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Literature Reviews: Overview

What Is a Literature Review?

The purpose of a literature review is to synthesize and critically analyze the state of the research on a topic. 

You may be asked to conduct a literature review for a class simply to understand a topic better. Class assignments are usually smaller in scope and length than reviews for a dissertation or a research article.

Writing a Literature Review

Searching for Sources

  • Start with reference resources to see the big picture and contextualize your topic, introduce you to important authors, and provide vocabulary and ideas you'll need to know. 
  • Enter key concepts in a disciplinary database, and then scan through results, noting additional or alternate keywords, areas of potential interest, and sub-topics. Keep working, adapting your searching as you go.
  • Trace citations, using the citations of a source to find other relevant sources and to understand the relationships between them. The two best tools for tracing citations are Google Scholar and Web of Science. Once you find your source in these databases, look for links to citing articles.

Selecting Sources

There are a few signifiers of quality and importance that you will want to consider in selecting the sources that appear in your literature review. 

  • Author impact: How many times has a study been cited by other researchers?
  • Core publications: What are the most noteworthy journals in your field of study?
  • Currency: How does your discipline view the currency of research?
  • Bias: Be aware of your own possible biases and try to treat research even-handedly.  

Connecting Sources

Make note of the sub-topics that you find and discover the relationships among them. Tools like concept maps or synthesis matrixes may be helpful in identifying and keeping track of these relationships.

Whichever note taking method you choose, be sure to distinguish your ideas and words from the original source material. Keep track of any quoted material, where it was found, and its bibliographic information, by the particular citation style you are using.

Recommended Resources

Discipline-Specific Resources

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