What is a Literature Review?
Not to be confused with a book review, a literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work. The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.
Similar to primary research, development of the literature review requires four stages:
- Problem formulation—which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
- Literature search—finding materials relevant to the subject being explored
- Data evaluation—determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
- Analysis and interpretation—discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature
Literature reviews should comprise the following elements:
- An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review
- Division of works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely)
- Explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
- Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research
In assessing each piece, consideration should be given to:
- Provenance—What are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence (e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings)?
- Objectivity—Is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
- Persuasiveness—Which of the author's theses are most/least convincing?
- Value—Are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?
Definition and Purpose
A literature review may constitute an essential chapter of a thesis or dissertation, or may be a self-contained review of writings on a subject. In either case, its purpose is to:
- Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
- Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
- Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
- Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
- Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
- Point the way forward for further research
- Place one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature
The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.
An example of a literature review is:
Allen, R.C. (1996). Socioeconomic Conditions and Property Crime: A Comprehensive Review and Test of the Professional Literature. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 55 (3), 293.
Tips for finding literature reviews in your field:
- ask your professor or advisor for recommendations for good examples of literature reviews in your discipline. You can also check out the literature review sections of peer review journal articles, theses, or dissertations.
- Search ProQuest Dissertations and Theses for dissertations and these to look at their literature review and also to look at their bibliography.
- certain discipline specific databases like PsycINFO have ways to limit your search to just review or systematic review articles.