Literature Review Example

Are you sick of hearing the term “literature review” used in academic settings every five minutes and not knowing what it even means or where to begin? Do not fear; we have provided you with a comprehensive guide to writing an excellent dissertation literature review.

What is a literature review?

In short, a dissertation literature review provides a critical assessment of the sources (literature) you have gathered and read surrounding your subject area, and then identifies a “gap” in that literature that your research will attempt to address.

There are a lot of misunderstandings about what exactly a dissertation literature review entails, as it can vary. Whilst in some cases a dissertation literature review can be a simple summary of important sources, most often it requires you to critically engage with the text to convey your positive or negative opinions of it. What is your interpretation of a particular source? Does this interpretation differ considerably from other viewpoints in the literature? This is the sort of critical engagement expected from you in a literature review.

While a summary will probably include a brief synopsis of the main points made in the source or sources, a literature review is expected to go beyond this. In a literature review, an old research report may be seen from a fresh angle, or it may incorporate both old and new interpretations (this is the “gap” – more on this later). A critical and comprehensive summary of the intellectual advancements in an area, with an emphasis on significant, frequently contentious discussions, can also be obtained through a literature review. In other cases, a literature review might also evaluate a source and tell the reader about its reliability, applicability, and significance to the topic of the study.

There tends to be confusion between literature reviews and academic papers in general, but they are not one and the same. Generally, academic papers aim to provide new research material about a particular subject, and a literature review features as part of this objective. In a research paper, the literature review forms the basis of the research – it helps to highlight any research gaps as support for a new argument or insights you intend to provide. In a literature review, you’re aiming to summarise and provide a critical analysis of the research arguments you have found in your readings, without making new contributions to the literature. Hence the term: “literature review”.

Is a literature review really necessary?

Now that we know what a literature review is, the next step is to understand the point of writing one in the first place. Like it or not, a literature review is an essential part of any academic piece of writing, as it demonstrates to your tutor or reader that you have a nuanced understanding of the sources concerning your research area or question.

The purpose of the literature review, despite its seemingly random nature, is to convince the person reading and grading your work that the topic you have written about is pertinent and that your arguments are sound. To put it briefly, a literature review is crucial, and you should take the time to do it well.

How do you write a dissertation literature review?

As the next section of this blog is quite lengthy, we’ve broken it down into several key steps which should make it easier to follow when writing your own dissertation literature review. You start by identifying your sources, then you read and re-read them. Next, you think about any gaps in the research or literature you have used, and finally, you write your review using all the preparation and information gathered in the steps prior.

Identify sources

To write a good dissertation literature review, you need to have a fair idea of what sources you would like to review. If you haven’t been given a formal reference list by your tutor, refer back to the techniques we recommended earlier.

Make sure your references are well-rounded; include a sufficient number of books, scholarly journals, and other relevant publications from respectable academics. You may wish to consider the parameters and goals of your study to assist you in selecting your sources. What information do you hope to obtain? Which theoretical concerns or views are you trying to address in your literature review? What about your approach? Will you primarily concentrate on research that are qualitative, quantitative, or a combination of both? These broad inquiries ought to assist you in choosing your sources; once more, keep in mind that an abstract is a highly helpful tool. A cursory glance of the abstract and its “keywords” will frequently indicate whether the source will be useful for your research or not.

Keeping a list of your sources is important because, with the vastness of the Internet, it’s easy to get distracted while recognizing them. Mendeley and other reference systems enable you to store your sources both online and through a desktop application, which is a terrific method to keep your bibliography organized. When needed later, you can easily export citations in the format of your choice using the citation tools that come with these programs. They will save you numerous hours spent attempting to effectively employ APA or Harvard referencing.

Read your sources

Now that you have organized your sources efficiently, it’s time to read through them. As unnatural as it may feel, it’s most effective to read in a few stages, as detailed below:

First, go through all the texts to get a sense of their general content and arguments. This will also help you judge which sources you mainly want to focus on in your review. During the second stage of your reading, you can then take a more critical, in-depth look at your sources. Make a lot of notes, be critical, ask questions. What is your academic opinion on the text? Do you have any comments on the methodological approach, the theoretical argument or the general hypothesis? Note these down. It will ensure that your literature review is not merely a summary of your readings, and will encourage a clear line of argument so that your work is logical and coherent.

Consider gaps in the research

One of the most important things to keep in mind while writing a dissertation literature review is determining the research gap. Finding the gap will demonstrate the relevance of your research, given that it has been planned to close this one, and is especially crucial if your review is included in a research proposal. Finding the gap in other situations is a sign of strong critical analysis and might earn you bonus points.

To identify the “gap” it is important that we know what this “gap” is. A research gap is essentially the existence of a research question, perspective or problem that has not been answered in the existing literature on any field of study. Identifying the research gap is important for highlighting the originality of your research; it proves you’re not simply recounting or regurgitating existing research. It also shows that you are very much aware of the status of the literature in your chosen field of study, which in turn, demonstrates the amount of research and effort you have put into your review.

Many students, especially at post-graduate level, find it extremely difficult to identify research gaps in their subject area. For post-graduate research papers, identifying research gaps and formulating research questions that can address these gaps form the very essence of a research paper. Identifying research gaps does not have to be a difficult endeavour and there are several ways to overcome this difficulty:

Start by reading
Reading significant portions of essential articles in your field of study is a straightforward strategy. To begin with, keep in mind that you will need to go through a lot of articles in order to find the ones that are best for your research. You can frequently get a brief summary of the literature that is accessible by conducting a simple keyword search on Google Scholar. JSTOR and Wiley Online Library databases are examples of more helpful resources. After that, you may click on “related articles” or see which other papers have mentioned your source to find out how to generate more publications.

Abstracts and recommendations
Whichever avenue you choose, reading the abstract is often a good starting point to get a sense of what the articles entails. You should also do a quick examination of the introductory and concluding paragraphs of the paper as these sections always provide some information on the aims and outcomes of the research, as well as ‘recommendations for future studies.’ These recommendations typically provide some insight on the research gaps in the literature. Another route would be to simply read as much as you can on your research subject while considering which research areas still need addressing in the literature – this is usually an indication of research gaps.

Write your review

Now you’re well prepared to start putting fingers to keyboard. Consider the following pointers:

1. Use sample literature reviews
Examine example dissertation literature reviews related to your field of study and completely read them to become acquainted with current major arguments and issues. This can serve as a helpful foundation for the framing and organization of your own review. Looking through samples will help you acquire an idea of what is required in this area if you are unfamiliar with academic writing. Take note of the formal style and academic vocabulary that are being employed. Additionally, keep in mind that, should you require them, the bibliography or reference part of the books you have chosen will assist you in finding additional sources.

2. Keep it simple
Keep your topic as narrowed down as possible. Remember that there are hundreds – or in some instances, thousands – of sources or perspectives concerning any subject area or topic. Researchers investigate research problems in many divergent ways and the literature available on any given subject is extremely broad. In your literature review, you won’t be expected to address every argument or perspective concerning your topic – this might actually undermine your ability to write a coherent and focused piece. You’ll make your work easier if you limit the scope of your work. In your review, ensure that you clearly state what the focus of your work will be.

3. Make sure your sources are as current as possible
Given the developments in the industry over time, it is imperative that your sources, if you are assessing scientific work, remain as recent as feasible. Research is always changing, especially in the medical profession, thus a source that is only three years old can potentially be out of date. This guideline might not apply in the social sciences since many theoretical works are considered classics and you will be required to know about their viewpoints. You may need to study the writings of any famous academic, such as Hobbes or Marx. You still have to strike a balance between theory and contemporary methods since you’ll need to show how viewpoints have evolved over time in the literature, or you might even wish to show how scholars

4. Consider the organisation of your work
In a dissertation literature review, organising your work goes beyond having an introduction, body and conclusion. You’ll be reviewing a number of texts, so you’ll also have to think clearly about how to organise themes, topics and your argument in general. Below is a detailed guide on how to do this:

  •  Think about the basic structure first

Like any other academic paper, a dissertation literature review will comprise a basic introduction, body, and conclusion.

The introduction of a literature review should be clear, short and focused. It should outline the focus of the review – in other words, it should clearly state the main topics to be covered. A good literature review will also state the arguments to be made, as well as underlying rationale that underpins these arguments.

The body of your literature review will include an in-depth discussion of the academic sources you have chosen to review. You may choose to organise your sources according to themes, methodology or even based on a chronological order. In the body of your review, ensure that your arguments are presented clearly and that you link these arguments with the literature. Is there a scholar that agrees with your view? Say so, in a way that the reader will understand easily. This demonstrates that you are very familiar with the academic research in your field. Remember to also make note of any views that do not agree with your position; excluding these arguments will reduce the methodological robustness of your piece. You can use direct quotations in your literature review, however do so sparingly so you don’t appear lazy. Most tutors will not approach it kindly; the purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate your ability to critically engage with a piece of text, and littering your review with direct quotes isn’t a good indication of this. Instead, try to paraphrase quotations and only use direct quotes if it really helps to illustrate your argument.

In the summary of your dissertation literature review, it’s important to give a summary of the conclusions you’ve drawn from your readings. If your literature review forms part of a broader research proposal, reiterate the gaps in the literature here, and clearly state how your proposed research will fill these gaps. Make recommendations for future research in this section too, which demonstrates your analytical skills and will score you some extra points.

  •  Pay extra attention to the structure of the body

You now have the basic structure of your research in place, however it’s worth dedicating some time to what the body of your work should entail. The body is the main core of your work, so it’s important to consider how you will frame and organise it. You have options here – you can choose to organise the content of your work based on a chronological method, based on themes, trends or methodology, or based on arguments.

To structure the body of work chronologically, you will have to organise your sources based on when they were published. A limitation of this approach is that it inhibits continuity in your arguments and in some instances, can undermine the coherence of your work. Use with caution.

A more coherent way of organising your work is to group your sources based on the arguments they make in a ‘for versus against’ manner. This enables you to present your work in a more dynamic way and what’s more, makes the key debates in the literature more obvious. Say you were trying to convey the debates on European migration policy, you might want to start by writing something along these lines:

“While scholars such as X argue that migration policies must be made more stringent to counteract the increased flow of Syrian refugees to Europe, other scholars such as Y offer a divergent perspective. They specifically espouse a perspective based on a human rights approach…”

This approach also leaves room for you to insert your voice into the literature. Consider this statement:

“While X argues for the enactment of more stringent migration policies, this paper argues along the lines of Y that migration policies should be based on human rights considerations.”

Using this technique also allows you to introduce additional literature that supports your position.

Another way of organising your content is according to theme; or sub-themes, if your review focuses on one overarching topic. This method of organisation still allows you to present an overview of any polemical debates within these sub-themes. A thematic review can easily shift between chronological periods within each sub-section too.

Structuring work using a methodological approach is quite a common approach, however it’s often used in tandem with other ways of organising sources. This method is particularly evident in introductory sections whereby researchers may simply want to state that a particular subject has been mostly studied from a qualitative or quantitative perspective (they will often then cite a number of scholars or studies to support this claim). In scientific reviews however, a methodological approach may form the basis of the discussions in the body. If this is the case for you, focus on the methods used by various researchers. How did they go about answering a particular research question? Were there any limitations to this method? If so, what method(s) would have been better?

You’ll soon realise that organising the body of your literature review is an iterative process and you’ll more often than not use all of these approaches in your write-up. The body of your research may also include additional sections that do not necessarily form a part of its organisational structure. For instance, you might want to include a ‘context section’ that provides some insight on any background detail required for understanding the focus of the literature review. It may also focus on historical considerations. You could include a short methodology section that details the approach you used in selecting and analysing your sources.

5. Write the paragraphs of the body
Once you have settled on the approach to writing your body, you must now write each of its paragraphs in a way that is in keeping with academic conventions. Consider this paragraph from a literature review about stakeholder participation for environmental management, to clarify the discussion that follows:

  • Despite the rhetoric and the concerns that have been expressed, there have been few attempts to investigate the validity of the many claims that have been made for stake-holder participation (Webler, 1999; Beierle, 2002; Brody, 2003; Blackstock et al., 2007). The few attempts that have been made have tended to focus on evaluating the process rather than the outcomes (e.g. Beierle, 2002; Renn et al., 1995; Rowe and Frewer, 2000). This may be partly due to the challenge of selecting appropriate evaluation criteria and data collection methods. Blackstock et al., 2007 argue that the evaluation of participatory processes should itself be participatory, with stakeholders selecting and applying the evaluation criteria. However, this is not straightforward. Webler and Tuler (2006) found strong differences of opinion between participants that they selected from ten case studies, about what constituted a “good” participatory process. (Source: Reed, M.S., 2008. Stakeholder participation for environmental management: a literature review. Biological conservation, 141(10), pp.2417-2431).

As the example above suggests, a dissertation literature review must be written using a formal and academic style. Also, note how sources have been grouped according to both arguments and themes. Remember we noted that the process of grouping sources in the body of your literature review is never a linear one? You will often use a combination of the approaches that we have discussed. Ensure that your writing is concise, coherent and devoid of any personal or strong language. Avoid any phrases like, “I hate X’s work”; a more academic way of stating your disagreement would be to simply state: “I would argue against X’s position that…”, or “X’s argument is inconsistent with the evidence because…”, or “X’s arguments are based on false assumptions because…”.

In the sample paragraph above, notice the use of words like “argue” – this is a good academic alternative to more commonplace words such as “says”. Other good alternatives include “states”, “asserts”, “proposes” or “claims”. More academic options include “opine”, “posit”, “postulate”, or “promulgate”, however some tutors and readers find these words to be too ‘heavy’ and archaic, so ensure that you are familiar with the writing standards in your institution.

If your writing is tailored to a peer-reviewed journal, it’s worth having a look at articles within that journal to get a sense of the writing style. Most tutors will provide a guideline on writing styles, and it’s important you adhere to this brief. You will often be required to also use the third person when writing a literature review, thus phrases such as “this paper argues” or “this paper is of the view that…” are appropriate.

There are exceptions at post-graduate level or generally – like when you have conducted your own primary research or published your work widely – which give you the academic authority to boldly make claims. In cases like these, the use of first person is suitable and you may use phrases such as “I argue” or “I propose”.

Remember also to generally use present tense when referring to opinions and theories (although in the context of specific research experiments, the use of the past tense is better).

Beyond the use of the academic terms suggested above, ‘linking’ words are also particularly important when writing a literature review, since you’ll be grouping a lot of writers together with either similar or divergent opinions. Useful linking words and phrases include: similarly, there are parallels, in convergence with…

When there is disagreement, you may want to use any of the following: However, conversely, on the other hand, diverges from, antithetical to, differential from…

6. Write the conclusion
The conclusion of a dissertation literature review should always include a summary of the implications of the literature, which you should then link to your argument or general research question.

Some final notes

The overall structure of your literature review will be largely based on your research area and the academic conventions that are in line with it. Nevertheless, there are some essential steps that apply across all disciplines and that you should ensure you follow:

Do not simply describe the opinions of writers
Analyse, analyse, analyse, and ensure that your analysis is critical (what have the writers missed; where does your opinion sit with theirs, etc.).

Structure the body of your argument using various techniques
Your structure should be organised based on thematic areas, key debates or controversial issues, and according to methodological approaches. Keep your review dynamic, but coherent. Remember to identify literature gaps and link this to your own research.

Use ample evidence
This is extremely important and forms the very essence of a dissertation literature review. You must refer to various sources when making a point; see the sample paragraph above for an example of this. Your arguments and interpretation of a research topic must be backed by evidence. Do not make baseless claims, as a literature review is an academic piece of writing and not an opinion piece.

Be very selective
Not every piece of research has to be reviewed. If you are determined to show that you aware of the available literature out there, try writing techniques such as: There is robust literature available concerning the migration patterns of Syrian refugees. Notable works include: X(2015), y (2013), Z (2014). Once you have acknowledged these works, you do not have to review them in detail. Be selective about the sources that you will discuss in detail in your review.

Do not rely too much on direct quotes
Only use them to emphasise a point. Similarly, don’t rely too heavily on the work of a single author. Instead, highlight the importance of that author in your research and move on. If you need to keep going back to the work of that author, then you need to link those discussions with your work. Do not simply provide a summary of the author’s work. In what ways does your work agree or disagree with his/hers? Be critical.

Make your voice heard
Yes, the whole point of the literature review is to provide a critical analysis and summary of the viewpoints out there, but a critical analysis does include the fact that you need to make your opinion known in the context of the literature. Note how skilfully, in the earlier sample paragraph by Reed (2008), he weaves his opinions with references. Read back over the sample and try to perfect this skill.

References

  1. Reed, M.S. (2008). Stakeholder participation for environmental management: a literature review. Biological Conservation, 141(10), 2417-2431.
  2. Webler, T. (1999). A brief overview of the policy Delphi. Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, 1(2), 1-4.
  3. Beierle, T.C. (2002). The quality of stakeholder-based decisions. Risk Analysis, 22(4), 739-749.
  4. Brody, S.D. (2003). Stakeholder analysis and conflict resolution. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 46(5), 713-726.
  5. Blackstock, K.L., Kelly, G.J., & Horsey, B.L. (2007). Developing and applying a framework to evaluate participatory research for sustainability. Ecology and Society, 12(2), 26.
  6. Renn, O., Webler, T., & Wiedemann, P.M. (1995). Fairness and competence in citizen participation: Evaluating models for environmental discourse. Springer Science & Business Media.
  7. Rowe, G., & Frewer, L.J. (2000). Public participation methods: A framework for evaluation. Science, Technology & Human Values, 25(1), 3-29.
  8. Webler, T., & Tuler, S. (2006). Fairness and competence in citizen participation: Theoretical reflections from a case study. Administration & Society, 38(3), 283-306.

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