How to Write a Literature Review

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How to Write a Literature Review

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“…of making books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
–Ecclesiastes 12:12

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One of the things that most university students have to do, is write a literature review. Typically, the lit review process is accompanied by weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. However, if done well, the final product is a rewarding package of insights. Students can become experts in this sliver of knowledge. I’ve created this guide to help you through the process with a minimum of pain. Good luck!

The first half of the article is available below. The entire 5700-word article is available on the Amazon Kindle.

Jim Ollhoff, PhD

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Table of Contents

  1. Definition of a Literature Review
  2. Purposes of a Literature Review
  3. Characteristics of a Literature Review
  4. General Principles for Writing a Literature Review
  5. How to Analyze and Synthesize The Literature
  6. The Five Most Common Errors in a Literature Review
  7. Tips, Helps, and Ideas
  8. Top Ten Ways to Find Research Articles (available on the full Amazon Kindle version)
  9. Are You Writing a Paper or a Literature Review? (available on the full Amazon Kindle version)
  10. Red Flags for Evaluating Information (available on the full  Amazon Kindle version)

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1.  Definition of a Literature Review

A literature review is a scholarly document that reviews the breadth and depth of literature on a topic in order to determine what is known. It’s a summary of the literature, but more importantly, it’s a synthesis and evaluation of the literature. It is not a paper explaining “how to do” something. It’s not an introduction to a topic. The purpose of a literature review is to determine what the research says–and doesn’t say–about the topic.

Here’s the main point about a literature review: It is not a paper on a topic. It is a paper on the research about a topic.

So, when we have a specific question on a topic,  we go to the research literature and find out what other researchers already know about the topic. What do researchers know? What do they not know? What has been researched and what has not been researched? Is the research reliable and trustworthy? Where are the gaps in the knowledge? When you compile all that together, you have yourself a literature review.

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2.  Purposes of a Literature Review

There are a few general purposes of the literature review.

To determine what is known. In a literature review, we scan vast amounts of research literature and deeply absorb a smaller amount of the literature to determine what is already known and not known. A literature review explores what issues in the topic have been researched, and what has not been researched. Literature reviews look at where the gaps and controversies are, and why. A lit review looks at objective information, such as research studies. As much as possible, opinions, biases, and agendas are left out. What is really, truly known on this topic?

To find the primary researchers on the topic. In most topics, you’ll find a few major researchers, and a few minor researchers, and a few creative thinkers. A literature review explores the conversation between researchers on the topic.

To find the basic developments and trends in the field.  What are the schools of thought? What are the primary issues in the field? What are the most commonly researched topics? Are the topics that are researched the most important, or the most easily researchable? How can the topic be organized and categorized?

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3.  Characteristics of a Literature Review

Your topic should be not too narrow. If your topic is too narrow, you won’t be able to find any research, and the information might not be transferable to any other area.  Let’s say your topic was, “The Influence of Operant Conditioning Behavioral Techniques on the Learning of History Concepts in 6th grade Private School Mainstreamed Special Needs Males as Indicated by Standardized Tests.” That might be a little narrow. You could probably search for quite a while and find little research. Further, if you actually found some research, the research would so jaw-droppingly specific that the insights wouldn’t be generalizable to anywhere else.

Your topic should not be too broad. If the topic is too broad, you’ll never be able to get your arms around the issue. Imagine doing a literature review on the topic of “learning.” What would be your search parameters? You could spend the rest of your life reading about “Learning” and you would never get to the end of the topic. In fact, that’s a good measure of whether the topic is too broad: if you could spend the rest of your life reading about the topic, then it’s too broad.

Your topic should be Just Right. Somewhere in the middle, between too narrow and too broad, is the right size topic. Sometimes you’ll have to narrow or widen the topic after you get into the literature. You might start with a  topic that you think is Just Right, but find a lot more–or a lot less–than you thought there would be. You may need a mid-stream tweak of your topic as you get into the literature. Essentially, you’re probably on the road to a topic that is Just Right if:

  • It takes you a while to start finding information on the topic;
  • You find only 6 or 12 studies on the topic
  • You keep bumping into the same authors all the time
  • There’s only a few researchers who seem to be the experts (the same people or the same studies are always quoted).

Your literature review should be segmented and subdivided. In other words, use headings and subheadings liberally. Start with an introduction that gives a short, concise explanation of what you’re going to study.  It will be difficult, and almost certainly annoying, for a reader to have to plow through 15 or more pages of text with no headings or subheadings.

Remain objective. This is one of the more difficult things for many people to do. They’ve spent years writing papers where they’ve been asked to take a position on a topic and then back it up with research. That’s not what happens in a literature review. In a literature review, the author remains dispassionate and objective. This will be difficult when you’re writing about an issue that you care deeply about. Further, in a literature review, you bring up both sides of the issue (assuming there are two sides), and you have to write objectively about both sides, even the positions with which you disagree. A lit review is not the place to take a position. You may have a position on the topic, and that’s fine. You might think the issue you’re researching is the best thing since sliced bread. However, in the literature review, you remain dispassionate and objective. You simply report what the research says.

Cite what you assert. Citations must be used whenever you give a fact or make an assertion. You can’t say “research says” without citing a research study. Your reader will always be asking, “how do they know that?” You must avoid, at all costs, putting yourself in the position of the used car salesman who says, “They really say that, just trust me.” Your university or your professor will identify how to cite the sources that you reference. Universities often use the American Psychological Association style.

Assess and evaluate the literature, don’t just summarize it. If you just summarize what you’ve found, then it’s a book report, not a lit review. Anybody can do a book report. A literature review is different. It doesn’t just report on what the research says, but it critically analyzes that literature.

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4.  General Principles for Writing a Literature Review

General principles are rules of thumb. These principles are usually true, but not always. Check out with your professor on the specific requirements for your lit review.

Don’t use your own voice. Never use personal terms or phrases, like “me,” “you can imagine,” or “I think.” If you absolutely must refer to yourself, you should refer to yourself as “this author” or “this reviewer,” or something like that. You never put your own voice into a literature review. Use third person.

Define your terms. If you’re using nomenclature that might not be understood by everyone, define it.

Cite liberally. When in doubt, cite. And if you make some sweeping generalization like, “most researchers agree,” then you better cite 3 to 5 research studies who agree with whatever you’re saying. Never say things like, “this is obviously”; your professor will ask, “obvious to who?”

Identify if it’s an opinion or research data. If you want to cite Douglass, who has an influential opinion but didn’t do a research study, then phrase it like, “Douglass argues…” or “Douglass suggests.” If Turnbill did a research study and found something, then phrase it as “Turbill found” or “Turnbill’s data suggest.” Always keep in mind the difference between a research finding and an opinion. Remember that many interpretations of research findings are also opinions.

You can use quotes from others if you must, but not too many. Please don’t turn your literature review into an endless strings of quotes.

Review all the literature, not just the literature with which you agree. Make sure you read and absorb all the literature on the topic, on both sides of the issue. And then report both sides genuinely and objectively.

Check with your professor about citation sources. Check how many citations should be from peer reviewed, journaled, research articles, and how many sources should be from professional (opinion) sources. In graduate school, lit review requirements often range from one-half to two thirds research articles. If you use 100% research articles, that will make your literature review much stronger. Typically, you wouldn’t cite popular polls or online polls. Don’t cite Cosmopolitan or Good Housekeeping.

Don’t write a paper, write a literature review. There’s a difference between writing a paper and writing a literature review. For example, in a paper on “differentiated instruction,” you might write “how to do differentiated instruction.” In a literature review, you’ll write, “what the research says about differentiated instruction.” The key to a lit review is the reporting and analysis of the research on your topic. Your emphasis should be objective data, not opinions. There is more later on the difference between writing a paper and a lit review.

Citations should usually be 7 years old or less. A lot can change in seven years, so if your citations are older than that, your readers will wonder why. However, most topics have classic studies, that are old, but regarded as seminal or critically important. All the researchers build off those classic studies. If your topic has classic studies, you can and should cite them, even if they are older than 7 years. Ideally, you can identify them as “classic” or “historically important” or something like that.

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5.  How to Analyze and Synthesize The Literature

One of the critical functions of a literature review is the analysis and synthesis of the literature. Literature reviews are not just summaries of a bunch of studies. The literature review ties the studies together into a whole, and makes meaning out of the findings of the many separate studies. You might even want to have headings in your paper labeled “analysis” or “synthesis.” Or, you may want to do that kind of analysis and synthesis throughout the paper. But how do you analyze and synthesize?

Look for patterns. What are the commonalities between the studies? What are the reoccurring themes from the studies?

Compare and contrast the studies. Why does one study say one thing and another study say the opposite? Did they do the study different, or did they ask the question in a different way? Are they using the same definitions for the constructs? Are they using the nomenclature in the same way? If not, what are the various words that mean the same thing?

Look at the methodologies. Are the methodologies of the studies appropriate? Are the samples of the studies “samples of convenience” or have they intentionally sought out appropriate participants? Are they researching issues that are important, or are they researching questions that are methodologically easy? Where are the weaknesses in the design of the studies?

Look at the consistency of the research findings. Are the findings consistent? If not, why not? If they all say the same thing, is it because they all did the methodology the same way? Do the findings conflict? What might be some reasons why they conflict?

Synthesize the findings. After your analysis, put the material into a coherent whole. How do the findings advance theory? Is our current practice consistent with the findings? Is there actual evidence to support a practice? Frequently, practices begin long before there is evidence that they work. Where are the gaps?

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6.  The Five Most Common Errors in a Literature Review

Error #1: State your position, then back it up with research citations. That’s what you do in a normal paper, not a literature review. In a literature review, you report what the positions are–you don’t take one of them. Don’t advocate for a particular program or strategy. This is not an advocacy paper. The strategy or program that you are writing about might be the greatest invention since the chalkboard, but a literature review is not the place to advocate its use. A literature review objectively gives both sides of the issue, based on the research.

Error #2: Only reviewing the literature with which you agree. Review all the literature. There’s virtually always two or more sides to an issue.

Error #3: Doing an annotated bibliography (he found this; she found this; they found that). This is called stacking the literature and it’s boring and slow and unreadable. This is not a book report. Synthesize the findings, don’t just list them!

Error #4: Using unreliable sources. Citing popular course or dated sources (except in the case of classic studies) is not a good thing. Another aspect of this is to write a lit review only using professional literature. The problem with this is that you could write a lit review, using professional sources, that state almost anything. You could write a lit review, using professional sources, that discuss how the world is flat, and the whole “globe” idea is just a conspiracy. Professional sources are opinions–and that’s not good or bad; but in a literature review, you review the research.

Error #5: No analysis of the data. Simply reporting what others have found isn’t enough. You need to analyze the data to help the reader understand and make meaning out of it. Don’t turn your lit review into a book report. Analyze the research; synthesize it. Make this pile of research studies into something coherent for the reader.

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7.  Getting Started

First, you’ll need a topic, sometimes called the research question. It’s the one-sentence thing that interests you. You may need to do some reading before you put the finishing touches on your topic, in order to find that sweet spot between too broad and too narrow.

Then find the information. Do searches of your online library databases. Can’t find any research on your topic? There’s one of three possibilities:

  1. You’ve got a viable topic, but there is no research on the topic. This is very unlikely. Students are quick to say “there’s no research,” but it’s typically that they simply haven’t looked in the right place. After helping hundreds of students with their lit review, I think I’ve had two students who were researching a topic where there truly was no research.
  2. Your topic is too wide or too narrow. If it’s too narrow, you won’t find anything, and if it’s too broad, you’ll find everything (and therefore nothing).
  3. The most likely possibility is that your searching strategies need to be reviewed. Your keywords are bad, you’re looking in the wrong journals, or not looking in the right databases.

Once you’ve got a pile of information, then do a quick scan of your reading. Scan a lot of material quickly, to get a feel for what’s known and how you might organize your lit review.

Then start a more indepth read. Put the research conclusions in separate piles, or mark them with a different color highlighter, or put the research findings on 3×5 cards and file them accordingly. In some way, shape, or form, you need to make sense of the research you’re reading, and make it helpful to you as you write. Come up with sections or subheadings of your lit review.

Then write the thing. It’s really not as hard as you think it is.

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The rest of this article (about 3000 additional words) is available on the Amazon Kindle.

Have fun writing!

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