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Conducting a Literature Review

What is a Literature Review?

The literature of a literature review is not made up of novels and short stories and poetry—but is the collection of writing and research that has been produced on a particular topic.

The purpose of the literature review is to give you an overview of a particular topic. Your job is to discover the research that has been done, the major perspectives, and the significant thinkers and writers (experts) who have published on the topic you’re interested in. In other words, it’s a survey of what has been written and argued about your topic.

By the time you complete your literature review you should have written an essay that demonstrates that you:

  • Understand the history of what’s been written and researched on your topic.
  • Know the significance of the current academic thinking on your topic, including what the controversies are.
  • Have a perspective about what work remains to be done on your topic.

Thus, a literature review synthesizes your research into an explanation of what is known and what is not known on your topic. If the topic is one from which you want to embark on a major research project, doing a literature review will save you time and help you figure out where you might focus your attention so you don’t duplicate research that has already been done.

Just to be clear: a literature review differs from a research paper in that a literature review is a summary and synthesis of the major arguments and thinking of experts on the topic you’re investigating, whereas a research paper supports a position or an opinion you have developed yourself as a result of your own analysis of a topic.

Another advantage of doing a literature review is that it summarizes the intellectual discussion that has been going on over the decades—or centuries—on a specific topic and allows you to join in that conversation (what academics call academic discourse) from a knowledgeable position.

The following presentation will provide you with the basic steps to follow as you work to complete a literature review.

"Literature Reviews" by Excelsior Online Writing Lab is licensed under CC BY 4.0 International

Types of Literature Reviews

Narrative or Traditional literature reviews
Narrative or Traditional literature reviews critique and summarize a body of literature about the thesis topic. The literature is researched from the relevant databases and is generally very selective in the material used. The criteria for literature selection for a narrative review is not always made open to the reader. These reviews are very useful in gathering and synthesizing the literature located. The principle purpose of a narrative review is the give the author and reader a comprehensive overview of the topic and to highlight significant areas of research, narrative reviews can help to identify gaps in the research and help to refine and define research questions. Where a narrative approach differs from a systematic approach is in the notation of search methods criteria for selection, this can leave narrative reviews open to suggestions of bias. 

Scoping Reviews
The purpose of the scoping review is to find ALL the materials on the topic. When undertaking a scoping review it is important to systematize your search strategies to ensure you can replicate your searches and to attend to any gaps that appear in results. 

When reading and sorting the results, again apply some of the measures used in a systematic review so that your search results are sorted by key themes and well organized.

"Different types of literature reviews" by Griffith University Library is licensed under CC BY 4.0.