I’m always on the look out for people I can help, either here or on social medias. And I’ve remarked that one of the questions that come up most often is a really simple one: after all, what IS a literature review?
So here it is. (With a cool infographic at the end of the post!)
A literature review is an academic text that critically analyses and sums up other academic papers on a particular subject.
It’s often the first part of a thesis, a dissertation, a research proposal or an academic journal article. But it can also be a stand-alone paper, either set up as an exercise for a university class or as a published academic paper.
It aims at bringing its reader up-to-date on what has been published on the topic, aka “the literature”.
By “literature”, we mean anything that is relevant to the topic. Generally, it will be scholarly publications such as journal articles, academic books, theses, dissertations, etc. Depending on your subject, you could also include historical records or government reports. If you’re an undergraduate student doing a literature review as an exercise, you might be allowed to include newspaper articles, blog posts or other kinds of online texts, but you should always check with your teacher about this.
So your first job is to find as much relevant literature as you can. This is what we call the “literature search”. You will find a lot of help on this subject on my blog in the “literature search” category.
Your second job is going to “review” this literature. As I said at the very top, you need to “critically analyse and sum up” the literature you’ve found. The thing is, you cannot just write a list of all the publications you’ve found and sum them up one by one (that would be an annotated bibliography). Instead, your review needs to be guided by an argumentative thesis or a research question and discuss it while basing itself on the “literature”. You can treat it as any kind of dissertation you would write, with an introduction-body-conclusion structure. Except that here, the subject of your discussion is going to be the literature itself.
If you’re in a research context, your literature review should relate to your own research. For example, it should lead you to explain why you’re going to use this kind of methodology, study this kind of population, or why you formulated your research question in this way. It can help you identify a gap in the research and suggest how to fill it (either yourself or not).
In the end, the literature review is an integral part of the research process. It gives your research a solid background and shows that you are not researching alone in a little corner, but are an active and conscious part of the research community. Being able to produce a good literature review will give you (and your research) more solidity and credibility.
To make all of this more visual, I created the infographic below. Click on the thumbnail to see it in full. Feel free to share it (as long as you include a link back to this website!).