What is a Literature Review?

The Literature Review overviews, analyzes, and sometimes critiques relevant previous research.
It lays the groundwork for the original research presented in a thesis/dissertation by demonstrating that the research fills a “gap” in the literature and/or contributes something new or has implications for specific areas of study within the field.

A Literature Review is not…

  • It’s not a list of all of the sources you read. (You’ll read more than you need!)
  • It’s not just a summary of the existing research on a topic.
    • Instead it analyzes and synthesizes the findings, and guides the reader through the most relevant previous work as a way of framing your own new research.
  • It does not present studies in alphabetical order or chronological order.
    • The sources should instead be organized based on commonalities in their theoretical approach, research question, methods, or findings, moving toward demonstrating the need for your own new research and new contribution.
  • It should not only include sources that support your view.
    • Also include scholarly work that you will critique. Including countering views can help to create a complete picture of the scholarly conversation.


Tips for Writing a Literature Review

  • Start with a strong research question.

    A strong research question should be:

    • Narrow and specific
      It might start out broad; you can continue to narrow it as you do more research.
    • Original in some way
      If your question is not “new,” you could use new a method to address an old question; the application of the methodology itself could be a new contribution.
    • Answerable with your data (or with your research)
      If your question is not answerable with data/sources you have access to, consider narrowing it, qualifying it, or framing it in a different way.


  • Refine your research question (and thesis/claim) as you do research

    Once you start to research the literature on your topic, you might discover that:

    • You can’t find enough sources with research relevant to your topic.
      • This could be a good sign that there is a “gap” in the literature that needs to be filled.
      • Try broadening your topic/search to a larger demographic, or meet with the librarian!
    • Your exact question/topic has already been explored and published about.
      • To make your question “new,” try narrowing it by looking at only a demographic/topic that intersects with another one, e.g., don’t just investigate ______, instead research ______ among ______.
    • You’re finding more relevant sources than you’ll ever have time to read!
      • Try conducting multiple library website (and Google Scholar) searches, each one
        using different narrow/specific search terms for different aspects of your topic.
      • Don’t worry about reading every single source: instead pick and choose the most
        relevant.  You can read only the abstracts to decide which articles to focus on, then skim less relevant sections of your sources instead of reading every word.
      • To feel less overwhelmed, organize your sources as you read. (See next page.)
        Created by Allison Adelman, AUSB Writing Center


  • Organize your sources as you read

    As you do research, keep track of your sources, and organize them into groups based on commonalities in their theoretical approach, research question, methods, or findings.  Additionally, as you read through the literature and add to your catalog of sources, think about how you might want to group, order, and present them in your literature review.

    • Identify a system that works for you: a spreadsheet, Zotero/RefWorks, index cards, etc.For each source, if relevant, keep track of:
    • All source information you will need for the References list
    • The scholars’ main claims and/or main findings
    • Methods used (when relevant)
    • Any assumptions you identify that scholars have made (which you might agree with or critique)
    • Any flaws in the methodology or lack of sufficient evidence to support a theoretical claim
    • Page numbers and content of specific phrases or statistics you might want to quote/cite


  • Outline your structure before you write

    One possible ordering of a Literature Review:

    1. Overview some of the broader background or foundational research in your field.
    2. Analyze and critique research in a sub-area of your field that is related to your topic.
    3. Analyze and critique research in another subarea, or a more specific, narrow sub-field.
    4. Devote space to discussing opposing views or points of contention in the field.
    5. Devote space to interdisciplinary research, or research from another related field of study.
    6. Highlight the “gaps” in the literature, e.g.:  “Although many studies have focused on _____, very few studies to date have focused specifically on [your research question].”


  • Organize as you write

    Tips for grouping and analyzing sources:

    • Group together sources that used the same methodology or had similar findings.
    • Make evaluative judgments about the studies rather than just describing them.
      • Critique a study’s method of sampling, e.g., if the results are not generalizable.
      • Critique its conclusions, e.g., if there is insufficient evidence to support them.
    • Explain relationships among theories/studies (which ones arose from which others).
    • Group together several sources that adopted the same theoretical framework, or several sources that “agree.”  Also group together several sources that “disagree.”  Compare and contrast them, and evaluate which side is more convincing.


  • Don’t devote equal space to every source

    •  You might devote 2 or 3 paragraphs to discussing just one key source.
    • In contrast, to make a minor point, you might cite some sources only once.
      • Or you might cite 4 sources together in one sentence, in alphabetical order, separated by a semicolon.
        • E.g.:  Several studies have identified a positive correlation between meditation and stress reduction (Berkowitz et al., 2003; Derryberry & Reed, 2005, 2007; Rothbart, 2003).


  • Don’t assume the internet will correctly format your References

    Double-check all of your APA formatting manually, even if you’re using Zotero/EndNote to generate References. The Writing Center tutors and online resources are there to help!


Created by Allison Adelman, AUSB Writing Center