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English: Literature Review

Subject guide for students in the English and Comparative Literature department

All About Literature Reviews

What is a review of the literature?

A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries.

A literature review must do these things:

  • be organized around and related directly to the research question you are developing
  • synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known
  • identify areas of controversy in the literature
  • formulate questions that need further research

Ask yourself questions like these:

  1. What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?
  2. What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research (e.g. on the effectiveness of a new procedure)? qualitative research (e.g., studies )?
  3. What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, web resources)? What disciplines am I working in (e.g., education, psychology, computer science, etc.)?
  4. How good was my information seeking? Has my search been wide enough to ensure I've found all the relevant material? Has it been narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material? Is the number of sources I've used appropriate for the length of my project?
  5. Have I critically analyzed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them? Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?
  6. Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?
  7. Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate, and useful

This video (in two parts) will help demystify the literature review!

Other Resources for Writing Literature Reviews