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Literature Reviews

General information on how to organize and write a literature review.

Literature Review

Purposes of the Literature Review

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Helps focus your own research questions or problems
  • Discovers relationships between previous research studies/ideas.
  • Suggests unexplored ideas or populations
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Identifies critical gaps, points of disagreement, or potentially flawed methodology or theoretical approaches.
  • Indicates potential directions for future research.


A Literature Review is NOT

Keep in mind that a literature review defines and sets the stage for your later research.  While you may take the same steps in researching your literature review, your literature review is not:

  • An annotated bibliography in which you summarize each article that you have reviewed.  A lit review goes beyond basic summarizing to focus on the critical analysis of the reviewed works and their relationship to your research question.
  • A research paper where you select resources to support one side of an issue versus another.  A lit review should explain and consider all sides of an argument in order to avoid bias, and areas of agreement and disagreement should be highlighted.


Developing a Research Question

One of the first things you need to think about before beginning the literature review is the scope of your research. You need to  develop a good research question because you don't want it so broad that it encompasses too many research areas and can't be reasonably answered. 

Steps to developing a research question:

  • Do a brief review of the literature - is there enough out there on your topic or area of interest?
  • Pick a topic that interests you because you will be working with it a lot.
  • Think of limitations for your question (answer who, what, where, and when) to make it more focused.

Questions to Ask Yourself

When conducting your literature review, think about the following questions:

  • What is the scope of your literature review? What does your research question want to answer?
  • How familiar are you with resources in the field?
    • What are the key sources in the field?
    • What are the key theories, concepts, and ideas tied to your topic?
    • What are the major issues and debates about the topic?
    • What are the origins of the topic?
  • What are the main questions and problems that have been covered already?
  • How will you synthesize the information you gather?
  • Why is your topic important in your field?
  • Can you identify gaps where further research is needed?

Doing a Literature Review