What is a literature review?
A literature review is a type of academic writing that provides an overview of existing knowledge in a particular field of research.
A good literature review summarises, analyses, evaluates and synthesises the relevant literature within a particular field of research. It illuminates how knowledge has evolved within the field, highlighting what has already been done, what is generally accepted, what is emerging and what is the current state of thinking on the topic. Additionally, literature reviews identify the gaps in the current knowledge - that is, uninvestigated or under-researched areas.
Whether the literature review is short or extended, similar structural and linguistic features apply.
Literature refers to a collection of published information/materials on a particular area of research or topic, such as books and journal articles of academic value. However, your literature review does not need to be inclusive of every article and book that has been written on your topic because that will be too broad. Rather, it should include the key sources highlighting the main debates, trends and gaps in your specific research area.
To review the literature means to be able to identify:
- what has been established, discredited and accepted in your field of research
- areas of controversy or conflict among different schools of thought
- problems or issues that remain unsolved
- emerging trends and new approaches
- how your research extends, builds upon, and/or departs from previous research.
A review of literature presents much more than a summary of relevant sources. The act of reviewing involves evaluating individual sources as well as synthesising these sources in order to develop your own research project.
A literature review functions as a tool to:
- provide a background to your work by summarising the previously published work on your topic
- classify the research into different categories and demonstrate how the research in a particular area has changed over time by indicating historical background if applicable (early research findings in an area) as well as explaining recent developments in an area
- clarify areas of controversy and agreement between experts in the area as well as identify dominant views
- evaluate the previous research and identify gaps (i.e. unexplored or under-researched areas)
- help justify your research by indicating how it is different from other works in the same area.
Literature reviews can form part of a research project or proposal, or they can be stand-alone extended documents. A literature review that is part of a course assignment might be of 500 to 1000 words, while a literature review that is presented as a journal article might be in excess of 5000 words.
Literature reviews exist within different types of scholarly works. Short literature reviews can be presented in journal articles, book chapters, or coursework assignments to set the background of the research topic.
The focus of a literature review in a graduate research thesis is to identify gaps and argue for the need for further research. Depending on the purpose of the writer and the context in which the literature review will be presented, a selective or comprehensive approach may be taken.
In the selective approach, a single or limited number of sources are reviewed (e.g. the introduction of a journal article). This relates to shorter literature reviews.
A comprehensive approach requires the review of numerous sources (e.g. books and articles), which can be presented as a substantial chapter in a research thesis or published on its own as a scholarly article. This relates to extended literature reviews.
(Adapted from Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.)
Check your understanding View
Activity 1: What is literature?
Activity 2: What is a literature review?
What do you think a literature review is, and what is it not? Drag and drop the following statements under the right heading and click 'check' to check your answers.