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Research Tips: Literature Reviews

Tips from topic selection to evaluating sources to aid in the research process

Literature reviews

What is a Literature Review?

What is a literature review?
A literature review is the comprehensive study and interpretation of literature that relates to a particular topic. You identify a research question then seek to answer this question by searching for and analyzing relevant literature using a systematic approach. This review then leads you to the development of new insights that are only possible when each piece of relevant information is seen in the context of other information. If you think of one piece of literature as one part of a jigsaw, then you can see how a review of the literature is like the whole completed jigsaw. This is why they are so useful. 

Excerpted from Doing a Literature Review in Health and Social Care: A Practical Guide by H. Aveyard


Web Resources

What is the purpose of a Literature Review?

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
  • Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important].

Source: USC Libraries

Purpose of the Literature Review

Research begins with ideas and concepts that are related to one another through hypotheses about their expected relationships. ...Where do researchers find the original ideas and concepts, and how can they link those elements to form hypotheses?....They come from the collective body of prior work referred to as the literature of a field....Reference to studies helps to uncover and provide:

  • ideas about variables that have proved important or unimportant in a given field of study;
  • information about work that has already been done and that can be meaningfully extended or applied;
  • the status of work in the field, reflecting established conclusions and potential hypotheses;
  • meanings of and relationships between variables chosen for study and hypotheses;
  • a basis for establishing the context of a problem;
  • a basis for establishing the significance of a problem.

Excerpted from Conducting Educational Research by Bruce Tuchman and Brian Harper

Scholarly Conversation

A literature review tracks the scholarly conversation about a topic. Academics all across the world hold discussions about topics in their field of interest in the form of articles, dissertations and books. When you are ready to investigate a topic, the first step can be finding out what the academics have been writing on your topic. You want to find the foundational early writings to the most recent developments, with emphasis on books and articles that have been heavily cited by other researchers. This is where paying attention to citations come in. The citations at the end of an article track who the author is quoting and responding to. In turn, their article will be cited when their thoughts are being considered, negatively or positively, by other scholars. The scholarly conversation should always push the knowledge of the field forward, with new data, interpretations or analysis. The best way to do that is by knowing what has gone before.