The Review of Literature for Research

Examining a body of literature toward the answer to a research question

How to literature review image Literature means writings and a body of literature refers to all the published writings in a particular style on a particular subject.

In research, a body of literature is a collection of published information and data relevant to a research question.

The research question. Often referred to as the research problem, the research question provides the context for the research study and reveals what the researcher is trying to answer.

The paper must answer clearly, "What is the problem?" and "Why do I care?" At the same time, stating the problem precisely limits the scope of the research project by focusing on certain elements. It lets you show why those variables are important.

The statement of the problem is the first part of the paper to be read after the title and abstract. It's like a lead on a newspaper story. It hooks the reader and gives context to what follows.

The literature review. A review of the literature is an essential part of your academic research project. The review is a careful examination of a body of literature pointing toward the answer to your research question.

Literature reviewed typically includes scholarly journals, scholarly books, authoritative databases and primary sources. Sometimes it includes newspapers, magazines, other books, films, and audio and video tapes, and other secondary sources. All good research and writing is guided by a review of the relevant literature. Your literature review will be the mechanism by which your research is viewed as a cumulative process. That makes it an integral component of the scientific process.
More about the research question »

Why do it? The purpose of the literature review remains the same regardless of the research method you use. It tests your research question against what already is known about your subject.

Through the literature review you will discover whether your research question already has been answered by someone else. If it has, you must change or modify your question.

Considering your question. If you find that your research question has not been answered satisfactorily by someone else, then search for these answers: Remember that nothing is completely black or white. Only you can determine what is satisfactory, relevant, significant or important in the context of your own research.

Mechanics of a Literature Review

Your literature review will have two components: Obviously, the search is the first step. However, you must remember that you love knowledge and that academic databases can be seductive. You could spend untold hours clicking around the bibliographies of your favorite collections. You may have fun, but you might not advance your literature review.

The solution? Have your research question written down and at hand when you arrive at the computer to search databases or a library catalog. Prepare in advance a plan and a preset time limit. Leading edge research. What if you are trying to research an area that seems never to have been examined before? Be systematic. Look at journals that print abstracts in that subject area to get an overview of the scope of the available literature. Then, your search could start from a general source, such as a book, and work its way from those references to the specific topic you want. Or, you could start with a specific source, such as a research paper, and work from that author's references. There isn't a single best approach.

Take thorough notes. Be sure to write copious notes on everything as you proceed through your research. It's very frustrating when you can't find a reference found earlier that now you want to read in full.

It's not hard to open up a blank text document in WordPad (Windows) or TextEdit (Macintosh) to keep a running set of notes during a computer search session. Just jump back and forth between the Web browser screen and the notepad screen.

Using resources wisely. Practice makes perfect. Learn how and then use the available computer resources properly and efficiently. Log onto the Internet frequently. Visit your research resources regularly. Play with the discipline resources. Enter the databases. Scope out the reference desk materials.

Identify publications which print abstracts of articles and books in your subject area. Look for references to papers from which you can identify the most useful journals. Identify those authors who seem to be important in your subject area. Identify keywords in your area of interest to help when you need to narrow and refine database searches. Read online library catalogs to find available holdings. Be sure to write copious notes on everything.

Getting ready to write. Eventually, a broad picture of the literature in your subject area – an overview – will begin to emerge. Then it's time to review your notes and begin to draft your literature review. But, where to start?

Suppose you have several WordPad or TextEdit files full of notes you've written. And a dozen real books and copies of three dozen journal articles. Pile them on a table and sit down. Turn to your research question. Write it out again at the head of a list of the various keywords and authors that you have uncovered in your search. Do any pairings or groupings pop out at you? You now are structuring or sketching out the literature review which is the first step in writing a research paper, thesis or dissertation.

Writing the lit review. One draft won't cut it. Plan from the outset to write and rewrite. Naturally, you will crave a sense of forward momentum, so don't get bogged down. Don't restrict yourself to writing the review in a linear fashion from start to finish. If one area of the writing is proving difficult, jump to another part.

Edit and rewrite. Your goal is to communicate effectively and efficiently the answer you found to your research question in the literature. Edit your work so it is clear and concise. If you willbe writing an abstract and introduction, leave them for the last.

Communicating ideas is the objective of your writing, so make it clear, concise and consistent. Big words and technical terms are not clear to everyone. They make it hard for all readers to understand your writing. Consider their use very carefully and substitute a 50-cent word for a $5 word wherever possible.

Style and writing guides are worth browsing if you are unsure how to approach writing. Always re-read what you have written. Get someone else to read it. Read it aloud to see how it sounds to your ear. Then revise and rewrite.
Style guides and how to cite sources »

Writing the conclusion. Throughout your written review, you should communicate your new knowledge by combining the research question you asked with the literature you reviewed. End your writing with a conclusion that wraps up what you learned in the literature review process.

While the interaction between the research question and the relevant literature is foreshadowed throughout the review, it usually is written at the very end. The interaction itself is a learning process that gives researchers new insight into their area of research. The conclusion should reflect this.

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Further readings about literature reviews and research methods
This list is brief and not exhaustive. There are many other excellent resources.

Resources for Courses »

© 2011 Dr. Anthony Curtis, Mass Communication Dept., University of North Carolina at Pembroke    e-mail    home page