What is a literature Review

literature review example
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Are you look to learn how to write a literature review?  Well, look no more!

In this article you will learn everything there is to know about literature reviews.

First off though, let’s answer the question “What is a literature review?” 

Answer:  A literature review is a type of academic paper written with the purpose of critically analyzing the sources or references on a certain topic.

As the term “review” suggests, a literature review is all about assessment of the literature- more often than not, you will be asked to summarize, classify, compare and evaluate a number of sources. 

 At the undergraduate level the literature review you can expect a literature assignment as standalone or as part of your dissertation. Regardless, the rule of thumb is that your literature review should focus on documenting the state of the art with respect to your subject area. 

The literature is also mandatory in postgraduate. Mostly, it’s incorporated into the postgraduate thesis but you might also find research reports and articles that have a literature section. 

Note: A literature takes the format of a standard academic essay- i.e. it is made up of the 3 basic elements: the introduction, body, and conclusion.

There is no standard referencing style for literature reviews, although most institutions encourage students to use APA format.

literature review

What is the purpose of writing a literature review?

Out of the box, you will typically be required to write a literature review in order to showcase your knowledge and understanding of a certain topic. 

Here are some of the elements that every literature review should contain:  

  • An overview of what is known by other authors or researchers.
  • Conflicting information or evidence.
  • Synthesis of existing patterns or relationships in the literature
  • A summary of key concepts and how they relate to your topic.
  • Limitations or weaknesses of the evidence that is currently available. 
  • Gaps in the existing literature

By writing a well-organized literature review, you are showing your readers that you have an excellent understanding of the topic in question. Identifying gaps in the literature tells your readers that you know where your research fits into the existing body of knowledge. 

General guidelines about how to write a literature review 

“The literature reviewer should first ensure that he or she has covered the research accurately and thoroughly. But literature reviewers should also ask themselves whether they have presented each study in a way that makes its relation to the integrative themes clear and explicit” (Baumeister & Leary, 1997, p. 317).

Therefore, describe existing findings in the context of providing something new to the literature (e.g. a novel theoretical contribution, providing a summary and critique of the current literature, providing directions for future research) (Baumeister & Leary, 1997).

This is best achieved by structuring the literature review into sub-sections, with a coherent “story” and flow throughout. The reader needs to know how strong or how weak the overall evidence for each main point is. Group or section critiques accomplish this better than criticizing each individual study.

The most useful form of critique is normally the following: after describing the methods and results of a group of studies relevant to some point, the author should indicate briefly the major flaws in the methods and what alternative explanations they raise.

Next, the consistency of the findings should be considered.

Then the author should assess the quantity and especially the methodological diversity of the evidence, keeping in mind that consistency across large quantities of methodologically diverse evidence is the best available substitute for having the proverbial direct pipeline to the truth.

Finally, the author should provide a summary as to how strong the evidence is” (Baumeister & Leary, 1997, p. 318).

Types of Literature Reviews

When writing a literature review, it helps to think of the existing knowledge according to different types. 

The first type of literature consists of primary research, i.e. studies that rely on first-hand data from a representative group of participants.  

 The second type of knowledge is referred to as secondary literature because it consists of summaries or synthesis of previous studies. Lastly, there is the knowledge that is drawn from opinions, perceptions, or interpretations of an existing body of knowledge. 

Depending on the type of knowledge that you are required to present with your literature review, you can choose to take either of the following approaches: 

Argumentative Essay Approach

Just like in a normal argumentative essay, the aim of this type of review is to provide evidence that supports a particular assumption or argument.  In other words, the aim of an argumentative review is to establish an evidence-based viewpoint.

The argumentative literature review is important when you want to support your recommendations and solutions, however, you must be sure that you only make claims that are supported by evidence from previous studies.

Otherwise, you run the risk of making biased claims.

Systematic Review

This type of literature review, consists of overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyse data from the studies that are included in the review.

In essence, your goal when writing a systematic literature review is to create a critical evaluation and documentation of a specific research question or research problem.  To do this you will need to extensively examine previous studies related to your subject matter.    

Systematic literature reviews are typically based on a well-defined empirical question (s), such as “how do changes in X contribute to Z. 

Systematic literature reviews are common in the medical field although researchers in social studies are increasingly shifting to this form of literature review.

Note the following in relation to systematic reviews: 

  • Strictly use experimental research studies
  • Outline your search and inclusion criterion so that other researchers can easily replicate your work. 
  • Always aim to reach at a precise conclusion regarding the subject matter.
Historical Literature Review

This type of review emphasizes background knowledge or the historical perspective of a particular topic. 

In order to be effective when writing a historical review, make sure you present information in a systematic manner i.e.  Starting from the time an issue emerged and then following its development through time. 

The primary aim of a historical review is to place your topic in its appropriate historical context and to demonstrate an understanding of the state of the art with regards to your research topic.

Integrative Literature Review

This type of literature review consists of research that synthesizes, critiques, and reviews the dominant literature in an integrated manner with the aim of developing new perspectives and frameworks. 

The literature considered in this type of review includes a wide range of topics and subtopics related to the primary research problem or hypothesis. 

Just like any other form of academic essay writing, an integrative literature review should be rigor, replicable, and clear.

Here are a few pointers about integrative literature reviews:

  • Integrative literature reviews usually use meta-analysis, case studies, and other forms of non-experimental research.
  • An integrative review should have a precisely outlined inclusion and selection criteria. The aim here is to make it easier for other researchers to replicate your study. 
  • Always analyze the selected literature, avoid summarizing everything.  Try to identify common themes and note any research gaps. 

Here is an example of an integrative literature review 

integrative literature review

How to write a literature review

Start by determining the purpose of the Literature review 

Just like any other form of academic essay, a literature review needs a purpose and you should plan in advance to get it right. 

Part of this is to determine the main focus of your review or the purpose. 

Ask yourself these questions: 

  • What is the topic or subject matter of the review?
  • What is the research problem, gaps, or questions? In other words, what are you after?
  • What is the marking/ grading or publishing criteria?

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Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1997). Writing narrative literature reviews. Review of General
Psychology, 3, 311-320. 

1 comment on “What is a literature Review

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