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Cultural Studies: Literature review

Searching & Reviewing the literature

A literature review is an evaluation of relevant literature on a topic and is usually the starting point for any undergraduate essay or postgraduate thesis. The focus for a literature review is on scholarly published materials such as books, journal articles and reports.

A search and review of relevant sources may be extensive and form part of a thesis or research project. 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, 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Primary source: Original research from journals articles or conference papers, original materials such as historical documents, or creative works.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.

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
    Evaluating information sources including books, journal articles and web publications
  • Synthesize the information
  • Write the review following the structure outlined.
  • Save references used. e.g. from the databases save, email, print or download references to EndNote.
  • Reference sources (APA 7th) (see Referencing Library Guide)

When you are writing for an academic purpose such as an essay for an assignment, you need to find evidence to support your ideas. The library is a good place to begin your search for the evidence, as it acquires books and journals to support the disciplines within the University. The following outlines a list of steps to follow when starting to write an academic assignment:

Define your topic and scope of the search

  • This will provide the search terms when gathering evidence from the literature to support your arguments.
  • Sometimes it is a good idea to concept map key themes.

The scope will advise you:

  • How much information is required, often identified by the number of words ie 500 or 3000 words
  • What sort of writing is required. e.g.  essay, report, annotated bibliography
  • How many marks are assigned. This may indicate the amount of time to allocate to the task.

Gather the information - Before writing about your topic, you will need to find evidence to support your ideas. 

Books provide a useful starting point for an introduction to the subject. Books also provide an in-depth coverage of a topic.

Journal Articles: For current research or information on a very specific topic, journal articles may be the most useful, as they are published on a regular basis. It is normally expected that you will use some journal articles in your assignment. When using journal articles, check whether they are from a magazine or scholalry publication. Scholarly publications are often peer reviewed, which means that the articles are reviewed by expert/s before being accepted for publication.

Reports: useful information can also be found in free web publications from government or research organizations (e.g. reports). Any web publications should be carefully evaluated. You are also required to view the whole publication, not just the abstract, if using the information in your assignment.

Remember to ensure that you note the citation details for references that you collect, at the time of locating the items. It is often time consuming and impossible to track the required data later.

Analyse the information collected

  • Have I collected enough information on the topic?

Synthesize your information

Write the report or essay

  • Check the ECU Academic tip sheet: the Academic Essay for some useful pointers
  • Remember, in most cases you will need an introduction, body and conclusion
  • Record details of references used for referencing. Information on referencing can be located on the ECU Referencing Guide.

Database search tips:

1. Identify main concepts and keywords. Search the main concepts first, then limit further as necessary.

2. Find Synonyms (Boolean OR broadens the search to include alternative keywords or subject thesaurus terms):

  • pediatrics OR children
  • teenagers OR adolescents

3. AND (Boolean AND joins concepts and narrows the 

  • occupational therapy AND children
  • stress AND (occupation OR job)

4. Be aware of differences in American and English spelling and terminology. Most databases use American spelling and terminology as preferred subject terms.

5. Use Truncation (putting * at the end of a word stem will search all forms of the word):

  • disab* (disability, disabilities, disabled)
  • child* (child, children, childhood, children's)

6. "...." (inverted commas) use for a phrase

  • "mental health"
  • "occupational therapy"

7. Wildcard ? will search for any single letter in the space. e.g. wom?n will search women, woman, organi?ation will search organisation, organization.

8. Wildcard * can also be used where alternate spelling may contain an extra character. e.g. p*ediatric, will search paediatric or pediatric, behavio*r, will search behaviour or behavior.

Systematic and other types of reviews

Researchers should refer to the Systematic Reviews guide for information and resources on:

  • Conducting systematic reviews
  • Types of reviews
  • Formulating a question
  • Searching for studies
  • Grey literature
  • Critical appraisal
  • Documenting and reporting
  • Managing search results
  • Librarian consultation


Academic Writing