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What is a literature review?
A literature review surveys scholarly articles, books, and other sources in a given field or sub-field, in order to provide an overview of the significant literature on a topic. The literature review might be a standalone paper, or it might be a chapter or section of your thesis or research paper on that topic. Your literature review should do the following:
Summarize the literature in a given field
Evaluate the quality of evidence and strength of existing claims
Show how published works relate to one another
Place your work in the context of other research in a field
Typically, the literature review will combine both the summary and synthesis of the literature covered. It can provide an overview of the sources on your topic, and may also serve to show what, if any, literature is missing on that topic.
Questions to ask
Here are some questions to ask when you are trying to get a sense of the current scope of literature on your topic:
- What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define
- What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research (e.g. on the effectiveness of a new procedure)? qualitative research (e.g., studies of loneliness among migrant workers)?
- What is the scope of my literature review?
- What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, popular media)?
- What discipline am I working in (e.g., nursing psychology, sociology, medicine)?
- How good was my information seeking? Has my search been wide enough to ensure I’ve found all the relevant material? Has it been narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material? Is the number of sources I’ve used appropriate for the length of my paper?
- Have I critically analyzed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them? Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?
- Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?
- Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate, and useful?
Citation: Taylor, D. (n.d.). The literature review: A few tips on conducting it. Writing Advice; University of Toronto. Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/types-of-writing/literature-review/
Select a topic and develop your argument
- Select your topic based on your interest and available scholarly literature
- Consult with your mentor – seminal papers on the topic?
- Define what you WILL include in your research
- Constrain your topic by defining what you WILL NOT include in your research
- Remember Goldilocks – you want your topic scope to be just right, not too big, not too small
- Map out the claims in the literature – there may be multiple
- What is the data and its relevance?
- Is there enough strength for what is being claimed?
- Where are the gaps in the literature?
- Where are the connections?
Developing your search strategy and methodology
Elements of a Literature Review
A literature review, whether stand-alone or part of a larger paper, should have the following elements:
- An overview of the topic or issue that you are discussing (this may be in another section of your paper if you are not writing a standalone literature review.)
- A summary of each work covered
- An explanation of how each work fits into the body of literature on the topic (or doesn't), critical evaluation, and a discussion of how it synthesizes with the other works you are discussing.
- A discussion of what topics or sub-topics are missing from the literature
Searching for sources
Here are some helpful tips for searching for sources for your literature review:
- Start with broad searches and then narrow/zoom in, especially if this is your first time researching this topic
- Identify core concepts and keywords for your topic. This will help you develop your search strings for database searches.
Follow a few basic steps to locate sources:
- Utilize encyclopedias, textbooks, and seminal articles in the field (if you know of any) to get background info.
- Search your library catalog for books and journals on your subject.
- When you have the full citation, you can search for journal articles using the library catalog (to search for the journal title) or your library's articles and full-text search functions. Google Scholar is also helpful for known item searching - make sure that you link Google Scholar to your library resources.
- When you don't have the full citation for a journal article, you can still find them through your library - use databases! You can start with our generalized database search, or go straight to a subject-specific database to do some keyword searching.
You can also utilize existing bibliographies and literature reviews to find sources for your project.
- Read the background information and note any useful sources (books, journals, magazines, etc.) listed in the bibliography at the end of the encyclopedia article, dictionary entry, or journal article you read. The sources cited in the bibliography are good starting points for further research.
- Look up these sources in our catalogs and periodical databases. Check the subject headings listed in the subject field of the online record for these books and articles. Then do subject searches using those subject headings to locate additional titles.
- Remember that many of the books and articles you find will themselves have bibliographies. Check these bibliographies for additional useful resources for your research.
- By using this technique of routinely following up on sources cited in bibliographies, you can generate a surprisingly large number of books and articles on your topic in a relatively short time. If you can find the seminal article or articles in your field, it will make it that much easier to get a sense of the scope and context of the existing literature!