A literature review is a piece of academic writing demonstrating knowledge and understanding of the academic literature on a specific topic placed in context. A literature review also includes a critical evaluation of the material; this is why it is called a literature review rather than a literature report. To illustrate the difference between reporting and reviewing, think about television or film review articles. These articles include content such as a brief synopsis or the key points of the film or programmed plus the critic’s own evaluation. Similarly, the two main objectives of a literature review are firstly the content covering existing research, theories and evidence, and secondly your own critical evaluation and discussion of this content.
Conducting a literature review involves collecting, evaluating and analyzing publications (such as books and journal articles) that relate to your research question. There are four main steps in the process of writing a literature review:
Search for relevant literature:
Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic. If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research objectives and questions. If you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, you will have to choose a focus and develop a central question to direct your search. Unlike a dissertation research question, this question has to be answerable without collecting original data. You should be able to answer it based only on a review of existing publications.
Evaluate and select sources:
In assessing each source, consideration should be given to:
- What is the author’s expertise in this particular field of study (credentials)?
- Are the author’s arguments supported by empirical evidence (e.g. quantitative/qualitative studies)?
- Is the author’s perspective too biased in one direction or are opposing studies and viewpoints also considered?
- Does the selected source contribute to a more profound understanding of the subject?
Make sure the sources you use are credible, and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research. You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar– a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.
Outline your literature review structure:
There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.
Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).
The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.
If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.
If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods, you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example: Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources
A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.
You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.
Write your literature review:
Like any other academic text, your literature review should have an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.
The introduction should include:
- Define your topic and provide an appropriate context for reviewing the literature;
- Establish your reasons– i.e., point of view– for
- Reviewing the literature;
- explain the organization– i.e., sequence– of the review;
- state the scope of the review– i.e., what is included and what isn’t included. For example, if you were reviewing the literature on obesity in children you might say something like: There are a large number of studies of obesity trends in the general population. However, since the focus of this research is on obesity in children, these will not be reviewed in detail and will only be referred to as appropriate.
The middle or main body should include:
- Organize the literature according to common themes
- Provide insight into the relation between your chosen topic and the wider subject area e.g., between obesity in children and obesity in general;
- Move from a general, wider view of the literature being reviewed to the specific focus of your research.
The conclusion should contain:
- Summarize the important aspects of the existing body of literature;
- Evaluate the current state of the literature reviewed;
- Identify significant flaws or gaps in existing knowledge;
- Outline areas for future study;
- Link your research to existing knowledge.
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