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How to Write a Literature Review: Home


This libguide offers an overview on how to write a literature review in general. If you need further information or personal consultation, please contact Junli Diao, Assistant Professor/Head of Cataloging & Serials. If you need help in writing a systematic review, please contact Stefka Tzanova, Assistant Professor/Science Librarian.

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a comprehensive survey of research done on a specific topic. A literature review can be part of a research article, a proposal or a dissertation, providing readers with background information connected to the chosen research question. It can also be taken as an independent piece to demonstrate a thorough understanding of a subject or a research area. If it is the first time to write a literature review, this could be a challenging process.

What is the purpose of a literature review?

A literature review serves various purposes. A well-done literature review demonstrates to readers what is already known and what is not yet known in a research area, and it shows the extent of your familiarity with other research on the chosen topic. A good literature review helps create an effective dialogue between readers and the researcher. As part of a research paper or dissertation, one of the added values lies in identifying inconsistencies, disparities, gaps or blank spots in current research through synthesizing, analyzing, and critiquing previous research, which helps build the rationale why further, extended or a totally new investigation is essentially required by the current study. So, a literature review sets the stage and justifies the purpose of a study, which builds close connection with the methodology chosen in the research.

A stand-alone literature review (sometimes it is called a review article once it is published in comparison to research articles that collect and analyze data) can be an assignment of the course you are taking. A stand-alone literature review can also be the outcome of an Independent Study project that you registered for. Both situations require that current knowledge of a specific topic should be collected, evaluated, summarized and synthesized, leading to an insightful argument or a meaningful conclusion. Comparatively speaking, a literature review required by an Independent Study should demonstrate extensive and deep analysis, which leads to a systematic review.

How to choose a topic?

Identifying the right topic to review is the first, but crucial step in writing a good literature review. Sometimes, your professor offers you a list of specific topics to choose from or asks you to create a research question from a list of broader topics that they supplied. If that is the case, things can be becoming easier. Be aware that actually how much you understand the content taught in the class by your professor and how familiar you are with required and selective readings for the course will help you write a literature review that meets the assignment criteria. Sometimes, it is totally up to you to make the decision what topic you want to review. If the topic is too broad, your writing will become difficult to manage because you will be facing countless materials; if the topic is too narrow, it goes in the opposite direction because there is nothing much to read and write. For instance, “global warming” is too broad a topic, and the search in a regular database like Academic Search Complete yields tons of resources. But if you choose “developing countries’ political response toward global warming,” it will become less daunting and more manageable. Choose something that you find interesting. Too broad or too specific of a focus will waste your time. To know how to narrow a broader research topic, please consult this libguide.

How to find reading resources?

Once you decide the appropriate topic, what comes next is to find things to read. There are two categories of resources that you can actually utilize: scholarly resources and popular resources (here is a link to a youtube video). Scholarly resources include empirical journal articles, dissertations, books, review articles, scholarly essays, textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries. Popular resources include nationally and international renowned magazines and newspapers. If you are working on a course assignment, keep in mind the criteria described in the assignment and understand what kind of materials are preferred. For instance, your professor might put a limitation on the publication date and ask you to review scholarly articles published in the past ten years. Whatever resources you are looking for, please do take advantage of library services to find relevant ones: Databases by Subject and LibGuide. If you have any question or doubt, please contact the subject liaison librarian without hesitation.

How to read and organize reading materials?

How to efficiently read collected materials is a personal and complex task. My personal strategy is to read, organize, read again and reflect. I read every piece from its title to its reference list and try to understand as much as I can without doing much reflection or criticism in the first round. The benefit is three fold: gain a quick, general understanding of what I have collected and what is going on in the field; retrieve more relevant articles by checking the reference list; and organize my materials and decide what is to be kept and brought to the next stage of reading and what is to be discarded. I usually categorize the kept materials by topic, research methods, similar findings, chronological order, or by authors’ who share the common or opposite arguments, and then I thoroughly read selected materials again. This time, I usually highlight key points, important sentences, mark questions, and take notes. I do not spend too much time reading part of articles that are less important or totally irrelevant to the topic. Reading is a personal activity and you can only develop your own strategies by reading more.

How to write and structure a literature review?

Writing is another personal and complex task. A literature review is not piling up who-said-what together or stitching together others’ research results. If it is your first time to write a literature review, try to write a summary of each material that you chose, identify similarities and differences of summaries, and then group them accordingly and reflect on the reasons. If the literature review is part of a research article or a dissertation, pay attention to coherence with the preceding and succeeding sections. Basically, your writing should enable readers to feel like blood running in a vessel without any blockage. If you are working on a stand-alone literature review, such as for a course assignment, you should be aware of its basic structure: introduction, main body and conclusion. Generally speaking, the introduction provides the background or purpose of the literature review. A straight-forward, informative, and strategically-led introduction will leave a good first impression on readers. The main body contains a review of the literature, logically and coherently, that you read. Depending on how long your paper is expected to be, it may involve headings and subheadings to indicate the theme of each section. How well the materials are categorized and how many notes are taken, organized, summarized, and reflected lay a good foundation for the main body of a literature review. Finally, your literature review calls for a conclusion that demonstrates how well the question raised in the introduction has been answered and how well the goal of the review has been achieved. You could summarize the key points already discussed or make implications to the researched field, as well as pointing out any limitation(s) of the current study and/or making any recommendation(s) for future work when necessary. Do summarize and highlight what you have done in the conclusion. Do not add new, irrelevant arguments or information, which is distractive and confusing.

How to cite resources?

The final part is to create a reference list that shows the materials that you consulted and used in the manuscript. Be aware what citation style is preferred by the requirements of your writing assignment, proposal guideline, dissertation, or journal. At the Circulation and Reserve section in the York College Library, you can check out APA, MLA, Chicago style handbooks. You can also take advantage of Purdue Owl for instant and up-to-date examples and tutorials or the citation libguide for more information. If you want to improve and polish your writing techniques, please visit the Collaborative Learning Center, where one-on-one, small group and online writing tutoring are offered. If you have more questions, the reference desk provides walk-in services, or you could email us or contact subject liaison librarians for consultation.

Asst Prof/Head of Cataloging & Serials

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Junli Diao
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Useful Databases

Please take advantage of the database of Annual Review and you can find excellent review articles. Generally speaking, in a regular database, such as PsycARTICLEs and PsycINFO you can find a feature called "Document Type," which helps limit the results within the scope of review articles.