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How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes .

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, frequently asked questions, introduction.

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

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Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).


The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.


If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:


A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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Writing a Literature Review

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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.



How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.


Literature review sources

Sources for literature review can be divided into three categories as illustrated in table below. In your dissertation you will need to use all three categories of literature review sources:

Sources for literature review and examples

Generally, your literature review should integrate a wide range of sources such as:

Your secondary data sources may comprise certain amount of grey literature as well. The term grey literature refers to type of literature produced by government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, which is not controlled by commercial publishers. It is called ‘grey’ because the status of the information in grey literature is not certain. In other words, any publication that has not been peer reviewed for publication is grey literature.

The necessity to use grey literature arises when there is no enough peer reviewed publications are available for the subject of your study.

Literature review sources

John Dudovskiy

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Need, Importance and 5 Sources of Review of Related Literature in Educational Research

Back to: Introduction to Educational Research Methodology

Educational research means the organized collection and examination of the data related to education. It is a scientific study that examines the learning and teaching methods for better understanding of the education system. It is an observation and investigation in the field of education. Research is done in search of new knowledge or to use the existing knowledge in a better way. It helps to acquire useful knowledge and solve the challenges faced in education. Research tries to get a better understanding of education. 

Literature review means the overview of the works published previously on a subject matter. It is the summary of the work done by other authors on a topic. Literature review will help a researcher in understanding how to carry on the research and what needs to be covered. 

Need of Reviewing Related Literature 

i. Avoid repetition and duplication of the study.

ii. Find out the gaps in research.

iii. Identify the additional research needed to be done.

iv. Gain extensive knowledge on a particular topic. 

v. Help understand what has already been covered about a topic and the findings need to be done for future research. 

Importance of Review of Related Literature

i. Help researchers to understand their topic of interest in-depth. 

ii. Help to identify the gaps uncovered by previous authors on a topic and collect relevant data.

iii. Get an understanding of how to carry on the research. 

Five Sources to Review Related Literature 

Scholarly journal articles.

Journal articles are an important source of literature review. It helps to understand how to carry out the research and the findings to be done.

Government websites

To collect statistical data, government websites can be very beneficial as it can provide a lot of information. Government websites are another important source of literature review. 

Academic books 

Academic books consist of works written by several authors. It contains original work which will be very helpful in literature review. 

Conference pages

Conference and seminar reports are also an important source of literature review to understand the thoughts of authors and works previously published in a field of study. 

Libraries contain numerous books and works on a topic by different authors. Plenty of information and facts can be obtained from this source of literature review. 

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Chapter 5: The Literature Review

5.3 Acceptable sources for literature reviews

Following are a few acceptable sources for literature reviews, listed in order from what will be considered most acceptable to less acceptable sources for your literature review assignments:

Peer reviewed journal articles (papers)

A peer reviewed journal article is a paper that has been submitted to a scholarly journal, accepted, and published. Peer review journal papers go through a rigorous, blind review process of peer review. What this means is that two to three experts in the area of research featured in the paper have reviewed and accepted the paper for publication. The names of the author(s) who are seeking to publish the research have been removed (blind review), so as to minimize any bias towards the authors of the research (albeit, sometimes a savvy reviewer can discern who has done the research based upon previous publications, etc.). This blind review process can be long (often 12 to 18 months) and may involve many back and forth edits on the behalf of the researchers, as they work to address the edits and concerns of the peers who reviewed their paper. Often, reviewers will reject the paper for a variety of reasons, such as unclear or questionable methods, lack of contribution to the field, etc. Because peer reviewed journal articles have gone through a rigorous process of review, they are considered to be the premier source for research. Peer reviewed journal articles should serve as the foundation for your literature review.

The following link will provide more information on peer reviewed journal articles. Make sure you watch the little video on the upper left-hand side of your screen, in addition to reading the material at the following website:    http://guides.lib.jjay.cuny.edu/c.php?g=288333&p=1922599

Edited academic books

An edited academic book is a collection of scholarly scientific papers written by different authors. The works are original papers, not published elsewhere (“Edited volume,” 2018). The papers within the text also go through a process of review; however, the review is often not a blind review because the authors have been invited to contribute to the book. Consequently, edited academic books are fine to use for your literature review, but you also want to ensure that your literature review contains mostly peer reviewed journal papers.

Articles in professional journals

Articles from professional journals should be used with caution for your literature review. This is because articles in trade journals are not usually peer reviewed, even though they may appear to be. A good way to find out is to read the “About Us” section of the professional journal, which should state whether or not the papers are peer reviewed. You can also find out by Googling the name of the journal and adding “peer reviewed” to the search.

Statistical data from governmental websites

Governmental websites can be excellent sources for statistical data, e.g, Statistics Canada collects and publishes data related to the economy, society, and the environment (see https://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/start ).

Website material from professional associations

Material from other websites can also serve as a source for statistics that you may need for your literature review. Since you want to justify the value of the research that interests you, you might make use of a professional association’s website to learn how many members they have, for example. You might want to demonstrate, as part of the introduction to your literature review, why more research on the topic of PTSD in police officers is important. You could use peer reviewed journal articles to determine the prevalence of PTSD in police officers in Canada in the last ten years, and then use the Ontario Police Officers´ Association website to determine the approximate number of police officers employed in the Province of Ontario over the last ten years. This might help you estimate how many police officers could be suffering with PTSD in Ontario. That number could potentially help to justify a research grant down the road. But again, this type of website- based material should be used with caution and sparingly.

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write five sources of review of related literature

Sources of a good literature review is one of many challenges and bottlenecks that master’s and doctoral students face in their dissertations or theses writing process. And yet, if done properly, it helps to state the problem and provide a great starting point for researchers who are stepping into a new field/area or exploring a new topic. On the other hand, it gives readers and examiners precise ideas about the title by presenting the level of research studies done as well as the advances made by other researchers in specific research areas over a well-defined period (in most cases, the last past ten years). A literature review is an analysis of ideas, theories, and concepts in a specific field of study. It remains a critical assessment of a body of knowledge related to the research questions or the research problem. Additionally, it helps reveal the gaps, limitations and main debates in the literature. But the question is, on what is a good literature review based?

Sources of a good litterature review

Where does the information come from?

When we choose our research topic or title, we choose it because we like it. However, in most cases, we often know too little about our research topic or have an approximate or vague ideas about the title we have chosen to investigate. The review of the literature is therefore undertaken to helps us understand our topic better; deepen our knowledge and fill the gap of knowledge we have on a particular subject. A part of the solution are Sources of good literature review.

When you are about to begin your literature review, it is important to carefully select the intellectual resources available to you by screening all the information you will include in your literature chapter(s) or section(s). Several sources are available to researchers to choose from; nonetheless, you must know beforehand the range of materials that you will be reviewing to save yourself time and trouble and those sources are as follows:

Scholarly and peer-reviewed journals

Scholarly journals are articles written by ‘experts’ in a particular field that present original research data and findings, or take a position on a key question within a field (North Central University Library, 2020). These journals are well respected for the quality of the information and the originality of the research study they present and their purpose is to advance the ongoing body of knowledge within a field.

A peer-reviewed journal is an academic article that was looked over by various reviewers (usually three) who are in the same field called ‘peers’. This is done to improve the quality of the paper. If you want up-to-date research studies for your literature, journal articles can provide you with the latest information on a specific topic since they are published monthly, quarterly or annually. They are considered as reliable sources for the quality of the information contained is checked during the publishing process.

Conference Paper with Research Foundation

A conference paper is an article written to be presented at a conference (local or international conferences). This paper undergoes a review process for it to be accepted for presentation and later on for publication. Generally, these papers have some assurance of quality since they are checked by reviewers (usually academics), who provide their feedback along the way to improve the quality of the papers. However, there are also some papers published by some conference organisers that contain very bad information. Refrain from using those. Make sure that you select the right papers for your work. One way to do that is to check if the conference was organised by a university or a reputable organisation.

Sources of a good litterature review

Books are reliable sources of information. They provide researchers with thorough information on a variety of topics. They contain high-quality information that is well-researched and deemed trustworthy since they have been checked by the publishers.  They also include references to other sources you can use for your literature review. This does not mean that you must just cite those sources in your work without consulting them. Make sure to consult a source before including it in your work or rather reference the book used.

Books reliable information for a good litterature review

A report is a concise document that presents information written for a specific audience and purpose. They give a detailed analysis of a topic since most of them consist of statistics or research findings, which can be used to interpret your results by showing the similarities and dissimilarities between your research findings and other similar research studies for a comprehensive insight.

The world wide web is a good resource for a Good Literature Review

The World Wide Web today is considered as the quickest access to information. In one click, with any device of your choice (phones, tablets and laptops), you can access thousands of databases and browse as many websites as you wish. It is within everyone’s reach and in this century, it is one of the preferred methods of compiling assignments used by students. However, as a postgraduate student, you must be careful when using it. Keep in mind that the information contained in your project should be reliable and the sources verifiable. However, the internet, databases, websites, and blogs are not always reliable since the quality of the information is not checked. There is no review process either. Everyone can post an article on the internet so you are responsible for choosing the type of information you include in your project. I will advise you to go for academic databases, blogs and websites.

sources of a good literature review

To carry out your master or doctorate project, you can use the dissertations and theses of other students; not only, to gather more information concerning the structure of a master’s or doctoral project but also to cite their work and include them as references. You can also use other students work to consult different sources they have used. I remember that the bound copy of my Master’s dissertation that I gave to my supervisor was circulated in the department among the staff and postgraduate students for them to have an idea of what a good dissertation looks like. Moreover, my supervisor and co-supervisor used to send the soft-copy to their students as a sample of chapter 1 (proposal) and chapter 3 (research methodology).

However, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that not all research projects are trustworthy as they may contain errors and confuse you in your research. It is always good to use resources other than these for more credibility. Using past dissertations and theses present a high risk of plagiarism or the risk of over citing the author of the work since the work is completely done and addresses part of your topic. You will find students who have copied the whole research methodology chapter from another student’s work or a whole paragraph. This is simply not acceptable.

write five sources of review of related literature

There are many government publications databases available for you to choose from for your research studies such as SABINET, SA catalogue… For instance if your topic is about the current pandemic (COVID 19) you may use various government publications for your studies instead of books, journal articles for your literature review. An example of database you might use is a South African Government Online (https://www.gov.za/)

Research Foundation, resources of a good literature review

Newspaper magazines could be sources of a good literature review. Depending on your area of study, you can find magazines or newspapers that contain up to date information or news that can make your literature review more timely and interesting. These academic resources are helpful when stating the problem as it can provide you with adequate information concerning the context and the issue discussed. Whether you are dealing with theoretical scientific issue or a practical real-world problem, magazines and newspapers can give you an understanding of the problem. The magazine and newspaper editors or/and the editors-in-chief sometimes allow the community to engage in it by allowing them to state their opinions on a subject or matter. Magazines and newspapers are also helpful when it comes to writing about your unit of analysis (your unit of sampling) or describing your population. They can provide you with information concerning a community, their social interactions, a group of people, and/or a geographical unit.

Bibliographies sources of literature review

An article which is relevant to your topic may also have a relevant bibliography. Mark those sources in the bibliography and use the inter-library loan section to borrow/or try to source the articles through your university databases.

All the sources cited above can serve as a starting point for your research project and they can help you build a discussion, a perspective and/or a line of reasoning. However, not all resources are relevant for your study; you must choose the appropriate source of information. Although the title indicates that the article is about one of your variables, sometimes the content is very different from what the title stipulates. Your responsibility is to carefully evaluate the resources and determine whether it is suitable for your study or not. For ethical reasons, do not forget to reference properly and cite all the authors used in your literature review. They serve as evidence and support the assertions and claims made throughout your study. You must compile the list of all the references cited in-text to allow readers/examiners who would like to know more about a specific information to be able to trace it and confirm it. If they also want to know more about an author mentioned in your work, they have to be able to do so.

North Central University Library. (2020). Research process. [Online]. https://ncu.libguides.com/researchprocess/scholarlyjournals . Accessed: 09/09/2020.

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how to write review of related literature in research

How to write review of related literature (RRL) in research

write five sources of review of related literature

A review of related literature (a.k.a RRL in research) is a comprehensive review of the existing literature pertaining to a specific topic or research question. An effective review provides the reader with an organized analysis and synthesis of the existing knowledge about a subject. With the increasing amount of new information being disseminated every day, conducting a review of related literature is becoming more difficult and the purpose of review of related literature is clearer than ever.  

All new knowledge is necessarily based on previously known information, and every new scientific study must be conducted and reported in the context of previous studies. This makes a review of related literature essential for research, and although it may be tedious work at times , most researchers will complete many such reviews of varying depths during their career. So, why exactly is a review of related literature important?    

Table of Contents

Why a review of related literature in research is important  

Before thinking how to do reviews of related literature , it is necessary to understand its importance. Although the purpose of a review of related literature varies depending on the discipline and how it will be used, its importance is never in question. Here are some ways in which a review can be crucial.  

write five sources of review of related literature

Tips on how to write a review of related literature in research

Given that you will probably need to produce a number of these at some point, here are a few general tips on how to write an effective review of related literature 2 .

As you read more extensively in your discipline, you will notice that the review of related literature appears in various forms in different places. For example, when you read an article about an experimental study, you will typically see a literature review or a RRL in research , in the introduction that includes brief descriptions of similar studies. In longer research studies and dissertations, especially in the social sciences, the review of related literature will typically be a separate chapter and include more information on methodologies and theory building. In addition, stand-alone review articles will be published that are extremely useful to researchers.  

The review of relevant literature or often abbreviated as, RRL in research , is an important communication tool that can be used in many forms for many purposes. It is a tool that all researchers should befriend.  

Q:  Is research complete without a review of related literature?

A research project is usually considered incomplete without a proper review of related literature. The review of related literature is a crucial component of any research project as it provides context for the research question, identifies gaps in existing literature, and ensures novelty by avoiding duplication. It also helps inform research design and supports arguments, highlights the significance of a study, and demonstrates your knowledge an expertise.

Q: What is difference between RRL and RRS?

The key difference between an RRL and an RRS lies in their focus and scope. An RRL or review of related literature examines a broad range of literature, including theoretical frameworks, concepts, and empirical studies, to establish the context and significance of the research topic. On the other hand, an RRS or review of research studies specifically focuses on analyzing and summarizing previous research studies within a specific research domain to gain insights into methodologies, findings, and gaps in the existing body of knowledge. While there may be some overlap between the two, they serve distinct purposes and cover different aspects of the research process.

Q: Does review of related literature improve accuracy and validity of research?

Yes, a comprehensive review of related literature (RRL) plays a vital role in improving the accuracy and validity of research. It helps authors gain a deeper understanding and offers different perspectives on the research topic. RRL can help you identify research gaps, dictate the selection of appropriate research methodologies, enhance theoretical frameworks, avoid biases and errors, and even provide support for research design and interpretation. By building upon and critically engaging with existing related literature, researchers can ensure their work is rigorous, reliable, and contributes meaningfully to their field of study.

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Literature Reviews

What this handout is about.

This handout will explain what literature reviews are and offer insights into the form and construction of literature reviews in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.


OK. You’ve got to write a literature review. You dust off a novel and a book of poetry, settle down in your chair, and get ready to issue a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as you leaf through the pages. “Literature review” done. Right?

Wrong! The “literature” of a literature review refers to any collection of materials on a topic, not necessarily the great literary texts of the world. “Literature” could be anything from a set of government pamphlets on British colonial methods in Africa to scholarly articles on the treatment of a torn ACL. And a review does not necessarily mean that your reader wants you to give your personal opinion on whether or not you liked these sources.

What is a literature review, then?

A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes information in a particular subject area within a certain time period.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper is likely to contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.

Why do we write literature reviews?

Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone. For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field. For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

Who writes these things, anyway?

Literature reviews are written occasionally in the humanities, but mostly in the sciences and social sciences; in experiment and lab reports, they constitute a section of the paper. Sometimes a literature review is written as a paper in itself.

Let’s get to it! What should I do before writing the literature review?

If your assignment is not very specific, seek clarification from your instructor:

Find models

Look for other literature reviews in your area of interest or in the discipline and read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or ways to organize your final review. You can simply put the word “review” in your search engine along with your other topic terms to find articles of this type on the Internet or in an electronic database. The bibliography or reference section of sources you’ve already read are also excellent entry points into your own research.

Narrow your topic

There are hundreds or even thousands of articles and books on most areas of study. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the material. Your instructor will probably not expect you to read everything that’s out there on the topic, but you’ll make your job easier if you first limit your scope.

Keep in mind that UNC Libraries have research guides and to databases relevant to many fields of study. You can reach out to the subject librarian for a consultation: https://library.unc.edu/support/consultations/ .

And don’t forget to tap into your professor’s (or other professors’) knowledge in the field. Ask your professor questions such as: “If you had to read only one book from the 90’s on topic X, what would it be?” Questions such as this help you to find and determine quickly the most seminal pieces in the field.

Consider whether your sources are current

Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. In the sciences, for instance, treatments for medical problems are constantly changing according to the latest studies. Information even two years old could be obsolete. However, if you are writing a review in the humanities, history, or social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be what is needed, because what is important is how perspectives have changed through the years or within a certain time period. Try sorting through some other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to consider what is currently of interest to scholars in this field and what is not.

Strategies for writing the literature review

Find a focus.

A literature review, like a term paper, is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organized. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. No. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together. Do they present one or different solutions? Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory? Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate? Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.

Convey it to your reader

A literature review may not have a traditional thesis statement (one that makes an argument), but you do need to tell readers what to expect. Try writing a simple statement that lets the reader know what is your main organizing principle. Here are a couple of examples:

The current trend in treatment for congestive heart failure combines surgery and medicine. More and more cultural studies scholars are accepting popular media as a subject worthy of academic consideration.

Consider organization

You’ve got a focus, and you’ve stated it clearly and directly. Now what is the most effective way of presenting the information? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc., that your review needs to include? And in what order should you present them? Develop an organization for your review at both a global and local level:

First, cover the basic categories

Just like most academic papers, literature reviews also must contain at least three basic elements: an introduction or background information section; the body of the review containing the discussion of sources; and, finally, a conclusion and/or recommendations section to end the paper. The following provides a brief description of the content of each:

Organizing the body

Once you have the basic categories in place, then you must consider how you will present the sources themselves within the body of your paper. Create an organizational method to focus this section even further.

To help you come up with an overall organizational framework for your review, consider the following scenario:

You’ve decided to focus your literature review on materials dealing with sperm whales. This is because you’ve just finished reading Moby Dick, and you wonder if that whale’s portrayal is really real. You start with some articles about the physiology of sperm whales in biology journals written in the 1980’s. But these articles refer to some British biological studies performed on whales in the early 18th century. So you check those out. Then you look up a book written in 1968 with information on how sperm whales have been portrayed in other forms of art, such as in Alaskan poetry, in French painting, or on whale bone, as the whale hunters in the late 19th century used to do. This makes you wonder about American whaling methods during the time portrayed in Moby Dick, so you find some academic articles published in the last five years on how accurately Herman Melville portrayed the whaling scene in his novel.

Now consider some typical ways of organizing the sources into a review:

Sometimes, though, you might need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. Put in only what is necessary. Here are a few other sections you might want to consider:

Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

Begin composing

Once you’ve settled on a general pattern of organization, you’re ready to write each section. There are a few guidelines you should follow during the writing stage as well. Here is a sample paragraph from a literature review about sexism and language to illuminate the following discussion:

However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to fill in pronouns that agreed with gender-neutral antecedents such as “writer,” “pedestrian,” and “persons.” The students were asked to describe any image they had when writing the sentence. Hamilton found that people imagined 3.3 men to each woman in the masculine “generic” condition and 1.5 men per woman in the unbiased condition. Thus, while ambient sexism accounted for some of the masculine bias, sexist language amplified the effect. (Source: Erika Falk and Jordan Mills, “Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense,” Women and Language19:2).

Use evidence

In the example above, the writers refer to several other sources when making their point. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.

Be selective

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review’s focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.

Use quotes sparingly

Falk and Mills do not use any direct quotes. That is because the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Notice that Falk and Mills do quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. But if you find yourself wanting to put in more quotes, check with your instructor.

Summarize and synthesize

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. The authors here recapitulate important features of Hamilton’s study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study’s significance and relating it to their own work.

Keep your own voice

While the literature review presents others’ ideas, your voice (the writer’s) should remain front and center. Notice that Falk and Mills weave references to other sources into their own text, but they still maintain their own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with their own ideas and their own words. The sources support what Falk and Mills are saying.

Use caution when paraphrasing

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. In the preceding example, Falk and Mills either directly refer in the text to the author of their source, such as Hamilton, or they provide ample notation in the text when the ideas they are mentioning are not their own, for example, Gastil’s. For more information, please see our handout on plagiarism .

Revise, revise, revise

Draft in hand? Now you’re ready to revise. Spending a lot of time revising is a wise idea, because your main objective is to present the material, not the argument. So check over your review again to make sure it follows the assignment and/or your outline. Then, just as you would for most other academic forms of writing, rewrite or rework the language of your review so that you’ve presented your information in the most concise manner possible. Be sure to use terminology familiar to your audience; get rid of unnecessary jargon or slang. Finally, double check that you’ve documented your sources and formatted the review appropriately for your discipline. For tips on the revising and editing process, see our handout on revising drafts .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Anson, Chris M., and Robert A. Schwegler. 2010. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers , 6th ed. New York: Longman.

Jones, Robert, Patrick Bizzaro, and Cynthia Selfe. 1997. The Harcourt Brace Guide to Writing in the Disciplines . New York: Harcourt Brace.

Lamb, Sandra E. 1998. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook , 5th ed. New York: Longman.

Troyka, Lynn Quittman, and Doug Hesse. 2016. Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers , 11th ed. London: Pearson.

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Researching for your literature review: Literature sources

Scholarly databases

It's important to make a considered decision as to where to search for your review of the literature. It's uncommon for a disciplinary area to be covered by a single publisher, so searching a single publisher platform or database is unlikely to give you sufficient coverage of studies for a review. A good quality literature review involves searching a number of databases individually.

The most common method is to search a combination of large inter-disciplinary databases such as Scopus & Web of Science Core Collection, and some subject-specific databases (such as PsycInfo or EconLit etc.). The Library databases are an excellent place to start for sources of peer-reviewed journal articles.

Depending on disciplinary expectations, or the topic of our review, you may also need to consider sources or search methods other than database searching. There is general information below on searching grey literature. However, due to the wide varieties of grey literature available, you may need to spend some time investigating sources relevant for your specific need.

Grey literature

Grey literature is information which has been published informally or non-commercially (where the main purpose of the producing body is not commercial publishing) or remains unpublished. One example may be Government publications.

Grey literature may be included in a literature review to minimise publication bias . The quality of grey literature can vary greatly - some may be peer reviewed whereas some may not have been through a traditional editorial process.

See the Grey Literature guide for further information on finding and evaluating grey sources.

See the Moodle book MNHS: Systematically searching the grey literature for a comprehensive module on grey literature for systematic reviews.

In certain disciplines (such as physics) there can be a culture of preprints being made available prior to submissions to journals. There has also been a noticeable rise in preprints in medical and health areas in the wake of Covid-19.

If preprints are relevant for you, you can search preprint servers directly. A workaround might be to utilise a search engine such as Google Scholar to search specifically for preprints, as Google Scholar has timely coverage of most preprint servers including ArXiv, RePec, SSRN, BioRxiv, and MedRxiv.

Articles in Press are not preprints, but are accepted manuscripts that are not yet formally published. Articles in Press have been made available as an early access online version of a paper that may not yet have received its final formatting or an allocation of a volume/issue number. As well as being available on a journal's website, Articles in Press are available in databases such as Scopus and Web of Science, and so (unlike preprints) don't necessarily require a separate search.

Conference papers

Conference papers are typically published in conference proceedings (the collection of papers presented at a conference), and may be found on an organisation or Society's website, as a journal, or as a special issue of journal.

In certain disciplines (such as computer science), conference papers may be highly regarded as a form of scholarly communication; the conferences are highly selective, the papers are generally peer reviewed, and papers are published in proceedings affiliated with high-quality publishing houses.

Conference papers may be indexed in a range of scholarly databases. If you only want to see conference papers, database limits can be used to filter results, or try a specific index such as the examples below:

Honours students and postgraduates may request conference papers through Interlibrary Loans . However, conference paper requests may take longer than traditional article requests as they can be difficult to locate; they may have been only supplied to attendees or not formally published. Sometimes only the abstract is available.

If you are specifically looking for statistical data, try searching for the keyword statistics in a Google Advanced Search and limiting by a relevant site or domain. Below are some examples of sites, or you can try a domain such as .gov for government websites.

Statistical data can be found in the following selected sources:

For a list of databases that include statistics see: Databases by Subject: Statistics .

If you are specifically looking for information found in newspapers, the library has a large collection of Australian and overseas newspapers, both current and historical.

To search the full-text of newspapers in electronic format use a database such as  Newsbank.

Alternatively, see the Newspapers subject guide for comprehensive information on newspaper sources available via Monash University library and open source databases, as well as searching tips, online videos and more.

Dissertations and theses

The Monash University Library Theses subject guide provides resources and guidelines for locating and accessing theses (dissertations) produced by Monash University as well as other universities in Australia and internationally.  

International theses:

There are a number of theses databases and repositories.

A popular source is:

Australia and New Zealand theses:

Theses that are available in the library can be found using the  Search catalogue.

These include:

Formats include print (not available for loan), microfiche and online (some may have access restrictions).

Trove includes doctoral, masters and some honours theses from all Australian and New Zealand universities, as well as theses awarded elsewhere but held by Australian institutions.



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