What is a Literature Review?

What is a Literature Review?

Start Early
Start early.  This may sound obvious, but it’s an easy point to forget. Most students are enrolled in multiple classes, and some students have a tendency to put out fires instead of working proactively.  That’s a great strategy to maybe get by.  But when you’re spending thousands of dollars on your education and trying to prepare for your future, you want to excel, right?  Your instructor is required to give you ample time to write an essay.  Use this time efficiently.  Within two days of receiving your essay outline, take the time to review all your options.  Starting early is a good way to appease the anxiety you may have.  This is especially true if you can get ahead of the game.  Often, you’ll see a topic or two that you’ll be confident in your ability to handle. 

Many people –especially those in the humanities –get it wrong and confuse the concept of a Literature Review with a “Literary Analysis”, which is where a student does their own evaluation of a famous piece of writing—but a Literary Review is a very different form of writing. (Sorry English Lit students, you can tell us later how much Catherine and Heathcliff’s personalities match the imagery of the craggy rocks and heather-filled natural landscape in Wuthering Heights.)

Literature Reviews are essential pieces of academic writing but, don’t be fooled by the name! What they are NOT, are some type of Google review on the latest John Grisham or Margaret Atwood novels; what they ARE, are distinct scholarly articles written about specific topics in specific subject areas.

So, let’s say you are a scientific botanist who needs to understand what medicinal properties belong to different flowers in the Bora Bora jungle. Instead of loading up on mosquito repellent and heading out to explore the wilds of the jungle, you would look up previous research on jungle flowers, synthesize and evaluate the scientific knowledge, and set out the data in the form of a written review. Such a Dr. Livingstone, I presume, would then only be fighting his way through literary articles and the twisted branches of his botany terminology instead of a literal jungle. And, without ever leaving the comfort of his padded swivel chair, his well-researched Literature Review would become the ultimate academic way of presenting “all things jungle growth”, as well as a way of showing the rest of the world his own considerable knowledge of the topic.

– This, then, is the basic gist of a Literature Review -find what other knowledge has been shed by learned authors and reliable sources, and present the findings in a clear and effective paper that demonstrates your own understanding of the subject.

                  [So far, you now know: It’s a scholarly review; it is on a specific topic in a specific subject; you gather research, look at the writings and determine ways they are good or bad representations of your topic; you piece together a clever evaluation of everyone else’s writing by setting out information on the data you’ve found.]

**Since a blog can’t incorporate an FAQ portion, I will utilize the ever-popular trend of acronym creating since there is a logic in using mnemonic devices to help us remember things. So, at the end of each section please look for my QAS (Quick Acronym Solution). It can help give you a simpler method to remembering important bits of information.**

QAS – WHAT IS A LITERATURE REVIEW?

–It is AWESOME:

A 

Written 

Essay 

Synthesizing 

Other 

Major 

Expositions

Okay, it’s a cleverly written article looking at others’ work- now, How do I Begin?

Good question. Crafting a Literature Review is both a summarizing and a blending of all potential written research that has to do with a specific subject —your specific subject!

Done by way of “a search and evaluation of the available literature in your given subject or chosen topic area” (https://www.rlf.org.uk/resources/what-is-a-literature-review/), a Literature Review can relate to any discipline although it tends to be found mainly within the sciences or social sciences (hence why it worked so well for our Dr. Livingstone character!).

In forming a proper Literature Review, you need, before any of the actual work begins, to think of exactly what your point, or purpose, will be and how it requires you to use such particular gathered information. In simpler words:

Know what you’re gonna say, and then gather what you need to help you say it!

Let’s take it as a Step-by-Step process so you get a clearer idea of what you are trying to do:

Step 1:            Understand the Scope of the Assignment. Is your Prof asking for a critique or evaluation of literature? Does he want you to summarize the papers in search of a particular theme or describe how various authors have dealt with a similar trend? Know your own topic first.

Step 2:           Gather Multiple Sources. Go visit your school or local library for books or to access electronic databases or indexes. Creatively seek out more sources with online journals, news publications and newspapers, conference materials, etc. Sometimes there are specialized groups you can join and online forums or chat groups can also provide lots of direction as others may provide important links or quick answers if you are asking for a book or writings of a particular author. You can also search out examples of Literature Reviews within your own field of study. Seeing how someone else has done this same type of writing can be used as a precedent for your own project. **Always remember to cite sources both in-text, while you’re writing, and in a final Works Cited page. NEVER, EVER use someone else’s work without acknowledging them or else it is plagiarism!**

Step 3:           Evaluate, Analyze and Synthesize. Now that you have a smattering of written articles, excerpts from texts, online publications, etc. all splayed out over your desk, it is time to formulate a plan. You can start by grouping your writings. Maybe you see a few good points that are significant to talk about and match your topic -set those writings at the top of the pile. Perhaps there is a number of sources that contradict or say something that is not as well supported by their academic colleagues, make that into another separate pile. The idea is to read the writings carefully, analyze the significance of what is being said, and synthesize or work it into your own points and your own writing.

Step 4:          Set out Your Thesis. Begin your paper by setting out your own main thesis or guiding concept; ie., a Social Science student may be examining the history of psychiatric influences and drawing a comparison between European psychiatry to that practiced in colonial countries, as opposed to just looking at the history of psychiatry. Another paper may make a study of child and adult behaviour in specific social scenarios, OR refine this to a view of Muslim children and education processes when they live in Muslim-minority regions. In other words, be as specific as possible and really pinpoint a specific issue –too much generalizing will actually lead to more confusion and less effective writing.

Step 5:           Start Writing. Within your writing, you should always use your own voice and point out the main topic and issues with clarity. When you set up your paragraphs, you should paraphrase the other authors more than you actually put in quotes (like a 75% – 25% split) as it is easier to set out the details of multiple positions and multiple authors without having to stop and give direct quotes. Your own writing should be intertwined throughout also as you don’t just paraphrase others but must also show how their points relate to your topic. It isn’t enough just to say “Freud’s theory of the ID, ego and super-ego rely mainly on his opinion that people are strongly influenced by sexual gratification”, you have to show WHY this is important to your own paper’s thesis like: “While Freud’s theory of the ID, ego and super-ego rely on his well-known opinion of the subconscious sexuality underlying all motives, this study will prove that people’s continuous subconscious aim of sexual gratification is not actually the strongest factor in dictating how a person perceives their own identity”. So, throughout the paper, you set out your own points, not just the other authors.

Step 5:           Organize Citations and Sources. This should be a continual process as well as a final step. Keep a separate Word doc page or jot down sources on a piece of paper and remember to link them up with the specific ideas or points you found in them so you don’t get confused over this later. Many universities offer bibliographic or reference page apps or online programs that you can subscribe to that will help you with the citing and in creating a final References / Works Cited page. Please note that there is a definite distinction between “Endnotes” and a page of References (you may internet browse to clarify if you need specific help with Endnotes as that is a whole separate topic to discuss). ALSO – remember to pluralize the wording when you set out your page -it is not just “Work Cited” – you have looked at many sources so it is actually “Works Cited” and same for References -this should also always be a plural.

Again – see below Acronym solution to help you get it and START your Literature Review.

QAS – HOW TO BEGIN A LITERATURE REVIEW?

GEAR up:

Gather 

Evaluate 

Assimilate 

Reflect

How do I structure it? -Should it have an Introduction / 3 Points in the Body / a Conclusion?

Quick answer to this is basically – YES. This is a written format like any other paper. Again, the point or purpose of your Literature Review will depend mainly on the field of study you are working within. So, the structure and set-up may also follow a style that is a best-fit for the topic and area of discipline. If you have any concerns over the actual formatting, you should always clear this up with your professor / instructor prior to beginning the assignment. [See below example from a writing centre link that shows a proper precedent paper in the Sciences / Medical field.]

Believe it or not, you have likely already read some forms of Literature Reviews without ever really being conscious of it. Like the standard “4 out of 5 doctors have recommended you use this cough syrup…”, much of what we read for is to be advised of the overall perspective and some legitimate final answer. We want the expert knowledge that has been accumulated, assessed and finally presented in a definite statement. —You might not like the taste of Buckley’s but there is probably a whack of literature out there that supports how much it actually does work! At the very least, rest assured that someone has done a scientific Literature Review of specific articles relating to efficacy of cough syrups, ingredients in cough syrups, different mechanisms of different syrups, etc. etc.

A lot of self-help type articles we read online, in magazines, or books also present an informal style of a Literature Review. We basically see someone’s synopsis of a topic, they tell us the sources they analyzed and looked at, and how they came up with their own determination or findings. If the person or writer seems to know the subject very well, we usually feel they have credibility in assessing and sending out a final statement. This is much the same basic recipe and set-up you would follow for a Literature Review.

Follow this general structure for the Literature Review paper:

  • TITLE PAGE: Set out a title / title page & introduce the topic you are studying and the exact reason or purpose of the Literature Review
  • ABSTRACT [Only if Required]: Some disciplines require “Abstracts” which are pages that come after the title page and before the introduction. They are a separate page before the actual paper begins that sets out a brief synopsis of what is being studied / reviewed and also gives a list of Keywords
  • SET UP THREE MAIN SECTIONS: Integrate the findings of your Literature Review in each of the areas of your paper (and you should do this all throughout the paper). Frame out your questions / concerns / points of analysis in separate paragraphs making divisions for each new issue being discussed
  • SUMMARY OF FINDINGS: Do an overall evaluation of your findings / the trends that were displayed in the works you reviewed / the methods other writers took to reach their own conclusions
  • LIMITATIONS OF RESEARCH / STUDIES; State any limitations of the research or articles written that you discovered. Advise flaws in research or studies that could impact the overall findings of these authors
  • RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE STUDIES: Advise of any future findings or research/studies that could be done in light of your own Literature Review
  • CONCLUSION: Conclude the paper with repeating the original aim of the paper, what the findings showed, what the findings failed to show, and whether the readings you assessed allowed you to come to a definitive conclusion

A quick glimpse often helps:

Should it just be summarizing the Literature pieces?

No! Do not confuse this type of Literature Review with the brief synopsis you sometimes are asked to do when you summarize sources and write a general overview of an entire article/book. In this type of review writing, do not just summarize your sources! -It is not a long list of all of your sources or a book-by-book description of the sources. The Literature Review must reflect on one particular topic or objective and guide the reader through the researcher’s position. A reader should be able to clearly tell if the researcher’s review has revealed any new valuable data or relevant information and if the researcher’s own claim has been substantiated.

Now, besides stylistic structure, a Literature Review also has a Specific Purpose, and this determines how your writing will be organized. For instance, a Literature Review, as mentioned, is often used in the Sciences and Nursing or Medical fields. Specific Literature Reviews in these cases may look at different types of “methodology” that were used or research approaches taken in respect to a topic like a medical practice or drug study.

There are basically a half dozen MAIN TYPES of Literature Reviews:

  1. Integrative
  2. Theoretical
  3. Historical
  4. Argumentative
  5. Systematic
  6. Methodological

Let’s have a quick look at what each TYPE OF Literature Review intends to do with the writing:

  • Integrative:

Perhaps the most traditional form of a Literature Review especially in the Social Sciences, an Integrative review does precisely that: It takes what is found within existing bodies of literature and then reviews, analyzes and synthesizes all of it in order to perceive any new or unusual framework or theories. New findings can be brought to light and interpreted through these writings. It can help someone perceive of a new perspective or affirm an existing one on a topic of study as it pulls together multiple written research sources that relate to a particular theme and then examines them as a whole. The difference between this review and a Theoretical Review is that the Integrative review examines all variables within a topic and looks to critique and synthesize whatever ideas are gleaned from the writings; a Theoretical Review is less robust in the sense that it remains focused on ONE particular theme or concept or framework.

  • Theoretical:

With this type of review, a theory or concept can be separately examined or an entire theoretical framework may be discussed. Theoretical Literature Reviews look at an existing theory / construct and delve into the research surrounding it to either prove or dispel its worth in respect to the current day’s field. What has been considered a viable theory may be analyzed through a review of literature. Flaws in the theory may be pointed out or new hypothesis may be created in the place of the old ones. The difference between this and an Integrative Literature Review is that the Theoretical review is concentrated on ONE main area where a theory or concept is written about in multiple sources; whereas the Integrative review will look at multiple issues / perspectives within the sources and blend and analyze it within a broader spectrum.

  • Historical:        

Most theories, academic findings, concepts or phenomena have some sort of historical element to them. A Historical Literature Review will examine any one of these through a distinct timeline. Tracing the beginnings and outlining the growth (or dwindling) of anything (be it existential philosophy / history of Freud & Jung’s psychology methods / use of low-dose aspirin / education in low-income sectors, etc.). It most cases, it shows both the growth and evolution of whatever is being researched and allows for any predicted future changes, improvements or corruptions.

  • Argumentative:            

Mainly from a Social Science perspective, you would look at a commonly accepted belief or theory and either refute or support it by looking toward a body of literature. You use the literature that gives the contrary or opposing view and then make your own stance and viewpoint against that. So, even if you agree with a main argument in a philosophy theory, you prove and argue the point by showing how other theorists appear to be WRONG and are saying things contrary to this theory.

  • Systematic:

Perhaps the one that is most relevant in Science, a Systematic Literature Review will pull together ALL sources related to one specific point or question of research and does a more rigorous and in-depth examination than other types of reviews. It often will depend on a main question or sample query like “Can the determination of [some postulated activity or genetic flaw] create the effect of [some particular illness]?” Most Systematic reviews are done on clinical medicine or pre-existing scientific research and are intended to appraise, report, analyze data and assess the actual validity of any such findings or pre-existing scientific research. This type of review can also be used in the Social Sciences as in areas of Political Science or Business and Economics as more and more policymakers are turning to look for empirical evidence to guide decision making.

  • Methodological:

A method analysis is often required in areas dealing with data collection / data analysis / medical research / statistics (to name a few), and allows a researcher to sift through written literature and analyze not only WHAT someone had to say, but HOW they went about gathering their information in order to say it. Review of methodology allows for people to consider all ethical approaches and pitfalls they might encounter in their own chosen field of study when setting out their own studies and postulations.

QAS– HOW DO I REMEMBER THE STRUCTURE & TYPES OF LITERATURE REVIEWS?

IT HAS [a] Method:

Integrative  Theoretical     

Historical  Argumentative  Systematic    

Methodological

What is the MAIN POINT actually (again) of a Literature Review?

In recognizing what a Literature Review is NOT, we can better understand its primary purpose and why it is done in academics:

Here is what it is NOT and what is NOT DONE:

  • Do not just make a list of each article or book title you gathered
  • Do not try and find every piece of writing on the topic –it is not a survey of what has or has not been written about
  • Do not make the reader guess what your position / argument or main topic is, that should be clear in a thesis statement or the actual posed research question
  • Do not generalize or summarize other author’s positions but set out your own points distinctly – explain WHY their position matters to YOUR standpoint
  • Do not pick up text sources randomly -make sure you have a credible source, that you are aware of the date of publication (it may affect the persuasiveness of your paper if things have advanced since then), that the topic of the source is relevant to your own paper and that you are aware if the author has any bias

When you begin a Literature Review consider how it is mainly a BLEND of an analysis of other authors’ main concepts and your own evaluation of the same topic.

You should realize a good Literature Review intends to do the following:

  • Evaluates sources and points out their relevance to a particular topic
  • Follows a historical progression of a theory, field or even medical procedure or drug
  • Identifies gaps in the literature where they do not seem to cover an issue or examine a specific concern
  • Determines similarities in the literature to help avoid duplication of studies
  • Finds new ways to interpret some of the literature
  • Emphasizes your own views in context to all the other writings

QAS– WHAT IS THE MAIN POINT OF A LITERATURE REVIEW?

It mainly seeks to ASSESS:

Analyze source material in connection with your own topic

Specify any gaps in the literature and the significance of that

Signify any similarities within theories or major debates of your topic

Emphasize your own viewpoint and your own findings throughout the paper

Summarize the content of the literature and how it can lead to further studies

Suggest new ways to look at existing theory

All in all, a Literature Review seeks to help others understand your own conclusions by showing how you have relied on other authors’ expertise in a subject. In a sense, as the author of a review, you are gathering up details much in the same way you look to a Google Review for finding the best restaurant / the best way to fertilize your lawn / the best car dealer in town, etc. etc.

While I have assured you earlier that the writing of the Lit Review itself is NOTHING like a review you would make on Google, there is a similarity between how you would USE a Google Review and how you (or others) will USE your Literature Review.

Let’s consider this more specifically, you are after the ultimate method to make mouthwatering cheesecake –to begin, you call up a variety of articles and sources, consider mainly those ones that are from the most reliable sources (ie, Martha Stewart for the cheesecake versus an unknown Betty Baker), you evaluate the distinctions between the sources and whether some of them agree on things (ie., basic ingredients and oven cooking temperature) and if there are major differences in opinions (only use goat cheese not regular cream cheese). Then, in the final act of this type of search and up until you place the cake on your dining room table, you synthesize all the details you’ve read, decide on the ones that best suit your purpose (someone is allergic to goat’s milk), filter out less credible beliefs (who makes cheesecake with goat’s milk?), and forge ahead with your own culinary masterpiece. This is an analogy that you can hopefully sink your teeth into (if not literally, then figuratively) to show the intention of a Literature Review.

It should have a conclusion that can summarize all the most important details and aspects of your topic that were found in the literature. It should present best solutions for improvements in a theory / concept or scientific endeavor and point out other areas for future studies. Readers should come away feeling that you have validated your position by such a thorough examination of other authors. Finally, a Literature Review should act to clarify your own understanding and be educational to others whether or not they share your same field of study.

So pick up your pens and go begin!

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