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Literature Review: What is a literature review?

A brief guide on the process of creating a literature review.


What exactly is a literature review?

A literature review is a summary and critical analysis of the literature on your topic. It is an opportunity for you to identify trends and point out gaps in the literature. Preparing a literature review requires in-depth reading, as well as identification of major methods and failings in the field.

When you undertake a literature review, you first need to identify a research question and then seek to answer this question by searching for and analyzing relevant literature using a systematic approach. This review should then lead you to the development of new insights that are only possible when each piece of relevant information is seen in the context of other information (Aveyard 6). 

Why write a literature review?

Literature reviews are important because they summarize the literature that is available on any one topic. They make sense of a body of research and present an analysis of the available literature so that the reader does not have to access each individual document included in the review (Aveyard 6). In an age when the proliferation of information makes it impossible to know all the literature relevant to a topic or problem, reviews of existing literature are becoming increasingly important (Moss 209).

In the beginning of a project, a literature review should be undertaken to help you learn more about your topic. It can help you determine if research on the topic is needed and worthwhile, narrow down the topic so you are moving from a general idea to something focused and researchable, and determine the direction for your research so you are building on previous work or filling a gap in the literature (Leavy 56).

Strategies for writing a literature review

An effective literature review will persuade readers of the need to address a particular question in a particular way. Conversely, without a literature review, the rationale for a study is frequently less compelling, and the findings are less likely to make an impact on the field. (Mandra sec. 7.2)

  • Why is your question important? Justify it.
  • What have others said about this topic? Organize their work thematically.
  • How will you build on or extend previously existing research? Evaluate & critique it.

Ask yourself these questions in order to evaluate the literature: what are the advantages, limitations, and challenges of pursuing one research method over another? ‚ÄčIn your literature review, you can categorize and classify the literature. Summarize the overall theme. What connections exist between the various works? Do you agree with their methods and/or findings? Do they all agree with each other, or is there some disagreement? Where does your project fit and why is it important?

Additionally, try to locate recent research on your topic so that your review is up to date. A good literature review will also consider landmark studies on the topic, which is to say that it may be written by a foundational author who is well known for their work on the topic. Once you've identified one or more seminal authors, see if they have any theories about the topic that can help you frame your approach (Leavy 57).



Aveyard, Helen. Doing a Literature Review in Health and Social Care: A Practical Guide. 2nd ed. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Open UP, 2010.

Mandra, Meghan McGlinn, and Cheryl Mason Bolick. The Wiley Handbook of Social Studies Research. Chichester, [England]: Wiley Blackwell, 2017.

Leavy, Patricia. Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed-Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches. New York: The Gulford Press, 2017.

Moss, Pamela A., and Edward H. Haertel. “Engaging Methodological Pluralism.” Handbook of Research on Teaching, edited by Drew H. Gitomer and Courtney A. Bell, 5th Edition ed. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 2016. 127–248.