpretation:
A Says X
B says X but has taken it and developed it so its more complex
C disagrees, saying X+ won’t work because of Y and proposes Z instead
You are looking at all of this information and maybe what some others have said. Maybe there are some case studies testing the theories.
You should be reviewing all of the above literature and critically evaluating or analysing, considering:
- What are the strengths of the various arguments?
- What are the weaknesses?
- Are there any flaws in the information or theories?
- Is there anything that stands out?
These are the types of questions you should be thinking about as you critique the literature. It is important that you remain neutral and impartial when reviewing and that your critique provides a balanced review, looking at the arguments for and against; avoid being one-sided.
Once you’ve done that you need to present your interpretation – do you think one argument is more plausible than another? Why? Remember to use evidence to back up your opinions. I try to encourage my students not to sit on the fence but come down on one side or the other, but the key thing is whatever you decide, make sure you can justify yourself with evidence.
Literature review structure
Although your project will have an introduction and contain conclusions, each Chapter should have their own introductions and conclusions too. It helps with your structure and the flow of your work. The individual sections should flow from one to the other. Often, when reading and marking projects the students haven’t connected the sections which can make the work feel abrupt and disjointed.
Additionally, don’t forget to use headings and sub-headings – “Literature Review” as a solitary heading isn’t really sufficient. You should have subject headings for the various themes, and where appropriate, subheadings to help guide your reader through your chapters.
Once you’ve compiled your literature review you are ready to move on to deciding your research questions if you haven’t already done that, and your methodology so with that in mind, we’ll be moving on to that next in the series.
This post, and the others in this series and my other study skills posts are designed to help students, so please message me via the contents with any questions you may have.
Emerald Publishing Limited, 2023, How to … write a literature review,