Reviewing the literature

When you are asked to write a literature review, two broad, distinctive tasks are involved. They are first, to review the literature as a process, and second, to produce a piece of writing that communicates the result of your review process. This section discusses the second process, which is how to write the literature review.

In a literature review, you are expected to critically analyse the literature in order to synthesise a broader observation or conclusion to a specific issue. By doing this, you are explaining your own conclusions supported by evidence from the literature.

The form of your literature review will vary. For undergraduate and postgraduate coursework students the literature review may be  a stand-alone assignment or a distinct section in a larger document. As such, there is no standard format, but it is likely to be a report or an essay.

A key feature of a literature review is the use of analytical rather than descriptive writing.

What is the purpose of a literature review assignment?

There are two main purposes for reviewing the literature

  1. To collect and evaluate the information from academic texts for an assignment
  2. To produce a written document that is the end result of reviewing the literature for a particular purpose, for example to justify a topic for an honours thesis.

In most undergraduate assignments, the first purpose will be relevant.

It is also important to understand that literature reviews vary across the disciplines so the style and purpose of IT literature reviews will have distinct features.

Expectations

It is important to be guided by the task requirements for your assignment so if you have any doubts about expectations for the literature review carefully read the requirements or ask your lecturer.

You may be expected to:

  • Present a critical assessment or evaluative report on the existing literature from credible academic sources
  • Detail existing knowledge concepts, guided by a defining topic or issue for your research
  • Introduce, compare and contrast concepts and opinions in the field, noting areas of agreement and disagreement or differences and similarities in the literature
  • Highlight important issues, gaps in the existing literature, trends and changes in the discipline
  • Identify relevant methodology or discuss weaknesses or gaps in the existing studies, as relevant to your topic

How can I demonstrate critical analysis in my writing?

Your skills in critical analysis are demonstrated by your ability to classify or group the literature, to see the relationships between studies, to compare and contrast studies and to identify strengths and weaknesses within them. It is important to indicate in your writing when you are presenting your own analysis of the literature. In the paragraph below, notice how the writer groups the literature and signals the analysis of the findings in the following extract.

Smith (2011), Black (2012) and Grey (2012) studied various aspects of ...... and found that there was a significant improvement in outcomes when the ......... software was installed, however,  ...., Brown (2010) did not find any positive results from this software. The reason for this difference is likely to be due to the time the studies were conducted...

See page 34 of the Monash University Q Manual, for an example paragraph demonstrating how a student indicates critical and analytical thinking in writing.

See more examples of critical analysis in writing.

What does synthesis or integration of source material mean?

A literature review is research about research. One of the key challenges of the review is to be able to synthesise or integrate the literature in the writing. Put simply, synthesis of the sources refers to the way the writer is able to weave information from the literature into the writing without disrupting the flow of ideas.

Here is an example of integrating source material in writing.

Reporting verbs

Reporting verbs can be used to integrate information from the literature. Reporting verbs add clarity because they signal whose work is being discussed. Reporting verbs can demonstrate critical analysis, for example, if we use the verb, 'alleges' for an author it places that author's work in a weaker position than if we used the verb 'asserts'.

Learn more about reporting verbs.

Maintaining your voice in the literature review

It is important to distinguish your voice in academic writing. When writing a literature review it is easy to get lost amongst the views or 'voices' of all the authors. You need to signal to your reader when you are commenting on or analysing the literature. The student commentary in academic writing is known as the student's voice in academic writing.

How should I structure the literature review?

Overall structure of the paper

Once you have extensively reviewed your selected literature you will be ready to write. The form of your literature review assignment will be explained in your task requirements. You may be asked to present your review in the form of a report or an essay. Any format will need an introduction, body and conclusion.

See the following tips for writing the various sections of the literature review.

Finding resources for your literature review

It is important to find, select and evaluate quality sources in your literature review.

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