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Literature Reviews: Getting Started

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is an overview of the available research for a specific scientific topic.

Literature reviews summarize existing research to answer a review question, provide context for new research, or identify important gaps in the existing body of literature.

An incredible amount of academic literature is published each year, by estimates over two million articles.

Sorting through and reviewing that literature can be complicated, so this Research Guide provides a structured approach to make the process more manageable.


THIS GUIDE IS AN OVERVIEW OF THE LITERATURE REVIEW PROCESS:

  • Getting Started (asking a research question | defining scope)
  • Choosing a Type of Review
  • Searching the Literature
  • Organizing the Literature
  • Writing the Literature Review (analyzing | synthesizing)

literature search is a systematic search of the scholarly sources in a particular discipline. A literature review is the analysis, critical evaluation and synthesis of the results of that search. During this process you will move from a review of the literature to a review for your research. Your synthesis of the literature is your unique contribution to research.


WHO IS THIS RESEARCH GUIDE FOR?

— those new to reviewing the literature

— those that need a refresher or a deeper understanding of writing literature reviews

You may need to do a literature review as a part of a course assignment, a capstone project, a master's thesis, a dissertation, or as part of a journal article. No matter the context, a literature review is an essential part of the research process. 

Literature Review Process

 

A chart detailing the steps of the literature review process. The steps include: choose review type, develope research question, create search strategy (contact subject librarians in the library for help with these steps), identify databases, perform literature search, read, evaluate, and organize literature and iterate if necessary, synthesize concepts in literature, then write the literature review.

Purpose of a Literature Review

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A LITERATURE REVIEW?

A literature review is typically performed for a specific reason. Even when assigned as an assignment, the goal of the literature review will be one or more of the following:

  • To communicate a project's novelty by identifying a research gap
  • To establish context for the argument explored in the rest of a document
  • An overview of research issues, methodologies or results relevant to field
  • To explore the volume and types of available studies
  • To establish familiarity with current research before carrying out a new project
  • To resolve conflicts amongst contradictory previous studies

Reviewing the literature helps you understand a research topic and develop your own perspective.


A LITERATURE REVIEW IS NOT:

  • An annotated bibliography – which is a list of annotated citations to books, articles and documents that includes a brief description and evaluation for each entry
  • A literary review – which is a critical discussion of the merits and weaknesses of a literary work
  • A book review – which is a critical discussion of the merits and weaknesses of a particular book

Attribution

Thanks to Librarian Jamie Niehof at the University of Michigan for providing permission to reuse and remix this Literature Reviews guide.

Creative Commons Attribution License Image This work is subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license