Areas of inquiry within disciplines exist as ongoing conversations among authors and theorists. By way of your literature review, you join the conversation.
(Bloomberg and Volpe 2009, p.46)

What is a Literature Review?

However you plan to conduct your research, it will need to draw on an existing body of knowledge that you have identified as relevant to your aims and interests. This usually takes the shape of a ‘literature review’.

A literature review is “the systematic examination of the (…) literature about one’s topic. It critically analyses, evaluates, and synthesizes research findings, theories, and practices by scholars and researchers that are related to an area of focus” (Efron & Ravid, 2019, p. 2).

Knowledge in your field can appear as different types of sources:

  • media sources (e.g., magazines, newspapers, news blogs, television reports)
  • statistical sources (e.g., census data, polls, surveys, government databases)
  • online sources (e.g., social media, comment sections, personal blogs)
  • academic journal articles, books and book chapters

You should explore these sources in terms of what is already known about the background issues in your field (i.e., main theories, debates) as well as studies overlapping with your research and related literature that speaks directly to your research questions. As a researcher, you engage with this body of work to affirm, dispute, refine or extend it in some way (Bizup 2008).

Diagram showing upside-down triangle in three sections from to to bottom: Broad Issues, Studies which overlap with your research, and Studies that are directly related to your investigation.

Image Source: (UoR, 2019)

The image above shows one approach you could use to carry out a literature review – starting with the broad issues and then narrowing in on your study’s focus. As you can see from the bottom of the pyramid, the research directly related to yours should occupy the most time.

How do I get started?

You start a literature review by identifying what you need to know about the area you are going to research. You may ask:

  • What research has already been done on this topic?
  • What are the sub-areas of the topic I need to explore?
  • What other research (perhaps not directly on the topic) might be relevant to my investigation?
  • How do these sub-topics and other research overlap with my investigation?

How do I find relevant academic sources?

You can use academic search engines to locate academic journal articles and books. Openly accessible databases are Google Scholar and Google Books. Other useful specialist academic databases are:

Databases can direct you to available sources although many tend to be behind a paywall and downloading articles incurs a fee. It is not always easy to access journal articles behind paywalls if you don’t have a university library account. However, you can search academic social networks such as Academia.edu, ResearchGate, or Mendeley for free or email the authors directly to request a free copy of their work.

How do I review the literature?

While reading the different sources, it is advisable to take detailed notes so you can provide an account of the current state of knowledge in your field. In other words, your aim should be not just to summarise what has already been published but to also synthesise and critically analyse findings to justify your research project’s place in the literature. Such overviews providing a ‘background’ section are generally placed before your main findings and analysis in a report or article.

You can use the following steps to guide your literature review process:

  1. identify research topic and research questions
  2. find out what you need to know about your research area
  3. search the literature using databases and search engines
  4. read the relevant sources and take detailed notes
  5. identify themes, debates and gaps in the literature
  6. write up your review.

(Author: Jonny (Jonathan) Adams)

What is it?

Podcasts:

Conducting literature reviews by Study Matters Podcast (2022)

This podcast episode, in which a university librarian draws on her experience of supporting students with their research, explains why literature reviews matter for academic studies and how you can conduct them effectively.

(Academic reference: Merrydew, A. (Host). (2022). Conducting Literature Reviews. [Audio podcast episode]. In Study Matters. [Audio Podcast]. Keele University. https://soundcloud.com/user-261682892/episode-6-conducting-literature-reviews)

Manuals & Guides:

Literature reviews by University of Reading (2019)

This guide takes you through what a literature review is, why you might want to write one, how you can get started and where to look for sources if you have access to a library.

(Academic reference: University of Reading. (2019). LibGuides: Literature reviews: Starting your literature review. https://libguides.reading.ac.uk/literaturereview/starting)

Literature review by University of Edinburgh (2021)

This guide explains the purpose of a literature review and provides links to further documents showing how to develop and refine your literature review and providing some top tips for a successful review.

(Academic reference: The University of Edinburgh (2021). Literature Review. The University of Edinburgh. https://www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/study-hub/learning-resources/literature-review)

Websites:

The literature review: A few tips on conducting it by Dena Taylor (2019)

This webpage provides a long list of useful questions to think about when sorting through the literature and writing up your review, such as What is the scope of my literature review? and Have I critically analysed the literature I use?

(Academic reference: Taylor, D. (2019). The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It | Writing Advice. University of Toronto. https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/types-of-writing/literature-review/)

Books:

Chapter 9: Methods for literature reviews by Guy Paré and Spyros Kitsiou (2017)

This chapter distinguishes between literature reviews that appear as sections in larger dissertations or articles and those that constitute research studies in themselves. It focuses on the last of these types of literature review, breaking the process of producing one into discrete steps and explaining the forms it can take.

(Academic reference: Paré, G. & Kitsiou, S. (2017). Methods for Literature Reviews. In Lau, F. & Kuziemsky, C (Eds.), Handbook of ehealth evaluation: An evidence-based approach. University of Victoria.)

How is it done?

Videos:

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How to write a literature review – my simple 5 step process! by Andy Stapleton (2020)

This video offers a process you can use for a literature review: (i) clarify your research question, (ii) outline your topics, (iii) fi