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Academic Skills Essentials: Literature reviews

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a critical evaluation of the published research on a particular topic. It involves locating and analysing the research of other scholars in relation to your research topic. A literature review may be a stand-alone assignment or it may form part of a research proposal, research report, dissertation or published paper. 


How comprehensive should the literature review be?

A broad range of works should be consulted for a literature review including primary, secondary and tertiary sources of information.

Primary sources, which include original research reported in journal articles and conference papers and some government reports, should comprise the majority of your sources.

How is a literature review organised?

Like an academic essay, a literature review has three main components:

The introduction
  • provides some background to the research topic
  • explain why it is important
  • outlines the scope and structure of the review
The body
  • There are various ways to structure the body of your literature review.
  • This depends on your discipline, topic and the nature of the research you have identified.
  • You could organise your review:
    • chronologically (by date)
    • from broad to narrow (funneling down from the broad areas of your research and progressively narrowing it down to research that approximates your research question)
    • thematically (according to main models or theories)
    • according to prominent authors (in some fields, several famous authors/researchers have contributed significantly to a topic)
    • by comparing and contrasting– useful if your research reveals researchers taking one of two opposing views on the dominant argument
The conclusion
  • draws together the findings from your review of the literature
  • summarises the key points arising from your analysis
  • Identifies and gaps in the literature and indicate areas requiring further research