The Review of Literature is often a daunting academic writing task. While there are sometimes specific purposes outlined by your faculty member, most reviews of literature serve as an overview of the research that support your prevailing thesis or  research questions outlined in your proposal or final project (thesis or dissertation).  Referencing your literature here has two prominent values. First, you prove to your reader that your thesis is grounded in the literature of the field. In this way, you’re contributing to an already established field of study. Another value is that contextualizing your thesis within other research provides you with the foundation to enter into the discourse of the field, such as APA. In the academic world, one enters a community of like-minded scholars and the review of literature establishes your place. You are not offering your own empirical research here but are developing a thesis around the available research, thus the moniker of “review of literature.”

Writing an APA Literature Review

Literature reviews survey research done in a particular area. Although they also evaluate methods and results, their main emphasis is on knitting together theories and results from a number of studies to describe the “big picture” of a field of research. There are two main approaches to a literature review in psychology. One approach is to choose an area of research, read all the relevant studies, and organize them in a meaningful way. An example of an organizing theme is a conflict or controversy in the area, where you might first discuss the studies that support one side, then discuss the studies that support the other side. Another approach is to choose an organizing theme or a point that you want to make, and then select your studies accordingly.

Regardless of how you decide to organize your literature review, it will have two purposes: (1) to thoroughly describe work done on a specific area of research and (2) to evaluate this work. Both the descriptive and evaluative elements are important parts of the review. You can’t do one or the other. If you just describe past research without evaluating it, you are merely summarizing information without digesting it. If you just discuss recent theories in an area without describing the work done to test those theories, your arguments lack supporting empirical evidence.

Sometimes it’s helpful to consider a  “narrative” structure for the literature review by telling a story of the topic through synthesizing past research relevant to your themes. Begin by identifying the seminal topics of the subject and how the prevailing research substantiates your research questions. Move into evaluating the literature by identifying relations, contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies. Then, move very deliberately into your “thesis” by suggesting the next steps needed to solve the research problem.

A literature review may compare studies in terms of assumptions about the research question, experimental method, data analysis, and any conclusions drawn. In a dissertation, the literature review is fundamental in establishing your place within the discourse community of that field. It is where the writer demonstrates knowledge of the field in order to enter as a researcher. Consider for a moment that “a substantive, thorough, sophisticated literature review is a precondition for doing substantive, thorough, sophisticated research”; one must be a scholar before a researcher (Boote & Beile, 2005).


For further reading:

Boote, & Beile (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, Vol. 34, No.6, pp. 3-15

Feak, C.B. , & Swales, J. (2009). Telling a research story: Writing a literature review. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.