4.1 What is a literature review?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the components of a literature review
  • Recognize commons errors in literature reviews

 

Pick up nearly any book on research methods and you will find a description of a literature review. At a basic level, the term implies a survey of factual or nonfiction books, articles, and other documents published on a particular subject. Definitions may be similar across the disciplines, with new types and definitions continuing to emerge. Generally speaking, a literature review is a:

  • “comprehensive background of the literature within the interested topic area” (O’Gorman & MacIntosh, 2015, p. 31). [1]
  • “critical component of the research process that provides an in-depth analysis of recently published research findings in specifically identified areas of interest” (Houser, 2018, p. 109). [2]
  • “written document that presents a logically argued case founded on a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge about a topic of study” (Machi & McEvoy, 2012, p. 4). [3]

Literature reviews are indispensable for academic research. “A substantive, thorough, sophisticated literature review is a precondition for doing substantive, thorough, sophisticated research…A researcher cannot perform significant research without first understanding the literature in the field” (Boote & Beile, 2005, p. 3). [4] In the literature review, a researcher shows she is familiar with a body of knowledge and thereby establishes her credibility with a reader. The literature review shows how previous research is linked to the author’s project by summarizing and synthesizing what is known while identifying gaps in the knowledge base, facilitating theory development, closing areas where enough research already exists, and uncovering areas where more research is needed. (Webster & Watson, 2002, p. xiii). [5] Literature reviews are often necessary for real world social work practice. Grant proposals, advocacy briefs, and evidence-based practice rely on a review of the literature to accomplish practice goals.

 

old books on a shelf

A literature review is a compilation of the most significant previously published research on your topic. Unlike an annotated bibliography or a research paper you may have written in other classes, your literature review will outline, evaluate, and synthesize relevant research and relate those sources to your own research question. It is much more than a summary of all the related literature. A good literature review lays the solidifies the importance of the problem your study aims to address, defines the main ideas of your research question, and demonstrates their interrelationships.

Literature review basics

All literature reviews, whether they focus on qualitative or quantitative data, will at some point:

  1. Introduce the topic and define its key terms.
  2. Establish the importance of the topic.
  3. Provide an overview of the important literature on the concepts in the research question and other related concepts.
  4. Identify gaps in the literature or controversies.
  5. Point out consistent finding across studies.
  6. Arrive at a synthesis that organizes what is known about a topic, rather than just summarizing.
  7. Discuss possible implications and directions for future research.

There are many different types of literature reviews, including those that focus solely on methodology, those that are more conceptual, and those that are more exploratory. Regardless of the type of literature review or how many sources it contains, strong literature reviews have similar characteristics. Your literature review is, at its most fundamental level, an original work based on an extensive critical examination and synthesis of the relevant literature on a topic. As a study of the research on a particular topic, it is arranged by key themes or findings, which should lead up to or link to the research question.

A literature review is a mandatory part of any research project. It demonstrates that you can systematically explore the research in your topic area, read and analyze the literature on the topic, use it to inform your own work, and gather enough knowledge about the topic to conduct a research project. Literature reviews should be reasonably complete, and not restricted to a few journals, a few years, or a specific methodology or research design. A well-conducted literature review should indicate to you whether your initial research questions have already been addressed in the literature, whether there are newer or more interesting research questions available, and whether the original research questions should be modified or changed in light of findings of the literature review. The review can also provide potential answers to your research question, help identify theories that have previously been used to address similar questions, as well as provide evidence to inform policy or decision-making (Bhattacherjee, 2012). [6]

In addition, literature reviews are beneficial to you both as a researcher and as a social work scholar. By reading what others have argued and found in their work, you become familiar with how people talk about and understand your topic. During the process, you will refine your writing skills and your understanding of the topic you have chosen. The literature review also impacts the question you want to answer. As you learn more about your topic, you will clarify and redefine the research question guiding your inquiry. By completing a literature review, you ensure that you are neither repeating a study that has been done numerous times in the past, not repeating mistakes of past researchers. The contribution your research study will have depends on what others have found before you. Try to place the study you wish to do in the context of previous research and ask, “Is this contributing something new?” and “Am I addressing a gap in knowledge or controversy in the literature?”

In summary, you should conduct a literature review to:

  • Locate gaps in the literature of your discipline
  • Avoid “reinventing the wheel,” by repeating past studies or mistakes
  • Carry on the unfinished work of other scholars
  • Identify other people working in the same field
  • Increase the breadth and depth of knowledge in your subject area
  • Read the seminal works in your field
  • Provide intellectual context for your own work
  • Acknowledge opposing viewpoints
  • Put your work in perspective
  • Demonstrate you can find and understand previous work in the area

Common literature review errors

Literature reviews are more than a summary of the publications you find on a topic. As you have seen in this brief introduction, literature reviews are a very specific type of research, analysis, and writing. We will explore these topics more in the next chapters. As you begin your literature review, here are some common errors to avoid:

  • Accepting another researcher’s finding as valid without evaluating methodology and data
  • Ignoring contrary findings and alternative interpretations
  • Using findings that are not clearly related to your own study or using findings that are too general
  • Dedicating insufficient time to literature searching
  • Simply reporting isolated statistical results, rather than synthesizing the results
  • Relying too heavily on secondary sources
  • Overusing quotations from sources
  • Failing to justify an argument by using specific facts or theories from the literature at hand

 For a quick review of some of the pitfalls and challenges a new researcher faces when they begin work, see “Get Ready: Academic Writing, General Pitfalls and (oh yes) Getting Started!”.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Literature reviews are the first step in any research project, as they help you learn about the topic you chose to study.
  • You must do more than summarize sources for a literature review. You must have something to say about them and demonstrate you understand their content.

 

Glossary

  • Literature review- a survey of factual or nonfiction books, articles, and other documents published on a particular subject

 

Image attributions

Book library by MVA CC-0

 


  1. O’Gorman, K., & MacIntosh, R. (2015). Research methods for business & management: A guide to writing your dissertation (2nd ed.). Oxford: Goodfellow Publishers.
  2. Houser, J., (2018). Nursing research reading, using, and creating evidence (4th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
  3. Machi, L., & McEvoy, B. (2012). The literature review: Six steps to success (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  4. Boote, D., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher 34(6), 3-15.
  5. Webster, J., & Watson, R. (2002). Analyzing the past to prepare for the future: Writing a literature review. MIS Quarterly, 26(2), xiii-xxiii. https://web.njit.edu/~egan/Writing_A_Literature_Review.pdf
  6. Bhattacherjee, A., (2012). Social science research: Principles, methods, and practices. Textbooks Collection. 3. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/oa_textbooks/3

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