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Literature Reviews

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Use databases:.

Use OneSearch and WorldCat to find books and databases to find dissertations and articles for the review.  Ask a librarian for help!

What is a literature review?

The purpose of a literature review is to help ground yourself in the discipline and help you (and your readers) understand your topic in the context of the field or discipline. Note: The expectations for a literature or 'lit' review can vary by discipline and within a discipline, and by the type of literature review you choose to complete; IF in doubt, consult your advisor/professor.

There are some general rules:

In addition:

A literature review is also a way to inform your own writing. What is the scope of most articles in your discipline? Is the literature oriented toward empirical or qualitiative studies? What are the most common methods? what are the most interesting ones? (Rampel, 2010, among others).


Literature reviews can be a class assignment, an introduction to a paper or research project, a stand-alone article, or an introduction to a larger work, such as a thesis or dissertation. If in doubt, ask your professor or advisor.

Read the assignment or review your notes to see what is required. Sometimes a specific number of sources is requested.

When you are finished, you should be able to discuss the work of the most prominent authors in some detail, and give a cogent overview, and preferably, a synthesis of the literature that you have studied.

A literature review is about ideas, concepts, theories and hypotheses, results and projections. It is usually both a summary of what's known and an introduction to the research that you plan to do. It is not an explication of your own research, but you need to know what the evidence is, for and against your hypothesis or argument.

A lit review is not... but it should--

A literature review is not a bibliography, per se. It is not a research paper, although they often contain literature reviews. It does not usually discuss every possible work in the field-- but it should cover the relevant ones.

You are close to the end when you start running into the same authors, the names that your professors mention don't make you say "Who?" and you start to feel a sense of command or fluency in the topic. This takes time and effort.

Funny, but not so funny

Finding books on "how to"

If you do a subject search in the catalog with research methodology as a phrase you find a lot of titles that talk about this process.

A call number with a book means that it is on the shelves, unless it has "library annex" as a location. If you click on the title, you'll see the record and be able to tell if the book is available, or whether to request that it be pulled for you from the Annex. Some books have both print and online copies. Some are only online.

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Journal of Business Research

Literature review as a research methodology: an overview and guidelines.

Knowledge production within the field of business research is accelerating at a tremendous speed while at the same time remaining fragmented and interdisciplinary. This makes it hard to keep up with state-of-the-art and to be at the forefront of research, as well as to assess the collective evidence in a particular area of business research. This is why the literature review as a research method is more relevant than ever. Traditional literature reviews often lack thoroughness and rigor and are conducted ad hoc, rather than following a specific methodology. Therefore, questions can be raised about the quality and trustworthiness of these types of reviews. This paper discusses literature review as a methodology for conducting research and offers an overview of different types of reviews, as well as some guidelines to how to both conduct and evaluate a literature review paper. It also discusses common pitfalls and how to get literature reviews published.

Cited by (0)

Hannah Snyder is an assistant professor at the department of marketing, BI - Norwegian School of Business, Oslo, Norway. Her research interest relates to service innovation, customer creativity, deviant customer behavior, and value co-creation as well as a special interest in literature review methodology. She has published in the Journal of Business Research , European Journal of Marketing , Journal of Service Management and International Journal of Nursing Studies .

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Qualitative systematic reviews: their importance for our understanding of research relevant to pain

This article outlines what a qualitative systematic review is and explores what it can contribute to our understanding of pain. Many of us use evidence of effectiveness for various interventions when working with people in pain. A good systematic review can be invaluable in bringing together research evidence to help inform our practice and help us understand what works. In addition to evidence of effectiveness, understanding how people with pain experience both their pain and their care can help us when we are working with them to provide care that meets their needs. A rigorous qualitative systematic review can also uncover new understandings, often helping illuminate ‘why’ and can help build theory. Such a review can answer the question ‘What is it like to have chronic pain?’ This article presents the different stages of meta-ethnography, which is the most common methodology used for qualitative systematic reviews. It presents evidence from four meta-ethnographies relevant to pain to illustrate the types of findings that can emerge from this approach. It shows how new understandings may emerge and gives an example of chronic musculoskeletal pain being experienced as ‘an adversarial struggle’ across many aspects of the person’s life. This article concludes that evidence from qualitative systematic reviews has its place alongside or integrated with evidence from more quantitative approaches.

Many of us use evidence of effectiveness for various interventions when working with people in pain. A good systematic review can be invaluable in bringing together research evidence to help inform our practice and help us understand what works. In addition to evidence of effectiveness, understanding how people with pain experience both their pain and their care can help us when we are working with them to provide care that meets their needs. A high-quality qualitative systematic review can also uncover new understandings, often helping illuminate ‘why’ and can help build theory. A qualitative systematic review could answer the question ‘What is it like to have chronic non-malignant pain?’

The purpose of this article is to outline what a qualitative systematic review is and explore what it can contribute to our understanding of pain. A qualitative systematic review brings together research on a topic, systematically searching for research evidence from primary qualitative studies and drawing the findings together. There is a debate over whether the search needs to be exhaustive. 1 , 2 Methods for systematic reviews of quantitative research are well established and explicit and have been pioneered through the Cochrane Collaboration. Methods for qualitative systematic reviews have been developed more recently and are still evolving. The Cochrane Collaboration now has a Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group, including a register of protocols, illustrating the recognition of the importance of qualitative research within the Cochrane Collaboration. In November 2013, an editorial described the Cochrane Collaboration’s first publication of a qualitative systematic review as ‘a new milestone’ for Cochrane. 3 Other editorials have raised awareness of qualitative systematic reviews in health. 4

Noblit and Hare 5 were pioneers in the area of synthesising qualitative data. They describe such reviews as aggregated or as interpretative. The aggregated review summarises the data, and Hannes and Pearson 6 provide a worked example of an aggregation approach. Interpretative approaches, as the name suggests, interpret the data, and from that interpretation, new understandings can develop that may lead to development of a theory that helps us to understand or predict behaviour. Types of interpretative qualitative systematic reviews include meta-ethnography, critical interpretative synthesis, realist synthesis and narrative synthesis. More details about these and other approaches can be found in other papers and books. 1 , 5 , 7 – 11 This article will describe one approach, meta-ethnography, as it was identified as the most frequently used approach, 1 and there are some examples using meta-ethnography that focus on pain. A meta-ethnographic approach can be used with a variety of qualitative methodologies, not only ethnography. The data for a meta-ethnography are the concepts or themes described by the authors of the primary studies.

Noblit and Hare 5 outlined the seven steps of a meta-ethnography: (1) getting started, (2) deciding what is relevant, (3) reading the studies, (4) determining how studies are related to each other, (5) translating studies into each other, (6) synthesising translations and (7) expressing the synthesis.

The first three might seem relatively straightforward, although Lee et al. 12 emphasised both the importance and nuances of the reading stage, and Toye et al. 13 discuss the complexities of making quality assessments of qualitative papers and searching for this type of study. You need to understand what data to extract from the papers and how you are going to do this.

You have to first identify what is a concept and what is purely descriptive. Toye et al. 2 describe a process for collaboratively identifying concepts. In determining how studies are related to each other and translating them into each other, the meta-ethnographer compares the concepts found in each study with each other and then groups similar concepts into conceptual themes. Translating studies into each other involves looking at where concepts between studies agree (reciprocal synthesis) and where they do not agree (refutational synthesis). Developing conceptual categories can be challenging as you need to judge the extent to which a concept from one study adequately reflects concepts from other studies and choose one that seems to fit best. This is discussed in more detail in Toye et al. 2 , 13

To synthesise the translation, a line of argument is then developed from the conceptual categories. How the concepts group and relate to each other are developed. This provides an overall interpretation of the findings, ensuring this is grounded in the data from the primary studies. You are aiming to explain, and new concepts and understandings may emerge, which can then go on to underpin development of theory. For example, a qualitative systematic review that explored medicine taking found that ‘resistance’ was a new concept, revealed through meta-ethnography, and this helped understanding of lay responses to medicine taking. 1 Hannes and Macaitis, 14 in a review of published papers, reported that over time, authors have become more transparent about searching and critical appraisal, but that the synthesis element of reviews is often not well described. Being transparent about decisions that are interpretative has its own challenges. Working collaboratively to challenge interpretations and assumptions can be helpful. 2 , 12 The next section will use examples of qualitative systematic reviews from the pain field to illuminate what this type of review can contribute to our understanding of pain.

What can a qualitative systematic review contribute to the field of pain – some examples

Toye et al. 2 , 15 undertook a meta-ethnography to look at patients’ experiences of chronic non-malignant musculoskeletal pain. At the time of this research, no other qualitative systematic reviews had been published in this area. Their review included 77 papers reporting 60 individual studies, resulting from searches of six electronic bibliographic databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, AMED and HMIC) from inception until February 2012 and hand-searching key journals from 2001 to 2012.

They developed a new concept which they identified as an ‘adversarial struggle’. This struggle took place across five main dimensions: (1) there was a struggle to affirm themselves, where there was a tension between the ‘real me’ (without pain) and ‘not real me’ (me with pain). (2) The present and future were often unpredictable, and construction of time was altered and they struggled to reconstruct themselves in time. (3) People struggled to find an acceptable explanation for their pain and suffering. (4) There was a struggle to negotiate the healthcare system and (5) a struggle for pain to be seen as legitimate, including the need to be believed, and a struggle to know whether to show or hide their pain. Some people were able to move forward with pain. They saw their body as more integrated, they re-defined what was normal, they told people about their pain, they were part of a community of people with pain and they felt more expert on how their pain affected them and what they could do about it.

So, this meta-ethnography highlighted the adversarial nature of having chronic musculoskeletal pain and how this struggle pervaded many different areas of their life. It also illustrated how by showing patients their pain is understood and being alongside the person in pain, they can start to move forward. A short film based on the 77 papers in this meta-ethnography has been made and is available on YouTube. 16 This film was made as an attempt to disseminate the findings of a meta-ethnography in a way that is accessible to a range of people.

Snelgrove and Liossi 17 undertook a meta-ethnography of qualitative research in chronic low back pain (CLBP) using meta-ethnography. They included 33 papers of 28 studies published between 2000 and 2012. They identified three overarching themes of (1) the impact of CLBP on self, (2) relationships with others (health professionals and family and friends) and (3) coping with CLBP. They found that very few successful coping strategies were reported. Like Toye et al., 2 , 15 they also reported disruption to self, distancing their valued self from their painful self, legitimising pain, the struggle to manage daily living and the importance of social relationships alongside negotiation of their care in the health system.

MacNeela et al. 18 also undertook a meta-ethnography of experiences of CLBP. They included 38 articles published between 1994 and 2012 representing 28 studies. They identified four themes: (1) the undermining influence of pain, (2) the disempowering impact on all levels, (3) unsatisfying relationships with healthcare professionals and (4) learning to live with the pain. They reported the findings being dominated by ‘wide-ranging distress and loss’. They discussed the disempowering consequences of pain and a search for help. However, they also highlighted self-determination and resilience and suggested these could offer ‘pathways to endurance’. They emphasised self-management and adaptation, which resonates with the moving forward category reported by Toye et al. 2 , 15

Froud et al. 19 looked at the impact of low back pain on people’s lives. They describe their approach as meta-ethnographic and meta-narrative. They included 49 papers of about 42 studies from inception of databases searched until July 2011. They described five themes: activities, relationships, work, stigma and changing outlook, which they derived from ‘participant-level data’. They described their findings as showing patients wanted to be believed. They highlighted the importance of social factors when developing relevant outcome measures. There are other examples of qualitative systematic reviews relevant to pain. 20 – 23

Different qualitative systematic reviews on a similar subject may come up with overlapping but also some different findings. This could be, for example, because different search periods or different inclusion criteria are used, so different primary studies may be included in different reviews. In addition, undertaking a qualitative systematic review requires researchers to interpret concepts. This interpretation does not need to be a limitation. For example, to ensure rigour and transparency, Toye et al. 24 report a process of collaborative interpretation of concepts among a team of experienced qualitative researchers to ensure individual interpretations were challenged and remained grounded in the original studies. They also published a detailed audit trail of the processes and decisions made. 2 Campbell et al. 1 argue ‘Meta-ethnography is a highly interpretative method requiring considerable immersion in the individual studies to achieve a synthesis. It places substantial demands upon the synthesiser and requires a high degree of qualitative research skill’. It is important to be able to think conceptually when undertaking a meta-ethnography, and it can be a time-consuming process. However, the ability of a meta-ethnography to synthesise a large number of primary research studies, generate new conceptual understandings and thus increase our understanding of patients’ experiences of pain makes it a very useful resource for our evidence-based practice.

The way forward

A register of qualitative systematic reviews would be useful for researchers and clinicians, so there was a clear way of identifying existing qualitative reviews or reviews that are planned or underway. The Cochrane Collaboration does now have a register for protocols of qualitative systematic reviews being undertaken under the aegis of the Cochrane Qualitative and Implementation Methods Group. It would help those wanting to undertake qualitative systematic reviews if reviews that were underway were registered and described more clearly to prevent duplication of effort, for example, using ‘qualitative systematic review’ and the methodological approach used (such as meta-ethnography) in the title and/or abstract. The Toye et al. 2 protocol 25 was accessible on the National Institutes for Health website from 2010. The Snelgrove and Liossi 17 study was done without external funding, so it would be difficult to pick up that it was underway. The MacNeela et al. 18 study was listed on the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences under their Research Development Initiative 2008–2009, but was described as ‘Motivation and Beliefs among People Experiencing Chronic Low Back Pain’, so it was not clearly identified at that stage as a qualitative systematic review. Finally, the Froud et al. 19 award details 26 do not mention qualitative systematic reviews or meta-ethnography. This highlights the difficulty of finding some of these reviews and the importance of a register of both completed and ongoing reviews.

This article has argued that qualitative systematic reviews have their place alongside or integrated with more quantitative approaches. There is an increasing body of evidence from qualitative systematic reviews. They can synthesise primary research, and this can be helpful for the busy practitioner. The methods for these approaches are still developing, and attention to rigour at each stage is crucial. It is important that each stage of the synthesis is reported transparently and that the researchers’ stance is clearly reported. 27 Meta-ethnographies published over the last year 2 , 15 , 17 – 19 have drawn together a wide range of primary studies and shown that people’s lives can be markedly changed by their pain across multiple dimensions of their life.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests: The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding: The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

A literature review surveys books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within a larger field of study.

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . Fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

Importance of a Good Literature Review

A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories . A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might:

Given this, the purpose of a literature review is to:

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2011; Knopf, Jeffrey W. "Doing a Literature Review." PS: Political Science and Politics 39 (January 2006): 127-132; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012.

Types of Literature Reviews

It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally among scholars that become part of the body of epistemological traditions within the field.

In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews. Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.

Argumentative Review This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply embedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].

Integrative Review Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication. This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.

Historical Review Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

Methodological Review A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels [i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques], how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

Systematic Review This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. The goal is to deliberately document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem . Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?" This type of literature review is primarily applied to examining prior research studies in clinical medicine and allied health fields, but it is increasingly being used in the social sciences.

Theoretical Review The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

NOTE : Most often the literature review will incorporate some combination of types. For example, a review that examines literature supporting or refuting an argument, assumption, or philosophical problem related to the research problem will also need to include writing supported by sources that establish the history of these arguments in the literature.

Baumeister, Roy F. and Mark R. Leary. "Writing Narrative Literature Reviews."  Review of General Psychology 1 (September 1997): 311-320; Mark R. Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature." Educational Researcher 36 (April 2007): 139-147; Petticrew, Mark and Helen Roberts. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006; Torracro, Richard. "Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples." Human Resource Development Review 4 (September 2005): 356-367; Rocco, Tonette S. and Maria S. Plakhotnik. "Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions." Human Ressource Development Review 8 (March 2008): 120-130; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  Thinking About Your Literature Review

The structure of a literature review should include the following in support of understanding the research problem :

The critical evaluation of each work should consider :

II.  Development of the Literature Review

Four Basic Stages of Writing 1.  Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues? 2.  Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored. 3.  Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic. 4.  Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.

Consider the following issues before writing the literature review: Clarify If your assignment is not specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions: 1.  Roughly how many sources would be appropriate to include? 2.  What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)? 3.  Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue? 4.  Should I evaluate the sources in any way beyond evaluating how they relate to understanding the research problem? 5.  Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history? Find Models Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The bibliography or reference section of sources you've already read, such as required readings in the course syllabus, are also excellent entry points into your own research. Narrow the Topic The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, but you'll make the act of reviewing easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the USC Libraries Catalog for recent books about the topic and review the table of contents for chapters that focuses on specific issues. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text. Consider Whether Your Sources are Current Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.

III.  Ways to Organize Your Literature Review

Chronology of Events If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union. By Publication Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies. Thematic [“conceptual categories”] Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it will still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The only difference here between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note however that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made. Note that this is the most common approach in the social and behavioral sciences. Methodological A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

Other Sections of Your Literature Review Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. However, only include what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship about the research problem.

Here are examples of other sections, usually in the form of a single paragraph, you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:

IV.  Writing Your Literature Review

Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.

Use Evidence A literature review section is, in this sense, just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid. Be Selective Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information but that are not key to understanding the research problem can be included in a list of further readings . Use Quotes Sparingly Some short quotes are appropriate if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, is not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for using your own words in reviewing the literature. Summarize and Synthesize Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work and the work of others. Keep Your Own Voice While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording. Use Caution When Paraphrasing When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.

V.  Common Mistakes to Avoid

These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.

Cook, Kathleen E. and Elise Murowchick. “Do Literature Review Skills Transfer from One Course to Another?” Psychology Learning and Teaching 13 (March 2014): 3-11; Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . London: SAGE, 2011; Literature Review Handout. Online Writing Center. Liberty University; Literature Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012; Randolph, Justus J. “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review." Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation. vol. 14, June 2009; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016; Taylor, Dena. The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Literature Review. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra.

Writing Tip

Break Out of Your Disciplinary Box!

Thinking interdisciplinarily about a research problem can be a rewarding exercise in applying new ideas, theories, or concepts to an old problem. For example, what might cultural anthropologists say about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? In what ways might geographers view the need for better distribution of social service agencies in large cities than how social workers might study the issue? You don’t want to substitute a thorough review of core research literature in your discipline for studies conducted in other fields of study. However, particularly in the social sciences, thinking about research problems from multiple vectors is a key strategy for finding new solutions to a problem or gaining a new perspective. Consult with a librarian about identifying research databases in other disciplines; almost every field of study has at least one comprehensive database devoted to indexing its research literature.

Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Just Review for Content!

While conducting a review of the literature, maximize the time you devote to writing this part of your paper by thinking broadly about what you should be looking for and evaluating. Review not just what scholars are saying, but how are they saying it. Some questions to ask:

When you begin to write your literature review section, you'll be glad you dug deeper into how the research was designed and constructed because it establishes a means for developing more substantial analysis and interpretation of the research problem.

Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1 998.

Yet Another Writing Tip

When Do I Know I Can Stop Looking and Move On?

Here are several strategies you can utilize to assess whether you've thoroughly reviewed the literature:

Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2016; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.


Research Process :: Step by Step

literature review of qualitative

Organize the literature review into sections that present themes or identify trends, including relevant theory. You are not trying to list all the material published, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question.  

What is a literature review?

A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. Occasionally you will be asked to write one as a separate assignment, but more often it is part of the introduction to an essay, research report, or thesis. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries

A literature review must do these things:

Ask yourself questions like these:

Ask yourself questions like these about each book or article you include:

Text written by Dena Taylor, Health Sciences Writing Centre, University of Toronto


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