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Research Basics: Literature Reviews

General information on how to organize and write a literature review.

Literature Review

See PDF for full alt text of infographicPurposes of the Literature Review

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Helps focus your own research questions or problems
  • Discovers relationships between previous research studies/ideas.
  • Suggests unexplored ideas or populations
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Identifies critical gaps, points of disagreement, or potentially flawed methodology or theoretical approaches.
  • Indicates potential directions for future research.

A Literature Review is NOT

Keep in mind that a literature review defines and sets the stage for your later research.  While you may take the same steps in researching your literature review, your literature review is not:

  • An annotated bibliography in which you summarize each article that you have reviewed.  A lit review goes beyond basic summarizing to focus on the critical analysis of the reviewed works and their relationship to your research question.
  • A research paper where you select resources to support one side of an issue versus another.  A lit review should explain and consider all sides of an argument in order to avoid bias, and areas of agreement and disagreement should be highlighted.


Click image to enlarge.

What is the literature?

When asked to do a literature review, you may find yourself wondering what "the literature" is that you need to find.

The literature is a collection of all the scholarly writings on a topic, including scholarly articles, books, and other works. This may seem like a mountain of information to work through, but in almost every field of research the literature can be seen as a series of conversations between scholars - and you don't need to be involved in every conversation to complete your review.

Visual representation of the literature including major works, secondary studies, alternative theories, and gaps in the literature.

There are usually major works that were first written on a topic - these are authors you see cited over and over again. Then other, later works that tend to be building on or responding to the major works in some way. Basically the literature is a continuously evolving network of scholarly works that interact with each other. As you do your own research, you will begin to understand the relationships between these works and how your own ideas relate within the network.

The literature can come in a variety of formats, including:

  • Empirical Articles - original research is conducted and the article is a formalized write-up of that research (also called primary research)
  • Theoretical Articles - contribute to the theoretical foundations of a field by forming a new theory or exploring theories in a new way
  • Review Article - called a literature or systematic review and is written to bring together and summarize the results or conclusions from multiple empirical and theoretical articles
  • Gray Literature - informally published scholarly work that is often available online and in specialized resources