The stand-alone literature review

Introduction

Literature reviews can be stand-alone documents, or they can form part of a research proposal or project. A stand-alone literature review aims to summarise and evaluate the current knowledge of a specific topic, whereas a literature review that forms part of a research proposal or project also describes the gaps in the current knowledge that the project aims to address.

This module is intended as an introductory guide to writing stand-alone literature reviews. A graduate literature review module is also available in the graduate research and writing section of the Research and Learning Online site. The graduate literature review module is particularly useful if you are writing a literature review that forms part of a research project, including an Honours, Master by Research or PhD project.

This tutorial will cover:

The purpose of a literature review

The purpose of a stand-alone literature review is to provide a summary, synthesis and critical evaluation of the literature relevant to your specific research question or aim. Within the review, you need to identify patterns, consensus, inconsistencies, discrepancies, problems or gaps based on the body of literature. Ultimately, the literature review will contribute something new to the topic, so it will not be a discussion that has been repeated or previously established in the past.

Choosing your topic

Depending on the unit, there are a number of ways that you might be asked to choose a topic for your literature review. For example:

  • You may be asked to choose from a list of specific research questions.
  • You may be asked to create a research question from a list of broad topics, or from any topic that interests you.
  • You might be asked to include only a research question, or to include a research question and an aim.

What is the difference between a research question and an aim?

The research question

A research question is an answerable, focused question that helps to limit the scope of your research and writing within a broader topic. Your research question needs to be answerable within your word limit. The video below contains tips for writing a good research question.

In some assignments, you may be asked to create both a research question and an aim from a broad topic. For example, your topic may be the effects of climate change on crop production. There are multiple components of climate change (e.g. rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and rising CO2 levels) and multiple crop types (wheat, corn, rice, etc.). You could refine this topic by focusing on specific aspects of climate change and specific crop types. An answerable research question based on this topic might be:

Research question: How will rising levels of atmospheric CO2 impact the global agriculture of wheat growth and quality?

The aim

The aim is a detailed statement of what your review is intending to achieve. For example, an aim based on our example research question is:

Aim: This review aims to directly assess how global wheat crops will react to a rise in environmental CO2 and guide research of mitigation of any challenges wheat may face.

The aim of your literature review is often stated at the end of the introduction section.

Once you have selected your research question or aim, you can identify keywords to assist you in finding the relevant literature. The Researching for your literature review library guide is a comprehensive guide to finding relevant information sources for your topic.

Structure of a literature review

In general, literature reviews are structured in a similar way to a standard essay, with an introduction, a body and a conclusion. Within the body, sub-headings are often used.

The structure of the different sections of a literature review is discussed below. Excerpts from a number of Monash student assignments are used to demonstrate the structure of each section.

Activity

Drag the words

Tips for writing the literature review

Click the icons on the graphic below for tips on the different stages of the writing process.

Citing and referencing in a literature review

Paraphrasing and summarising are key skills required in a literature review. For more information on how to paraphrase and summarise effectively, please see the citing and referencing tutorial on the Research and Learning Online website.

In literature reviews, you may want to summarise similar findings by including several sources within a single citation. Citing several published works at once can demonstrate your understanding of the patterns and consensus in the literature. You can find instructions for how to do this for each of the different referencing styles in the Library citing and referencing guide, but as a general rule, this can be done as follows:

If you want to refer to a small number of literature sources at once, you can list each of them within the citation at the end of the relevant information, separated by semicolons. For example:

Only a few epidemiologic investigations have assessed the intake of chocolate products as part of a food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) (Arts et al., 2002; di Giuseppe et al., 2008), whereas other studies have simply asked about chocolate intake as part of a lifestyle questionnaire (Lee & Paffenbarger, 1998; Paganini-Hill, Kawas, & Corrada, 2007).

If there are many studies that have reported a similar finding and you only want to include some of them, you can use the letters e.g. (from the Latin exempli gratia, meaning 'for example') at the beginning of your citation. This tells the reader that these are a selection of sources of this information, rather than the full list. For example:

Many epidemiologic studies have explored the beneficial effects of green tea, soy beans, and other foods containing polyphenols (e.g. Dreosti, 2000; Adlercreutz & Mazur, 1997; Arts & Hollman, 2005).

For more help on writing literature reviews

Monash students can access Research and Learning drop-in sessions at the Library.  

You may also find helpful the literature review resources in the Graduate Research and Writing section of Research and Learning Online.