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Conducting a Literature Review

St Clair

For a complete guide to writing a literature review see the SLC guide.

Purpose of a literature review

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • find out what is already known about your topic;
  • identify the main themes and trends pointed up by the research;
  • compare, critique and contrast various perspectives and conclusions.

If your literature review is in preparation for a larger study it should also:

  • identify gaps in the current research;
  • indicate how your research will add to the body of knowledge.

A literature review should more than just describe what is in the research: you need to offer some assessment of the various findings. Most importantly, a good literature review demonstrates a critical approach to the material.

For example, you might:

  • show areas where authors agree or disagree
  • identify any assumptions that underpin research methodologies, data analysis methods, or other aspects of research design;
  • discuss any unfounded conclusions: for example, weak methodology, generalisations or questionable assumptions.

Planning your discussion

Normally, the best approach is to extract the key themes from the research and address one theme at a time. Once you have identified the key themes, it is a good idea to draw up a table (or other diagrammatical form such as a concept map) to help you to manage and order your material, and to ensure a cohesive and well-organised discussion.

Theme:
References:
Provides insights into your topic because:
Comments e.g. similarities, differences to other research, strengths/weaknesses/ inconsistencies

Structuring a literature review

Check with your Department whether to use headings or sub-headings, or to following a "traditional" essay format.

Introduction

The introduction should be relatively brief (usually no more than one or two paragraphs) and include the following features (not necessarily in the order given):

  • a brief wider context of your topic;
  • why the topic is an important area to investigate;
  • the aims and intentions of your review;
  • its scope and boundaries (state the limits of your research);
  • a brief outline of the key themes that will constitute your discussion.

Body

Introduce themes in the most effective and logical order, for example according to importance, or where appropriate, chronologically. Follow the suggestions in the essay writing section, particularly in relation to paragraph development.

If departments are not including the section on Essay Writing they could insert the relevant content here.

Conclusion

The conclusion should be concise; perhaps one or two paragraphs, and include the following:

  • a brief summary of the major findings from the research: e.g., trends, agreements, disagreements, inconsistencies, or other key factors;
  • areas that previous research has not yet addressed;
  • if part of a longer project, state how your research proposes to add to current knowledge.

Tips:

  • When taking notes from your readings, ensure that you keep full referencing details, including page numbers, so that you can correctly reference material, and also easily find it again for checking.
  • Be ruthless about including only what is relevant to your topic; you will likely uncover a lot of related information in your literature search, but no matter how interesting it must relate directly to your topic or be discarded.
  • Avoid using too many direct quotations. Over reliance on quotes gives the impression that you do not have a good understanding of the issues.
  • Use effective paraphrasing (i.e., your own words), but take care that your paraphrases are not too close to the original wording as this could still be construed as plagiarism.

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