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Writing a Literature Review: How-To

Instructions on how to write a literature review

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What is a Literature Review?

What is a literature review?

  • It reviews the published resources related to a specific issue, area of research, or specific theory.
  • It provides a summary, description, and critical evaluation of each resource 
  • Its purpose is to offer an overview of the significant works published on a topic

Generally, there are five parts to a literature review:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography


Similar to primary research, developing a literature review requires four stages: 

  1. Problem Formulation: which topic is being examined and what are the components of the issue? 
  2. Literature Search: finding the materials relevant to the subject being explored
  3. Data Evaluation: determining which literature made a significant contribution to the topic
  4. Analysis and Interpretation: Discussing the findings and conclusions of the pertinent literature 

Literature reviews should comprise the following elements: 

  • An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review
  • Division of resources under review - usually into categories. For example, the resources that support a particular position, those against it, and those offering alterative ideas entirely.
  • Explanation of how each work is similar and how it varies from the others
  • Conclusions as to which resources are considered best in their argument, which are the most convincing and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of the topic

In assessing each resource, consider the following: 

  • Provenance: What are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by credible evidence? 
  • Objectivity: Is the author's perspective seem even-handed or prejudiced? Is contrary data considered or is pertinent information ignored in service of the author's point? 
  • Persuasiveness: Which of the author's ideas are the most or least convincing? 
  • Value: Are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the resource contribute in any significant way to the topic or subject at hand? 

Definition and Purpose

A literature review may be a chapter of a thesis or dissertation or it may be a self-contained article on a specific topic. In either case, its purpose is to: 

  • Place each resource in the context of its contributions to the field of study under review 
  • Describe the relationship of each resource to each other. For example, which was first, which author's gained knowledge from other resources, etc
  • Identify new ways to interpret the resources or shed light on any gaps in the previous research
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory resources 
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication
  • Point out what research still needs to be completed 
  • In the case of a dissertation or empirical article, the literature review gives a history of the existing literature before describing the research the author completed 

The literature review itself does not present any new primary research 

An example of a literature review is: 

Allen, R.C. (1996). Socioeconomic Conditions and Property Crime: A Comprehensive Review and Test of the Professional Literature. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 55 (3), 293

Tips for finding literature reviews in your field: 

  • Ask your professor or advisor for recommendations of good examples of literature reviews in your field
  • Search ProQuest Dissertations and Theses for dissertations and these and look at the literature reviews and connected bibliographies within them 
  • Search discipline-specific databases like PsycINFO and limit your search to "review" or "literature review"