How to Create a Literature Review

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a summary of the available research (articles, books, etc.) on a particular topic or question. It should include relevant background information, reference major studies, point out areas that need more research, and discuss significant controversies or debates. A good literature review will help your readers understand why your own research is relevant and important, as well as catch them up on concepts and developments they need to know about to understand your work.

Literature reviews can vary in length depending on the type of project you’re working on. Literature reviews for theses and dissertations can be very long and run to several pages. Literature reviews for research papers or articles are shorter, usually just a few substantial paragraphs.

Examples of literature reviews:

What question are you trying to answer?

Before you dive into the Library’s databases to look for articles for your literature review, make sure that you have a clearly defined question to answer. Keeping your research focused will save hours of time. Some examples of good literature review questions are:

  • What are the most effective current therapies for Achilles’ tendon injuries?
  • What conclusions have psychologists reached about the effects of social media on the formation of friendships?
  • How do wildfires affect badger populations?

Where and how do I find literature?

The Fulton Library has more than 100 databases in all different subject areas, as well as subject librarians who can help you get started. Once you’ve chosen a few databases, simplify your question to just the essential key words and use those to find relevant articles.

Because your literature review needs to explore a question in depth, there are some additional steps to take to ensure that you’ve found all of the relevant research:

  • Search multiple databases to make sure you’re not overlooking anything.
  • Use different combinations of keywords so that you don’t miss anything relevant while you search.
  • Go through the bibliographies of the articles you find in the databases. Frequently cited articles are probably important, foundational studies that you’ll need to discuss in your literature review. Looking at article bibliographies to find other sources can also help ensure that you completely answer your research question.

How much literature do I need to include in my review?

There is no defined number of sources for a literature review. If you reach a point in your search where you’re not finding anything new, you’ve most likely found everything. If you have found dozens of articles and are still finding new information that answers your research question, you may need to refocus that question to be more specific.

How do I keep all these articles organized?

Because literature reviews can require dozens (or more!) sources, you might get overwhelmed by all the research you find. As you research, it’s important to keep track of the citation information (authors, titles, journal titles, etc.) so that you can easily build your bibliography later and to save copies of sources as you go—finding some sources a second time can be tricky.

Here are some ways to keep your sources organized:

  • Use online tools like Zotero to tag and sort sources.
  • Keep good notes with complete information.
  • Use folders to sort sources by sub-topic. 

What do I do with all these articles?

Once you have enough sources to completely answer your research question, it’s time to start the writing process:

  • Read through your articles looking for main ideas and arguments.
  • Create an outline that organises your sources into an order (topical, chronological, etc.) for you to follow in your review.
  • Write a short introduction to your summary that lets your reader know what to expect.
  • Write paragraphs that summarize the findings found in the literature. Each paragraph should address one major idea. Similar sources can be summarised together in statements like, “Most researchers agree that…” or “Current trends in the literature are…”
  • Use transitions to show how different sources interact with each other. For example, you might write, “While earlier researchers thought X, new discoveries have led researchers to think Y” or “Researcher applied W in new circumstances and found Z.”
  • Avoid quoting material in your review. You should be summarizing and paraphrasing as much as possible. (Remember that paraphrased text requires a citation!)
  • Write a short conclusion that sums up the major points from the literature. If you’ve noticed that there are subjects that the literature hasn’t tackled yet, you can point out that further research is needed.
  • Cite all the sources directly mentioned in a bibliography.

More Resources on Creating Literature Reviews

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