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Writing a literature review

This guide explains what a literature review is, how it fits into a proposal or thesis/dissertation, and how to write it to highlight your critical engagement with sources.

A literature review is a key part of research proposals, dissertations and theses. It provides a critical assessment of research related to a specific issue and, based on that assessment, it provides a rationale for your own research project. Essentially, a literature review tells a story about what is known – and not yet known – and how your project could fill the gap/s in knowledge. 

Most dissertations / theses at Lincoln University include a traditional (or narrative) literature review.  If you are asked to write a systematic literature review, check out  Resources for thesis writers

You can think of a literature review as a process (ie finding and evaluating the literature) and as a product (ie a piece of writing).  This information focuses on the literature review as a text (product). 

Where will you find a literature review?

In a research proposal, dissertation or thesis, a literature review is often placed near the beginning to provide a context and rationale for the research.  It could be part of the Introduction or a separate chapter. On the other hand, there might be two or more literature review chapters, especially in inter-disciplinary research. 

In a thesis set out as a series of separate studies, there might be an overall literature review near the beginning and smaller literature reviews in each study chapter.  

Literature reviews are not always written as part of completing a research project. A review might be a ‘stand alone’ paper, such as: 

  • A literature review set as a course assignment.  
  • A review article providing an overview of recent research on an issue or problem.  The reviewer might include recommendations for further research to address the gaps they identified. (Review articles are often published in academic journals.)   

When you are considering where you will place your literature review, look at alternative thesis structures and decide what will best suit your project. 

Why include a literature review 

A literature review in a research proposal, dissertation or thesis has several functions. 

For a start, it provides the background or context for your research and establishes a context (practical and/or theoretical) for your research topic. It also introduces key terminology and concepts; identifies a problem or a research need. And, just as importantly, it explains why the problem is worthy of study, in that it shows its significance. 

A literature review also provides a critical analysis of relevant literature, through a synthesis of the literature to highlight key themes and ideas relevant to the topic. It will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in the literature – for example, in theories, arguments, findings and methods. Your review identifies gaps in the literature, revealing questions to be answered or problems to be solved. More importantly, it shows how your study links to the body of knowledge. For example, it can highlight the most pertinent ideas or explain the implications of literature for your study. 

A review will highlight the gaps in the literature your research will address and provide a rationale for your research. It provides a justification for your study eg, research question, methods proposed. It also establishes the value and significance of your study (ie why the gap needs investigating) and explains how your study will contribute to knowledge (ie its originality). Lastly, it will present your study’s aims, objectives, questions or hypotheses. 

How do you write a literature review? 

A literature review section/chapter is not the only place you will use literature.  All research reports incorporate the literature into other sections, such as the introduction, method and discussion. In some disciplines, the literature is incorporated seamlessly throughout the whole document. The tips here on using literature in writing apply equally to those sections.  

The content, structure and style of literature review varies among disciplines, but there are some key features an examiner/reader is looking for:  

Coverage  

Readers (and examiners) are looking for comprehensive coverage of relevant literature.  The aim is to convince the reader that you are familiar with relevant and up-to-date literature. It also provides sufficient detail to help the reader understand the issues (especially in inter-disciplinary research where there are different reader backgrounds). 

Critical engagement  

Most important of all, readers (and examiners) are looking for critical engagement with the literature.  It is not enough to simply describe or summarise ideas from the literature.  You need to take on an active role as the writer: use the literature to make points and to build your own case.  

To show critical engagement with the literature, you need to:  

  • Develop a clear argument. The purpose of a literature review in a proposal or research report is to convince the reader that the research is necessary. To do that, you need to develop a clear argument that leads the reader to the research question or hypothesis. If your literature review is well written, the reader should be able to predict your research question or hypothesis before reaching that point in the text.   

Whatever logical framework you choose for the argument (eg conceptual, topical, methodological, chronological), the literature review is likely to have a general to specific structure. The review will move from general discussion using a broad range of studies towards more detailed discussion of those studies closely linked to your proposed research.  

  • Synthesise the literature. The overall structure should be focused primarily on themes or ideas, rather than on individual authors or studies. In other words, you should synthesise the sources into a coherent story, not simply list explanations of individual sources.   
  • Critique or evaluate the literature. A literature review is often described as having a critical conversation with other researchers,  in which you show your perspective on the literature in a respectful way.  

If you find the term critique intimidating, you might think of it instead as a comment on the literature and how it relates to your research focus.  Critique is not simply pointing out strengths and weaknesses: it also involves, for example, identifying overlaps and gaps in the literature, deciding which sources to highlight, asking questions and assessing the contribution of sources to your area of interest.   

  • Write with a strong voice. The literature review should be written so that the writer’s voice is clear.  In other words, you need to be in control of the story and the reader needs to ‘hear’ you.  The language you use will help create a strong voice. 

To achieve this you should lead your reader through your review by making statements that highlight structure. For example, point out the purpose (eg In this review, ….); preview a point (eg These features are discussed in more detail in…); sum up an idea (eg The evidence presented in this chapter indicates  …); point out how your research relates to the existing literature or the contribution of your own study (eg This study has …). 

You should highlight your synthesis of the sources; for example, explicitly show connections between sources (eg Smith’s (2016) work on X is complemented by Wang’s (2019) …;  While Kim (2018) suggested …, others  (eg Henare 2020) point out ..; This view is consistent with …) 

Make your stance on the sources clear by using explicit evaluative comments; point out a shortcoming (eg Most studies of X have focused only on … ); note a contribution or implication (eg  Wu’s (2017) findings highlight the importance of …) 

Use reporting verbs that indicate your agreement or disagreement with a source; for example,  attempted to indicates a negative stance. You can use tense to show your agreement, for example, using the present tense indicates you think the idea is a ‘fact’ (eg … X is significantly reduced during the first months of … (Fapuleai, 2015; Adeoye, 2019). ) 

Highlight your voice by appropriately using different citation forms.  You can use findings focus citations to make your voice prominent (eg Changes in natural capital are … (Garnier et al., 2018). Use author focus citations when you want to highlight the original author’s ownership of the ideas (eg Garnier et al. (2018) point out that changes in natural capital …) 

You might also highlight your voice by using personal pronouns (eg I, we), but note that this is not acceptable in some disciplines.  

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