Writing the Literature Review
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Study Notes

9. Writing the Literature Review

By Kim Lie


1. What is a Literature Review?
2. Purposes of a Literature Review
3. How to Review
4. Tips on Organising Material for a Review
5. Tips on Writing
6. Pitfalls
7. References


1.     What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is the effective evaluation of selected documents on a research topic. A review may form an essential part of the research process or may constitute a research project in itself.

In the context of a research paper or thesis the literature review is a critical synthesis of previous research. The evaluation of the literature leads logically to the research question.

A ‘good’ literature review…..

….. is a synthesis of available research
….. is a critical evaluation
….. has appropriate breadth and depth
….. has clarity and conciseness
….. uses rigorous and consistent methods

A ‘poor’ literature review is…..

…..an annotated bibliography
….. confined to description
….. narrow and shallow
….. confusing and longwinded
….. constructed in an arbitrary way


2.      Purposes of a Literature Review

In the context of a research paper on a thesis, the literature review provides a background to the study being proposed. The background may consider one or more of the following aspects depending on the research question being posed:

  • Theoretical background – past, present or future
  • Clinical practice – previous or contemporary
  • Methodology and/or research methods
  • Previous findings
  • Rationale and/or relevance of the current study

In a broader context  Hart (1998) lists the following purposes of a review:

  • Distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done;
  • Discovering important variables relevant to the topic;
  • Synthesising and gaining a new perspective;
  • Identifying relationships between ideas and practice;
  • Establishing the context of the topic or problem;
  • Rationalising the significance of the problem;
  • Enhancing and acquiring the subject vocabulary;
  • Understanding the structure of the subject;
  • Relating ideas and theory to applications;
  • Identifying methodologies and techniques that have been used;
  • Placing the research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments.

The above purposes are not ranked in order of importance. In many cases, there may be merging of purposes or different manifestations.


3.     How to Review

The whole process of reviewing includes:

a. Searching for literature
b. Sorting and prioritising the retrieved literature
c. Analytical reading of papers
d. Evaluative reading of papers
e. Comparison across studies
f. Organising the content
g. Writing the review

Stages (a) to (d) have been covered in previous Study Notes and through previous Workshops. Hence the last 3 stages will be dealt with here.


Comparison across studies

The aim is to extract key points by comparing and contrasting ACROSS studies, instead of reading one paper after another.

Key points for a review may concern areas of similarities and/or differences in:

  • Research aim(s) or hypotheses
  • Research design and sampling
  • Instruments and procedures used
  • How data were analysed
  • Results or findings
  • Interpretations


Organising the content

There are diverse ways of doing this depending on your preferred mode of thinking.
For example, you may use tables, notes on cards, charts, trees, spider maps.
More ideas can be found in Tips on organising material for a review.


Writing the review

As with any essay, the review should have

  • an introduction,
  • a body,
  • a conclusion

The length of each section depends on whether you are writing a brief literature review for a research paper or a whole chapter (or more) as part of a dissertation.

The introduction should provide the reader with the scale and structure of your review. It serves as a kind of map.

The body of the review depends on how you have organised your key points. Literature reviews at postgraduate level should be evaluative and not merely descriptive. For example possible reasons for similarities or differences between studies are considered rather than a mere identification of them.

The conclusion of the review needs to sum up the main findings of your research into the literature. The findings can be related to the aims of the study you are proposing to do. The reader is thus provided with a coherent background to the current study.

Other tips on writing can be found in Section 5 of these Study Notes they will be added to in future depending on the feedback received.


4.      Tips on Organising Material for a Review


1. Find similarities and differences between studies at different levels, e.g.:

- philosophy
- epistemology
- morality
- methodology
- methods
- types of data
- data analysis
- interpretation

2. Set out your thinking on paper through maps and trees.


Feature map Classifies and categorises your thought in tabular form
Concept map

Links between concepts and processes, or shows relationship between ideas and practice

Tree construction Shows how topic branches out into subthemes and related questions or represents stages in the development of a topic.


5.      Tips on Writing (Hart 1998)


Express one idea in a sentence. Ensure that all your sentences have a subject, verb and object.


Group sentences that express and develop one aspect of your topic. Use a new paragraph for another aspect or another topic.

Consistent Grammar

Use sentences and paragraphs with appropriate use of commas, colours and semi-colours. Incorrect use of punctuation can affect the meaning.

Transition Words

Use words that link paragraphs and which show contrast and development to your argument e.g. ‘hence’, ‘therefore’, ‘but’, ‘thus’, ‘as a result’, ‘in contrast’.


6.      Pitfalls

- Vagueness due to too much or inappropriate generalisations
- Limited range
- Insufficient information
- Irrelevant material
- Omission of contrasting view
- Omission of recent work


7.      References

Hart C (1998) Doing a literature review. London:Sage

An annotated bibliography on Writing Skills containing book reviews, articles and other sites can be found at:


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