A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources that provides an overview of a particular topic. Literature reviews are a collection of the most relevant and significant publications regarding that topic in order to provide a comprehensive look at what has been said on the topic and by whom.
Conducting a literature review involves collecting, evaluating and analyzing publications (such as books and journal articles) that relate to your research question. There are five main steps in the process of writing a literature review:
1.Search for relevant literature
3.Identify themes, debates and gaps
4.Outline the structure
5.Write your literature review
Step 1: Search for relevant literature
Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic.
If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions.
If you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, you will have to choose a focus and develop a central question to direct your search. Unlike a dissertation research question, this question has to be answerable without collecting original data. You should be able to answer it based only on a review of existing publications.
Read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.
To identify the most important publications on your topic, take note of recurring citations. If the same authors, books or articles keep appearing in your reading, make sure to seek them out.
You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar – a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.
Step 2: Evaluate and select sources
You probably won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic – you’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your questions.
For each publication, ask yourself:
• What question or problem is the author addressing?
• What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
• What are the key theories, models and methods? Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
• What are the results and conclusions of the study?
• How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
• How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?
Make sure the sources you use are credible, and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.
The scope of your review will depend on your topic and discipline: in the sciences you usually only review recent literature, but in the humanities you might take a long historical perspective (for example, to trace how a concept has changed in meaning over time).
Step 3: Identify themes, debates, and gaps
To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, you need to understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:
• Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
• Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
• Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
• Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
• Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?
This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.
Step 4: Outline your literature review’s structure
There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.
Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).
The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.
Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.
If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.
For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.
If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods, you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:
• Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
• Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
• Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources
A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.
You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.
Step 5: Write your literature review
Like any other academic text, your literature review should have an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.
The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.
Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.
As you write, you can follow these tips:
• Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
• Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers—add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
• Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
• Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transitions and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts
In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.
When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting.