The primary objective of a literature review is to summarise and synthesise the available research on a given topic. It establishes that you are aware of the relevant literature, and have the capacity to understand it and set it in context. Before writing the lit review, however, you need to know how to read articles efficiently.
Step 1: Reading an Article
@JessicaCalarco has some good advice, including “[Only] read as much of each article/book as it takes to identify the:
- Research question
- Key evidence supporting the argument/answer
- Limitations (i.e., what questions it doesn’t answer; what perspectives or possibilities it doesn’t consider)”
If you aren’t sure how to take notes consider writing a One Pager on each article you read.
Step 2: Planning the Literature Review
- Define the topic
- Conduct a broad search to assemble a long list of references
- Evaluate the long list to create several key references
- Pay particular attention to the academic merits of each publication
- How prestigious is the journal that it was published in?
- How much impact has it had on future work?
- How renowned is the author?
- But don’t neglect less established work that you feel has significant merit
- Analyse the findings by identifying key themes
- Group references into similar categories: you should analyse themes (ideas) rather than each individual paper (sources)
- Each section in the literature review should focus on a separate category
- These categories can be organised in different ways:
Step 3: Writing it Up
- Set the scene
- The introduction should define the key topic and outline the basis of your argument
- Be wary of chronology
- For each category introduce papers in a chronological order, especially if using phrases such as “in response”, “then”, “leading to” etc.
- Be critical, not merely descriptive
- A descriptive literature review merely describes the key points of each paper
- A critical literature review demonstrates your personal judgement
- What are the limitations of the papers?
- What are the holes in the literature?
- Illuminate the interplay between the literature
- Which papers are parts of a similar/common trend?
- Which papers are critical of each other – and what are the strengths/weaknesses of each side?
- Highlight controversy
- Be succinct
- A good literature review will summarise a complex argument in one sentence. An excellent literature review will arrange those sentences so that the simplification doesn’t lose the context/meaning.
- Use references and quotations for supportive evidence
- When you refer to a concept that is associated with one particular paper, cite the paper
- Use quotations to support your points
- Short quotations can be made within a paragraph
- Longer quotations should be a separate paragraph
- You must document all sources. If in doubt always provide more information than you think is necessary
- Be wary of Ariel Rubinstein’s warning, relating to interdisciplinary research, that “often the citation is just intended to demonstrate the breadth of our horizons” (2012, p.200)
- Draw things together
- The conclusion should summarise the key argument and draw your analysis together
- Provide a full bibliography
- Revise the document, edit, re-read, revise, edit, re-read etc…
The biggest mistake I see is students who confuse the literature review with simply an account of interesting articles that they’ve read. The lit review needs to be focused on the research topic. Any introductions to key terms of explanation of the importance of the topic should be in the introduction instead.
Finally, remember that “All writing is work, and all work is work-in-progress” James Buchanan