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Academic Writing

This guide provides information about academic writing resources

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is an evaluation of relevant literature on a topic and is usually the starting point for any undergraduate essay or postgraduate research. A literature review identifies gaps in the current knowledge and provides context to your research and research questions. For Postgraduate researchers the literature review will underpin and help to justify research design and choice of methodology.

A search and review of relevant sources may be extensive. The focus for a literature review is on scholarly published materials such as books, journal articles and reports. Postgraduate researchers will normally focus on primary sources such as research studies in journals.


A literature review also provides evidence for an undergraduate assignment. Students new to a discipline may find that starting with an overview or review of relevant research in books and journals, is the easiest way to begin researching a topic and obtaining the necessary background information.

Source materials can be categorised as:

  • Primary source: Original research from journals articles or conference papers, original materials such as historical documents, or creative works.
  • Secondary source: Evaluations, reviews or syntheses of original work. e.g. review articles in journals.
  • Tertiary source: Broadly scoped material put together usually from secondary sources to provide an overview, e.g. a book.

The Literature Review Structure:
Like a standard academic essay, a literature review is made up of three key components: an introduction, a body and a conclusion. Most literature reviews can follow the following format:

  • Introduction: Introduce the topic/problem and the context within which it is found.
  • Body: Examine past research in the area highlighting methodological and/or theoretical developments, areas of agreement, contentious areas, important studies and so forth. Keep the focus on your area of interest and identify gaps in the research that your research/investigation will attempt to fill. State clearly how your work builds on or responds to earlier work.
  • Conclusion: Summarise what has emerged from the review of literature and reiterate conclusions.
  • References: Ensure that you acknowledge the work of others. Refer to the ECU Referencing Guide

This information has been adapted from the Edith Cowan University Literature review: Academic tip sheet.

Steps in Searching and Reviewing the Literature

Define the topic and scope of the assignment. Ensure you understand the question and expectations of the assignment. It's useful to develop a plan and outline, headings, etc.

  • Check terminology. e.g. dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauruses
  • Identify keywords for searching (include English and American spelling and terminology)
  • Identify types of publications. e.g. books, journal articles, reports.
  • Search relevant databases (refer to the relevant subject guide for key databases and sources)
  • Select and evaluate relevant sources

Synthesise the Information and Write

  • Write the review following the structure outline.
  • Save references used. e.g. from the databases save, email, print or download references to EndNote.
  • Reference sources (APA 6th) (see Referencing Library Guide)
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Edith Cowan University acknowledges and respects the Nyoongar people, who are the traditional custodians of the land upon which its campuses stand and its programs operate.
In particular ECU pays its respects to the Elders, past and present, of the Nyoongar people, and embrace their culture, wisdom and knowledge.