How To Do A Literature Review For Dissertation

"How to" Guideline series is coordinated by Helen Mongan-Rallis of the Education Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions to improve these guidelines please me at e-mail hrallis@d.umn.edu.

Guidelines for writing a literature review

by Helen Mongan-Rallis. Last updated: November 21, 2014
[Note: For these guidelines, in some sections I have quoted directly some of the the steps from: Galvan, J. (2006). Writing literature reviews: a guide for students of the behavioral sciences (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing.]

What is a literature review?

A literature review is not an annotated bibliography in which you summarize briefly each article that you have reviewed. While a summary of the what you have read is contained within the literature review, it goes well beyond merely summarizing professional literature. It focuses on a specific topic of interest to you and includes a critical analysis of the relationship among different works, and relating this research to your work. It may be written as a stand-alone paper or to provide a theoretical framework and rationale for a research study (such as a thesis or dissertation).

Step-by-step guide

These guidelines are adapted primarily from Galvan (2006). Galvan outlines a very clear, step-by-step approach that is very useful to use as you write your review. I have integrated some other tips within this guide, particularly in suggesting different technology tools that you might want to consider in helping you organize your review. In the sections from Step 6-9 what I have included is the outline of those steps exactly as described by Galvan. I also provide links at the end of this guide to resources that you should use in order to search the literature and as you write your review.

In addition to using the step-by-step guide that I have provided below, I also recommend that you (a) locate examples of literature reviews in your field of study and skim over these to get a feel for what a literature review is and how these are written (I have also provided links to a couple of examples at the end of these guidelines (b) read over other guides to writing literature reviews so that you see different perspectives and approaches: Some examples are:

  1. Review of Literature: University of Wisconsin - Madison The Writing Center.
  2. How to ..Write a Literature Review: University of California, Santa Cruz University Library).
  3. Information Fluency - Literature Review: Washington & Lee University
  4. How to Do A Literature Review? North Carolina A&T State University F.D. Bluford Library.
  5. Selected Links to Resources on Writing a Literature Review

Step 1: Review APA guidelines

Read through the links provided below on APA guidelines so that you become familiar with the common core elements of how to write in APA style: in particular, pay attention to general document guidelines (e.g. font, margins, spacing), title page, abstract, body, text citations, quotations.

Step 2: Decide on a topic

It will help you considerably if your topic for your literature review is the one on which you intend to do your final M.Ed. project, or is in some way related to the topic of your final project. However, you may pick any scholarly topic.

Step 3: Identify the literature that you will review:

  1. Familiarize yourself with online databases (see UMD library resource links below for help with this), identifying relevant databases in your field of study.
  2. Using relevant databases, search for literature sources using Google Scholar and also searching using Furl (search all sources, including the Furl accounts of other Furl members). Some tips for identifying suitable literature and narrowing your search :
    1. Start with a general descriptor from the database thesaurus or one that you know is already a well defined descriptor based on past work that you have done in this field. You will need to experiment with different searches, such as limiting your search to descriptors that appear only in the document titles, or in both the document title and in the abstract.
    2. Redefine your topic if needed: as you search you will quickly find out if the topic that you are reviewing is too broad. Try to narrow it to a specific area of interest within the broad area that you have chosen (remember: this is merely an introductory literature review for Educ 7001). It is a good idea, as part of your literature search, to look for existing literature reviews that have already been written on this topic.
    3. As part of your search, be sure to identify landmark or classic studies and theorists as these provide you with a framework/context for your study.
  3. Import your references into your RefWorks account (see: Refworks Import Directions for guide on how to do this from different databases). You can also enter references manually into RefWorks if you need to.

Step 4: Analyze the literature

Once you have identified and located the articles for your review, you need to analyze them and organize them before you begin writing:

  1. Overview the articles: Skim the articles to get an idea of the general purpose and content of the article (focus your reading here on the abstract, introduction and first few paragraphs, the conclusion of each article. Tip: as you skim the articles, you may want to record the notes that you take on each directly into RefWorks in the box for User 1. You can take notes onto note cards or into a word processing document instead or as well as using RefWorks, but having your notes in RefWorks makes it easy to organize your notes later.
  2. Group the articles into categories (e.g. into topics and subtopics and chronologically within each subtopic). Once again, it's useful to enter this information into your RefWorks record. You can record the topics in the same box as before (User 1) or use User 2 box for the topic(s) under which you have chosen to place this article.
  3. Take notes:
    1. Decide on the format in which you will take notes as you read the articles (as mentioned above, you can do this in RefWorks. You can also do this using a Word Processor, or a concept mapping program like Inspiration (free 30 trial download), a data base program (e.g. Access or File Maker Pro), in an Excel spreadsheet, or the "old-fashioned" way of using note cards. Be consistent in how you record notes.
    2. Define key terms: look for differences in the way keys terms are defined (note these differences).
    3. Note key statistics that you may want to use in the introduction to your review.
    4. Select useful quotes that you may want to include in your review. Important: If you copy the exact words from an article, be sure to cite the page number as you will need this should you decide to use the quote when you write your review (as direct quotes must always be accompanied by page references). To ensure that you have quoted accurately (and to save time in note taking), if you are accessing the article in a format that allows this, you can copy and paste using your computer "edit --> copy --> paste" functions. Note: although you may collect a large number of quotes during the note taking phase of your review, when you write the review, use quotes very sparingly. The rule I follow is to quote only when when some key meaning would be lost in translation if I were to paraphrase the original author's words, or if using the original words adds special emphasis to a point that I am making.
    5. Note emphases, strengths & weaknesses: Since different research studies focus on different aspects of the issue being studied, each article that you read will have different emphases, strengths. and weaknesses. Your role as a reviewer is to evaluate what you read, so that your review is not a mere description of different articles, but rather a critical analysis that makes sense of the collection of articles that you are reviewing. Critique the research methodologies used in the studies, and distinguish between assertions (the author's opinion) and actual research findings (derived from empirical evidence).
    6. Identify major trends or patterns: As you read a range of articles on your topic, you should make note of trends and patterns over time as reported in the literature. This step requires you to synthesize and make sense of what you read, since these patterns and trends may not be spelled out in the literature, but rather become apparent to you as you review the big picture that has emerged over time. Your analysis can make generalizations across a majority of studies, but should also note inconsistencies across studies and over time.
    7. Identify gaps in the literature, and reflect on why these might exist (based on the understandings that you have gained by reading literature in this field of study). These gaps will be important for you to address as you plan and write your review.
    8. Identify relationships among studies: note relationships among studies, such as which studies were landmark ones that led to subsequent studies in the same area. You may also note that studies fall into different categories (categories that you see emerging or ones that are already discussed in the literature). When you write your review, you should address these relationships and different categories and discuss relevant studies using this as a framework.
    9. Keep your review focused on your topic: make sure that the articles you find are relevant and directly related to your topic. As you take notes, record which specific aspects of the article you are reading are relevant to your topic (as you read you will come up with key descriptors that you can record in your notes that will help you organize your findings when you come to write up your review). If you are using an electronic form of note taking, you might note these descriptors in a separate field (e.g. in RefWorks, put these under User 2 or User 3; in Excel have a separate column for each descriptor; if you use Inspiration, you might attach a separate note for key descriptors.
    10. Evaluate your references for currency and coverage: Although you can always find more articles on your topic, you have to decide at what point you are finished with collecting new resources so that you can focus on writing up your findings. However, before you begin writing, you must evaluate your reference list to ensure that it is up to date and has reported the most current work. Typically a review will cover the last five years, but should also refer to any landmark studies prior to this time if they have significance in shaping the direction of the field. If you include studies prior to the past five years that are not landmark studies, you should defend why you have chosen these rather than more current ones.

Step 5: Summarize the literature in table or concept map format

  1. Galvan (2006) recommends building tables as a key way to help you overview, organize, and summarize your findings, and suggests that including one or more of the tables that you create may be helpful in your literature review. If you do include tables as part of your review each must be accompanied by an analysis that summarizes, interprets and synthesizes the literature that you have charted in the table. You can plan your table or do the entire summary chart of your literature using a concept map (such as using Inspiration)
    1. You can create the table using the table feature within Microsoft Word, or can create it initially in Excel and then copy and paste/import the the Excel sheet into Word once you have completed the table in Excel. The advantage of using Excel is that it enables you to sort your findings according to a variety of factors (e.g. sort by date, and then by author; sort by methodology and then date)
    2. Examples of tables that may be relevant to your review:
      1. Definitions of key terms and concepts.
      2. Research methods
      3. Summary of research results

Step 6: Synthesize the literature prior to writing your review

Using the notes that you have taken and summary tables, develop an outline of your final review. The following are the key steps as outlined by Galvan (2006: 71-79)

  1. Consider your purpose and voice before beginning to write. In the case of this Educ 7001 introductory literature review, your initial purpose is to provide an overview of the topic that is of interest to you, demonstrating your understanding of key works and concepts within your chosen area of focus. You are also developing skills in reviewing and writing, to provide a foundation on which you will build in subsequent courses within your M.Ed. and ultimately in your final project. In your final project your literature review should demonstrate your command of your field of study and/or establishing context for a study that you have done.
  2. Consider how you reassemble your notes: plan how you will organize your findings into a unique analysis of the picture that you have captured in your notes. Important: A literature review is not series of annotations (like an annotated bibliography). Galvan (2006:72) captures the difference between an annotated bibliography and a literature review very well: "...in essence, like describing trees when you really should be describing a forest. In the case of a literature review, you are really creating a new forest, which you will build by using the trees you found in the literature you read."
  3. Create a topic outline that traces your argument: first explain to the reader your line or argument (or thesis); then your narrative that follows should explain and justify your line of argument. You may find the program Inspiration useful in mapping out your argument (and once you have created this in a concept map form, Inspiration enables you to convert this to a text outline merely by clicking on the "outline" button). This can then be exported into a Microsoft Word document.
  4. Reorganize your notes according to the path of your argument
  5. Within each topic heading, note differences among studies.
  6. Within each topic heading, look for obvious gaps or areas needing more research.
  7. Plan to describe relevant theories.
  8. Plan to discuss how individual studies relate to and advance theory
  9. Plan to summarize periodically and, again near the end of the review
  10. Plan to present conclusions and implications
  11. Plan to suggest specific directions for future research near the end of the review
  12. Flesh out your outline with details from your analysis

Step 7: Writing the review (Galvan, 2006: 81-90)

  1. Identify the broad problem area, but avoid global statements
  2. Early in the review, indicate why the topic being reviewed is important
  3. Distinguish between research finding and other sources of information
  4. Indicate why certain studies are important
  5. If you are commenting on the timeliness of a topic, be specific in describing the time frame
  6. If citing a classic or landmark study, identify it as such
  7. If a landmark study was replicated, mention that and indicate the results of the replication
  8. Discuss other literature reviews on your topic
  9. Refer the reader to other reviews on issues that you will not be discussing in details
  10. Justify comments such as, "no studies were found."
  11. Avoid long lists of nonspecific references
  12. If the results of previous studies are inconsistent or widely varying, cite them separately
  13. Cite all relevant references in the review section of thesis, dissertation, or journal article

Step 8: Developing a coherent essay (Galvan, 2006: 91-96)

  1. If your review is long, provide an overview near the beginning of the review
  2. Near the beginning of a review, state explicitly what will and will not be covered
  3. Specify your point of view early in the review: this serves as the thesis statement of the review.
  4. Aim for a clear and cohesive essay that integrates the key details of the literature and communicates your point of view (a literature is not a series of annotated articles).
  5. Use subheadings, especially in long reviews
  6. Use transitions to help trace your argument
  7. If your topic teaches across disciplines, consider reviewing studies from each discipline separately
  8. Write a conclusion for the end of the review: Provide closure so that the path of the argument ends with a conclusion of some kind. How you end the review, however, will depend on your reason for writing it. If the review was written to stand alone, as is the case of a term paper or a review article for publication, the conclusion needs to make clear how the material in the body of the review has supported the assertion or proposition presented in the introduction. On the other hand, a review in a thesis, dissertation, or journal article presenting original research usually leads to the research questions that will be addressed.
  9. Check the flow of your argument for coherence.

Reference:

Galvan, J. (2006). Writing literature reviews: a guide for students of the behavioral sciences ( 3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing.

Resources

  1. UMD & library resources and links:
    1. UMD library research tools: includes links to
    2. Refworks Import Directions: Links to step-by-step directions on how to important to Refworks from different databases
  2. Writing guidelines:
    1. Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab): A user-friendly writing lab that parallels with the 5th edition APA manual.
  3. APA guidelines:
    1. APA Style Essentials: overview of common core of elements of APA style.
    2. APA Research Style Crib Sheet is a summary of rules for using APA style.
    3. APA Style for Electronic Media and URL's: commonly asked questions regarding how to cite electronic media
  4. Examples of literature reviews:
    1. Johnson, B. & Reeves, B. (2005). Challenges. Literature review chapter from unpublished master's thesis, University of Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota.
    2. Maguire, L. (2005). Literature review – faculty participation in online distance education: barriers and motivators. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume 8, No. 1, Spring 2005. State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center.

 

Return to the Index of How To Guidelines

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This Study Guide explains why literature reviews are needed, and how they can be conducted and reported. Related Study Guides are: Referencing and bibliographies, Avoiding plagiarism, Writing a dissertation, What is critical reading?What is critical writing?

The focus of the Study Guide is the literature review within a dissertation or a thesis, but many of the ideas are transferable to other kinds of writing, such as an extended essay, or a report.

What is a literature review?

The ability to review, and to report on relevant literature is a key academic skill. A literature review:

  • situates your research focus within the context of the wider academic community in your field;
  • reports your critical review of the relevant literature; and
  • identifies a gap within that literature that your research will attempt to address.

To some extent, particularly with postgraduate research, the literature review can become a project in itself. It is an important showcase of your talents of: understanding, interpretation, analysis, clarity of thought, synthesis, and development of argument. The process of conducting and reporting your literature review can help you clarify your own thoughts about your study. It can also establish a framework within which to present and analyse the findings.

After reading your literature review, it should be clear to the reader that you have up-to-date awareness of the relevant work of others, and that the research question you are asking is relevant. However, don’t promise too much! Be wary of saying that your research will solve a problem, or that it will change practice. It would be safer and probably more realistic to say that your research will ‘address a gap’, rather than that it will ‘fill a gap’.

Why do I need a literature review?

When readers come to your assignment, dissertation, or thesis, they will not just assume that your research or analysis is a good idea; they will want to be persuaded that it is relevant and that it was worth doing. They will ask questions such as:

  • What research question(s) are you asking?
  • Why are you asking it/them?
  • Has anyone else done anything similar?
  • Is your research relevant to research/practice/theory in your field?
  • What is already known or understood about this topic?
  • How might your research add to this understanding, or challenge existing theories and beliefs?

These are questions that you will already probably be asking yourself. You will also need to be ready to answer them in a viva if you will be having one.

A critical review

It is important that your literature review is more than just a list of references with a short description of each one. The Study Guides: What is critical reading? and What is critical writing? are particularly relevant to the process of critical review. Merriam (1988:6) describes the literature review as:

‘an interpretation and synthesis of published work’.

This very short statement contains some key concepts, which are examined in the table below.


ExplanationAssociated critique
Published workMerriam’s statement was made in 1988, since which time there has been further extension of the concept of being ‘published’ within the academic context. The term now encompasses a wide range of web-based sources, in addition to the more traditional books and print journals.Increased ease of access to a wider range of published material has also increased the need for careful and clear critique of sources. Just because something is ‘published’ does not mean its quality is assured. You need to demonstrate to your reader that you are examining your sources with a critical approach, and not just believing them automatically.
InterpretationYou need to be actively involved in interpreting the literature that you are reviewing, and in explaining that interpretation to the reader, rather than just listing what others have written.Your interpretation of each piece of evidence is just that: an interpretation. Your interpretation may be self-evident to you, but it may not be to everyone else. You need to critique your own interpretation of material, and to present your rationale, so that your reader can follow your thinking.
SynthesisThe term ‘synthesis’ refers to the bringing together of material from different sources, and the creation of an integrated whole. In this case the ‘whole’ will be your structured review of relevant work, and your coherent argument for the study that you are doing.Creating a synthesis is, in effect, like building interpretation upon interpretation. It is essential to check that you have constructed your synthesis well, and with sufficient supporting evidence.

When to review the literature

With small-scale writing projects, the literature review is likely to be done just once; probably before the writing begins. With longer projects such as a dissertation for a Masters degree, and certainly with a PhD, the literature review process will be more extended.

There are three stages at which a review of the literature is needed:

  • an early review is needed to establish the context and rationale for your study and to confirm your choice of research focus/question;
  • as the study period gets longer, you need to make sure that you keep in touch with current, relevant research in your field, which is published during the period of your research;
  • as you prepare your final report or thesis, you need to relate your findings to the findings of others, and to identify their implications for theory, practice, and research. This can involve further review with perhaps a slightly different focus from that of your initial review.

This applies especially to people doing PhDs on a part-time basis, where their research might extend over six or more years. You need to be able to demonstrate that you are aware of current issues and research, and to show how your research is relevant within a changing context.

Who can help?

Staff and students in your area can be good sources of ideas about where to look for relevant literature. They may already have copies of articles that you can work with.

If you attend a conference or workshop with a wider group of people, perhaps from other universities, you can take the opportunity to ask other attendees for recommendations of articles or books relevant to your area of research.

Each department or school has assigned to it a specialist Information Librarian. You can find the contact details for the Information Librarian for your own area via the Library web pages. This person can help you identify relevant sources, and create effective electronic searches:

“they help you to find information, provide training in information skills and the use of databases and can help you to develop your research skills”.

http://www.le.ac.uk/library/about/informationlibrarians.html

Getting started

Reading anything on your research area is a good start. You can then begin your process of evaluating the quality and relevance of what you read, and this can guide you to more focussed further reading.

Taylor and Procter of The University of Toronto have some useful suggested questions to ask yourself at the beginning of your reading:

  • What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?
  • What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research? qualitative research?
  • What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, popular media)?
  • What discipline(s) am I working in (e.g., nursing, psychology, sociology, medicine)?

http://www.utoronto.ca/writing/litrev.html

You can add other questions of your own to focus the search, for example: What time period am I interested in? What geographical area? What social setting? What materials?

You may also want to make a clear decision about whether to start with a very narrow focus and work outwards, or to start wide before focussing in. You may even want to do both at once. It is a good idea to decide your strategy on this, rather than drifting into one or the other. It can give you a degree of control, in what can feel like an overwhelming and uncontrollable stage of the research process.

Ways of finding relevant material

Electronic sources

Searching electronic databases is probably the quickest way to access a lot of material. Guidance will be available via your own department or school and via the relevant Information Librarian.

There may also be key sources of publications for your subject that are accessible electronically, such as collections of policy documents, standards, archive material, videos, and audio-recordings.

References of references

If you can find a few really useful sources, it can be a good idea to check through their reference lists to see the range of sources that they referred to. This can be particularly useful if you find a review article that evaluates other literature in the field. This will then provide you with a long reference list, and some evaluation of the references it contains.

Hand searching of journals

No electronic literature search can be 100% comprehensive, as the match between search terms and the content of articles will never be perfect. An electronic search may throw up a huge number of hits, but there are still likely to be other relevant articles that it has not detected. So, despite having access to electronic databases and to electronic searching techniques, it can be surprisingly useful to have a pile of journals actually on your desk, and to look through the contents pages, and the individual articles.

Often hand searching of journals will reveal ideas about focus, research questions, methods, techniques, or interpretations that had not occurred to you. Sometimes even a key idea can be discovered in this way. It is therefore probably worth allocating some time to sitting in the library, with issues from the last year or two of the most relevant journals for your research topic, and reviewing them for anything of relevance.

Blaxter et al. (2001:103) recommend this method, in addition to other more systematic methods, saying:

‘Take some time to browse – serendipity is a wonderful thing.’

Collecting material

To avoid printing out or photocopying a lot of material that you will not ultimately read, you can use the abstracts of articles to check their relevance before you obtain full copies.

EndNote and RefWorks are software packages that you can use to collect and store details of your references, and your comments on them. As you review the references, remember to be a critical reader (see Study Guide What is critical reading?).

Keeping a record

Keeping a record of your search strategy is useful, to prevent you duplicating effort by doing the same search twice, or missing out a significant and relevant sector of literature because you think you have already done that search. Increasingly, examiners at post-graduate level are looking for the detail of how you chose which evidence you decided to refer to. They will want to know how you went about looking for relevant material, and your process of selection and omission.

You need to check what is required within your own discipline. If you are required to record and present your search strategy, you may be able to include the technical details of the search strategy as an appendix to your thesis.

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is regarded as a serious offence by all Universities, and you need to make sure that you do not, even accidentally, commit plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the using of someone else’s words or ideas, and passing them off as your own. It can happen accidentally, for example, if you are careless in your note-taking. This can mean that you get mixed up over what is an exact quote, and what you have written in your own words; or over what was an idea of your own that you jotted down, or an idea from some text.

A practical way to help you avoid accidentally forgetting to reference someone else’s work, is routinely to record short extracts of text verbatim i.e.: using the exact words of the author, rather than putting the idea into your own words at the point where you are still reading. You will need to put inverted commas (‘xxx’) around the exact quote, and record the page number on which it appears.

This has the advantage that, when you come to use that example in your writing up, you can choose:

  • to use the exact quote in inverted commas, with the reference and page number; or
  • to describe it in your own words, and use the standard reference format, without the page number, to acknowledge that it was someone else’s idea.

Help is available regarding how to avoid plagiarism and it is worth checking it out. Your department will have its own guidance. Further help is available from the Student Learning Centre’s Study Guide on the topic, and from our online tutorial on plagiarism.

When to stop

It is important to keep control of the reading process, and to keep your research focus in mind. Rudestam and Newton (1992:49) remind us that the aim is to ‘Build an argument, not a library’.

It is also important to see the writing stage as part of the research process, not something that happens after you have finished reading the literature. Wellington et al (2005:80) suggest ‘Writing while you collect and collecting while you write.’

Once you are part way through your reading you can have a go at writing the literature review, in anticipation of revising it later on. It is often not until you start explaining something in writing that you find where your argument is weak, and you need to collect more evidence.

A skill that helps in curtailing the reading is: knowing where to set boundaries. For example, a study of the performance of a clinical team working in gerontology might involve reading literature within medicine; nursing; other allied healthcare specialties; psychology; and sociology; as well as perhaps healthcare policy; and patients’ experiences of healthcare. Decisions need to be made about where to focus your reading, and where you can refer briefly to an area but explain why you will not be going into it in more detail.

Writing it up

The task of shaping a logical and effective report of a literature review is undeniably challenging. Some useful guidance on how to approach the writing up is given by Wellington et al (2005:87):

  • “It should be framed by your research questions.
  • It must relate to your study.
  • It must be clear to the reader where it is going: keep signposting along the way.
  • Wherever possible, use original source material rather than summaries or reviews by others.
  • Be in control, not totally deferent to or ‘tossed about by’ previous literature.
  • Be selective. Ask ‘why am I including this?’
  • It is probably best to treat it as a research project in its own right.
  • Engage in a dialogue with the literature, you are not just providing a summary.”

In most disciplines, the aim is for the reader to reach the end of the literature review with a clear appreciation of what you are doing; why you are doing it; and how it fits in with other research in your field. Often, the literature review will end with a statement of the research question(s).

Having a lot of literature to report on can feel overwhelming. It is important to keep the focus on your study, rather than on the literature (Wellington 2005). To help you do this, you will need to establish a structure to work to. A good, well-explained structure is also a huge help to the reader.

Structure

As with any piece of extended writing, structure is crucial. There may be specific guidance on structure within your department, or you may need to devise your own.

Examples of ways you might structure your literature review are:

  • chronologically; although be careful not just to list items; you need to write critically, not just descriptively;
  • by theme; this is useful if there are several strands within your topic that can logically be considered separately before being brought together;
  • by sector e.g.: political background, practice background, methodological background, geographical background, literary background;
  • by development of ideas; this could be useful if there are identifiable stages of idea development that can be looked at in turn;
  • by some combination of the above, or by another structure you create.

There are many possible structures, and you need to establish one that will best fit the ‘story’ you are telling of the reason for your study. Once you have established your structure you need to outline it for your reader.

A narrative thread

Although you clearly need to write in an academic style, it can be helpful to imagine that you are telling a story. The thread running through the story is the explanation of why you decided to do the study that you are doing. The story needs to be logical, informative, persuasive, comprehensive and, ideally, interesting. It needs to reach the logical conclusion that your research is a good idea.

If there is a key article or book that is of major importance to the development of your own research ideas, it is important to give extra space to describing and critiquing that piece of literature in more depth. Similarly, if there are some studies that you will be referring to more than to others, it would be useful to give them a full report and critique at this stage.

Using tables

As well as using tables to display numerical data, tables can be useful within a literature review when you are comparing other kinds of material. For example, you could use a table to display the key differences between two or more:

  • possible theoretical perspectives;
  • possible methods;
  • sets of assumptions;
  • sample profiles;
  • possible explanations.

The table format can make the comparisons easier to understand than if they were listed within the text. It can also be a check for yourself that you have identified enough relevant differences. An omission will be more obvious within a table, where it would appear as a blank cell, than it would be within text.

Reference list

Almost all academic writing will need a reference list. This is a comprehensive list of the full references of sources that you have referred to in your writing. The reader needs to be able to follow up any source you have referred to.

The term ‘bibliography’ can cause confusion, as some people use it interchangeably with the term ‘reference list’; but they are two different things. The term ‘bibliography’ refers to any source list that you want to place at the end of your writing, including sources you have not referenced, and sources you think readers may want to follow up. A bibliography is not usually necessary or relevant, unless you have been asked to produce one.

Common concerns

Help! I’ve spent ages reading up on Method ‘A’, and now I’ve decided to use Method ‘N’. I feel I’ve wasted all that time!

This experience is common in PhD study, but it can happen at any level, and can feel as if you have wasted a lot of effort. Looking at this positively, however, you have probably read more widely than you might otherwise have done. Also, it may still be possible to include some of this learning in your write-up, when you explain why you decided not to use Method ‘A’. It is also possible that, in a viva, you will be asked why you didn’t use that method, and you will be well-prepared to answer in detail.

Help! I thought I had a really good idea for my research, and now I’ve found that someone else has already asked the same research question!

That probably confirms that it was a good question to ask! Although this can feel very disappointing at first, it can often be transformed into a benefit. It is important that your research fits logically within the existing research in your area, and you may have found an ideal study to link with and to extend in some way. Remember that:

  • if it (or something very like it) has been done before, and has been published, it is likely that this signifies it was a relevant and important topic to investigate;
  • you can learn from how the previous researchers did it: what worked and what didn’t;
  • did the previous researchers suggest any further research? If so, you may be able to link your own plans to fit with their suggestions;
  • can you take the investigation further by doing your own similar research: in a different setting; with a different sample; over a different timescale; with a different intervention etc.;
  • their literature review and reference list should be useful.

Help! I think I’ve got a great idea for a study, but I can’t find anything published about the topic.

Firstly, this is unlikely. Perhaps if you modify your search strategy you will find something. However, if there really isn’t anything, then you need to ask why this is the case. Check out whether there is an important reason why the research has not been done, which would make it sensible for you to choose a different focus. If you do decide to go ahead, then take extra care designing your research, in the absence of guidance from previous studies.

Blaxter et al. (2001:125) suggest that, if there appears to be no research in your field:

‘…you should probably consider changing your topic. Ploughing a little-known furrow as a novice researcher is going to be very difficult, and you may find it difficult to get much support or help.’

An important aspect of your thesis and your viva, is that you can show how your research fits with other research. This will be just as important when there is limited existing research in your area, as when there is an abundance.

Reviewing your review

Once you have a first draft of your literature review it is possible for you to assess how well you have achieved your aims. One way of doing this is to examine each paragraph in turn, and to write in the margin a very brief summary of the content, and the type of content e.g.: argument for; argument against; description; example; theory; link. These summaries then provide the outline of the story you are telling, and the way that you are telling it. Both of these are important and need to be critically reviewed.

Useful questions at this stage include:

  • What is the balance between description and comment?
  • Have I missed out any important dimension of the argument, or literature?
  • Have I supported the development of each step in my argument effectively?
  • Is the material presented in the most effective order?
  • Are there places where the reader is left with unanswered questions?
  • Is every element of my research question supported by the preceding material?
  • Have I explained to the reader the relevance of each piece of evidence?
  • Is there any material that is interesting but which does not contribute to the development of the argument?
  • Have I explained adequately the justification for this research approach / topic / question?
  • Are my references up to date?
  • How effective is my linking of all the elements?

Beware of becoming too attached to your writing. You need to be ready to cross out whole paragraphs or even whole sections if they do not pass the above tests. If you find that what you’ve written is not in the best order, then re-shaping it is not a huge problem. It may be mainly a case of cutting and pasting material into a different order, with some additional explanation and linking. If this produces a more relevant and streamlined argument it is well worth the effort.

References

Blaxter L., Hughes C. & Tight M. (2001) How to research. Buckingham: Open University.

Merriam S. (1988) Case study research in education: a qualitative approach. San Francisco, CA:Jossey-Bass.

Rudestam K. & Newton R. (1992) Surviving your dissertation. London:Sage.

Taylor D. & Procter M. (2008) The literature review: a few tips of conducting it. Health Services Writing Centre:University of Toronto. http://www.utoronto.ca/writing/litrev.html

Wellington J., Bathmaker A., Hunt C., McCulloch G., & Sikes P. (2005) Succeeding with your doctorate. London:Sage

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