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- How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates
How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates
Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.
What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .
There are five key steps to writing a literature review:
- Search for relevant literature
- Evaluate sources
- Identify themes, debates, and gaps
- Outline the structure
- Write your literature review
A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.
Table of contents
What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.
- Quick Run-through
- Step 1 & 2
When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:
- Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
- Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
- Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
- Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
- Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.
Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.
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See an example
Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.
- Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
- Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
- Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
- Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)
You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.
Download Word doc Download Google doc
Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .
If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .
Make a list of keywords
Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.
- Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
- Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
- Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth
Search for relevant sources
Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:
- Your university’s library catalogue
- Google Scholar
- Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
- Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
- EconLit (economics)
- Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)
You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.
Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.
You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.
For each publication, ask yourself:
- What question or problem is the author addressing?
- What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
- What are the key theories, models, and methods?
- Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
- What are the results and conclusions of the study?
- How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?
Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.
You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.
Take notes and cite your sources
As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.
It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.
To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:
- Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
- Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
- Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
- Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
- Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?
This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.
- Most research has focused on young women.
- There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
- But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.
There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).
The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.
Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.
If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.
For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.
If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:
- Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
- Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources
A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.
You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.
Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.
The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.
Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.
As you write, you can follow these tips:
- Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts
In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.
When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !
This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.
Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.
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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
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- Simple random sampling
- Stratified sampling
- Cluster sampling
- Likert scales
- Null hypothesis
- Statistical power
- Probability distribution
- Effect size
- Poisson distribution
- Optimism bias
- Cognitive bias
- Implicit bias
- Hawthorne effect
- Anchoring bias
- Explicit bias
A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .
It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.
There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:
- To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
- To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
- To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
- To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
- To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic
Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.
The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .
A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .
An annotated bibliography is a list of source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a paper .
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Writing a Thesis
Writing thesis in literature.
“God Speed” by Edmund Leighton, 1900
Sample Titles of Recent Theses in Literature
“Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves” by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1973
What does a thesis do for me?
Thesis writers can be assured that they have been well prepared for graduate study, and can attest to that fact in their applications and interviews. They have also gained skills that will help them in any workplace. The intensive, self-motivated focus on one topic can be (at times) frustrating, overwhelming, and deeply gratifying: the rewards are many, and most students find their love of literature strengthened through their own efforts and dedication, as well as through the opportunity to work one-on-one with faculty scholars. The time and commitment involved in the process of writing a thesis may or may not exceed the credit hours officially accorded, but the rewards are great. This is a serious undertaking and assumes that the thesis candidate is a responsible adult, able to make deadlines and keep to them without external prodding, and ready to become a literary scholar with a mind of her own.
What do I do for my thesis?
“Donna con tavolette cerate e stilo (cosiddetta “Saffo”)/Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”)” fresco ca. 50 CE
Fall Semester: Preparatory Work
If they have not done so in the the Spring of the junior year, thesis candidates should consult with faculty prior to Registration Day to determine who would be an appropriate advisor. The thesis will eventually be read and evaluated by three faculty members: the advisor my suggest second and third readers, or may leave the decision to the student. Developing an argument takes time, but candidates should begin with a clear set of interests in mind, and ideally with background reading underway. Students may choose to focus on a particular author or literary text, or to connect several authors and texts through attention to a shared thematic or formal pattern.
Regular Supervision and Deadlines
“Beloved” by Joe Morse, 2015
Spring Semester: 12-Unit Thesis
During the spring semester, the thesis candidate signs up for the 12-unit Thesis and devotes substantial energy to expanding, completing, and revising the work. The student should continue to meet on a regular basis with the advisor, and should also be sharing draft chapters with the second and third readers as soon as possible. The thesis process involves extensive revision as well as writing, and students need to anticipate that as the semester proceeds their readers will have an increasing number of competing demands on their time from other classes: chapters may not be returned with comments and recommendations for revision until some time after being submitted, and thesis writers need to plan accordingly. A complete first draft should be submitted by the end of spring break or the beginning of April, depending on the academic calendar and the advisor’s schedule. This ensures adequate time for commentary and extensive final revision before the official Institute deadline for undergraduate theses (usually at the end of the penultimate week of classes, and listed on the official Academic Calendar).
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Mad Tea Party” by Sir John Tenniel, 1865
Write a Literature Review
1. narrow your topic and select papers accordingly, 2. search for literature, 3. read the selected articles thoroughly and evaluate them, 4. organize the selected papers by looking for patterns and by developing subtopics, 5. develop a thesis or purpose statement, 6. write the paper, 7. review your work.
- Resources for Gathering and Reading the Literature
- Resources for Writing and Revising
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Consider your specific area of study. Think about what interests you and what interests other researchers in your field.
Talk to your professor, brainstorm, and read lecture notes and recent issues of periodicals in the ﬁeld.
Limit your scope to a smaller topic area (ie. focusing on France's role in WWII instead of focusing on WWII in general).
- Four Steps to Narrow Your Research Topic (Video) This 3-minute video provides instructions on how to narrow the focus of your research topic.
- Developing a Research Question + Worksheet Use this worksheet to develop, assess, and refine your research questions. There is also a downloadable PDF version.
Define your source selection criteria (ie. articles published between a specific date range, focusing on a specific geographic region, or using a specific methodology).
Using keywords, search a library database.
Reference lists of recent articles and reviews can lead to other useful papers.
Include any studies contrary to your point of view.
Evaluate and synthesize the studies' ﬁndings and conclusions.
Note the following:
- Assumptions some or most researchers seem to make
- Methodologies, testing procedures, subjects, material tested researchers use
- Experts in the ﬁeld: names/labs that are frequently referenced
- Conflicting theories, results, methodologies
- Popularity of theories and how this has/has not changed over time
- Findings that are common/contested
- Important trends in the research
- The most influential theories
Tip: If your literature review is extensive, ﬁnd a large table surface, and on it place post-it notes or ﬁling cards to organize all your ﬁndings into categories.
- Move them around if you decide that (a) they ﬁt better under different headings, or (b) you need to establish new topic headings.
- Develop headings/subheadings that reflect the major themes and patterns you detected
Write a one or two sentence statement summarizing the conclusion you have reached about the major trends and developments you see in the research that has been conducted on your subject.
- Templates for Writing Thesis Statements This template provides a two-step guide for writing thesis statements. There is also a downloadable PDF version.
- 5 Types of Thesis Statements Learn about five different types of thesis statements to help you choose the best type for your research. There is also a downloadable PDF version.
- 5 Questions to Strengthen Your Thesis Statement Follow these five steps to strengthen your thesis statements. There is also a downloadable PDF version.
Follow the organizational structure you developed above, including the headings and subheadings you constructed.
Make certain that each section links logically to the one before and after.
Structure your sections by themes or subtopics, not by individual theorists or researchers.
- Tip: If you ﬁnd that each paragraph begins with a researcher's name, it might indicate that, instead of evaluating and comparing the research literature from an analytical point of view, you have simply described what research has been done.
Prioritize analysis over description.
- For example, look at the following two passages and note that Student A merely describes the literature, whereas Student B takes a more analytical and evaluative approach by comparing and contrasting. You can also see that this evaluative approach is well signaled by linguistic markers indicating logical connections (words such as "however," "moreover") and phrases such as "substantiates the claim that," which indicate supporting evidence and Student B's ability to synthesize knowledge.
Student A: Smith (2000) concludes that personal privacy in their living quarters is the most important factor in nursing home residents' perception of their autonomy. He suggests that the physical environment in the more public spaces of the building did not have much impact on their perceptions. Neither the layout of the building nor the activities available seem to make much difference. Jones and Johnstone make the claim that the need to control one's environment is a fundamental need of life (2001), and suggest that the approach of most institutions, which is to provide total care, may be as bad as no care at all. If people have no choices or think that they have none, they become depressed.
Student B: After studying residents and staff from two intermediate care facilities in Calgary, Alberta, Smith (2000) came to the conclusion that except for the amount of personal privacy available to residents, the physical environment of these institutions had minimal if any effect on their perceptions of control (autonomy). However, French (1998) and Haroon (2000) found that availability of private areas is not the only aspect of the physical environment that determines residents' autonomy. Haroon interviewed 115 residents from 32 different nursing homes known to have different levels of autonomy (2000). It was found that physical structures, such as standardized furniture, heating that could not be individually regulated, and no possession of a house key for residents limited their feelings of independence. Moreover, Hope (2002), who interviewed 225 residents from various nursing homes, substantiates the claim that characteristics of the institutional environment such as the extent of resources in the facility, as well as its location, are features which residents have indicated as being of great importance to their independence.
- How to Integrate Critical Voice into Your Literature Review (Video)
- Look at the topic sentences of each paragraph. If you were to read only these sentences, would you ﬁnd that your paper presented a clear position, logically developed, from beginning to end? The topic sentences of each paragraph should indicate the main points of your literature review.
- Make an outline of each section of the paper and decide whether you need to add information, to delete irrelevant information, or to re-structure sections.
- Read your work out loud. That way you will be better able to identify where you need punctuation marks to signal pauses or divisions within sentences, where you have made grammatical errors, or where your sentences are unclear.
- Since the purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate that the writer is familiar with the important professional literature on the chosen subject, check to make certain that you have covered all of the important, up-to-date, and pertinent texts. In the sciences and some of the social sciences it is important that your literature be quite recent; this is not so important in the humanities.
- Make certain that all of the citations and references are correct and that you are referencing in the appropriate style for your discipline. If you are uncertain which style to use, ask your professor.
- Check to make sure that you have not plagiarized either by failing to cite a source of information, or by using words quoted directly from a source. (Usually if you take three or more words directly from another source, you should put those words within quotation marks, and cite the page.)
- Text should be written in a clear and concise academic style; it should not be descriptive in nature or use the language of everyday speech.
- There should be no grammatical or spelling errors.
- Sentences should ﬂow smoothly and logically.
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How to Write a Complete Literature Review for Your Thesis/Dissertation
A literature review critically evaluates and synthesizes existing research and scholarly publications on a specific topic or research question. Its goal is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge on the topic, identify gaps in the literature, and highlight areas for future research. A well-conducted literature review is an essential component of research because it helps to establish the research context, justify the need for the study, and guide the development of research questions or hypotheses.
The literature review of your thesis/dissertation is a very significant part of your paper. It provides readers with an understanding of previously published research in relation to your topic. It also highlights where your research fits into the existing literature. In other words, it provides valuable context for your readers about the field as a whole and the specific topic you have chosen to cover in your thesis/dissertation.
Literature reviews: An overview
A literature review does not only summarize what has been written about a topic already: it also offers a critical analysis of the existing literature.
Literature reviews can take different forms depending on what type of research you are doing and what your field of research is about. Literature reviews are a key part of the majority of academic articles or theses, and can even be written as articles all on their own. A literature review does not only summarize what has been written about a topic already: it also offers a critical analysis of the existing literature. In other words, you, the author, offer your analysis or critique on what has been written already. A literature review, however, should not just be a description of what has been written or a set of summaries.
The idea of reviewing and analyzing all the research that has been done on a topic can sound overwhelming; however, the task is easier than it sounds. This is also a vital step in performing the work necessary to write a good thesis. As you prepare and write your literature review, you will select and filter which sources are relevant to your work and which are not. As you review the literature, you will develop a clear understanding of the work that has come before you. This will enable you to write about it in such a way that you clearly demonstrate how you arrived at your own thesis statement or hypothesis.
A literature review can be quite short (5% of a paper) or quite long (30% of a paper) depending on the type of paper. For a thesis/dissertation, a literature review may be a full chapter, and is usually at least 10-20% of your paper.
Types of literature reviews
There are different types of literature reviews and the type you choose will be determined by the topic you are researching. Four common types of literature reviews are summarized below, but there are also other types that may be preferable depending on your thesis topic.
This type of literature review organizes sources and their ideas by the date of publication. For example, if you are writing about chronic Lyme disease, you would start with articles describing and identifying Lyme disease (1970s), then describe initial treatments and discoveries (1980s), increased prevalence of Lyme disease and rise of people with chronic Lyme disease (2000s), and finally discuss the current controversies and treatments (2010s).
This type is often used in social science papers such as political science or public policy. They focus on specific trends in a field and can still include a chronological component. For example, you could write about changes in approaches to early childhood education by discussing the rise and fall in popularity of public preschool, highlighting relevant case studies, and presenting arguments that there is no need for schooling so early. This is often used to highlight competing schools of thought in a field.
This focuses less on what is said in different sources and more on how previous research has been performed. For example, a methodological review of the treatment of chronic Lyme disease might reveal that previous studies which relied solely on laboratory tests dismissed persistent Lyme symptoms as “all in the patients’ heads,” while studies that focused on interviewing patients as well as doctors classified the disease as an unidentified syndrome. Methodological studies can highlight how approaches to research have changed over time and how the approaches used in research influence the results.
Theoretical literature reviews are often found in fields like philosophy or humanities, but are also prevalent in social sciences. They review existing theories and their relationships, as well as what has been tested and what has not. This kind of review is quite useful in demonstrating where existing theories fall short in describing a particular phenomenon in the field.
Structuring your literature review
A literature review is usually a chapter in your thesis/dissertation and as such generally includes an introduction, main body, and conclusion. The introduction will explain:
- The type of literature review you have performed
- Why you have chosen to perform that type of literature review
- Your criteria for selecting sources
Your main body will be the actual literature review, which we will discuss further in the next section. In your conclusion, you will summarize the major arguments that you have highlighted in your literature review and center your own research among them. The conclusion of the literature review should explain why your research study is necessary (what gap in the literature it fulfils) to lead smoothly into your next thesis chapter.
How do I review the literature?
An easy way to find relevant sources is to look at the citations of papers you find that are on the topic you want to research.
Before you write a literature review, you need to:
- Become familiar with the literature
- Select which sources are relevant to your thesis topic
- Organize your sources
- Choose the type of literature review you will write
- Arrange your notes to reflect the type of literature review
How do you become familiar with the literature?
If you aren’t sure where to start, try going to Google Scholar and typing in some keywords about your topic. For example, if you’re researching chronic Lyme disease, you could type in keywords such as “chronic Lyme” “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome” and “Lyme disease treatment” to see what results show up. As you search, you will be able to identify more keywords that are relevant to what you want to search. Making a list of these keywords can help you as you engage in this task. When you find an article that looks promising, copy the citation information from Google Scholar and save it in a file or use a reference manager like Mendeley . You will thank yourself for this later. You can then search your academic institution’s online library to download the article.
An easy way to find relevant sources is to look at the citations of papers you find that are on the topic you want to research. If you aren’t sure whether an article or paper you are reading is reputable , you can check its citation metrics using Google Scholar, which can tell you how many other people cited a particular source. Generally, it holds true that the more highly cited a source is, the more reliable and useful it is. Of course, your citation sources don’t need to be limited to journal articles. Books , news articles , interviews, and other sources are all acceptable .
Finally, as you read through sources and organize them, you will want to take notes. Don’t just save an article and hope you’ll remember why you did. Jot down a few sentences about the main argument of this source and why/how it is relevant to your research study. Once you have done this, you will want to go ahead and organize your sources in an order that reflects the type of literature review you have chosen to do. For example, if you are doing a thematic review, you should organize sources by a theme or type of argument. If you are doing a historical review, you would organize them in chronological order.
Writing the literature review
As you write your literature review, you will want to walk the reader through what has happened in the literature review and offer your analysis of it.
Now that you’ve reviewed the literature, taken notes, organized your sources and your notes, you are ready to begin! As we mentioned above, a literature review needs an introduction and a conclusion. As you write your literature review, you will want to walk the reader through what has happened in the literature review and offer your analysis of it. For example, you could say “while Yue and Xu argue that Lyme disease is a bacterial infection and should not result in symptoms resembling post-viral syndromes, others such as Scott and Zebrowski have noted the strong similarities between patients with chronic Lyme disease and the newly emerging group of COVID long-haulers. Scott and Zebrowski appear to be at the forefront of the changing perspective on chronic Lyme disease as newer evidence supports their position.”
Your literature review will include the ideas of many other people, but it should not be a lengthy chapter directly quoting other papers. You should instead paraphrase what others say. Of course you can use some quotes! They are not off limits. Short quotes like “Marx said ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ while Mao Zedong said ‘religion is poison’” is fine. Longer blocks of text should be used only when necessary and properly indicated within the text .
Now you are ready to write your thesis literature review! Check out our site for more tips on how to write a good thesis, where to find the best thesis editing services, and more about thesis editing and proofreading services .
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Checklist for writing a literature review
Below is a list of points to remember when writing your literature review. These will help you make sure that your literature review is thorough and properly structured.
Do a thorough review of the sources in your field that are relevant to your thesis topic.
Make sure your sources are reliable and high-quality.
Take detailed notes and maintain an organized list of your sources.
Cover a wide variety of viewpoints, not just those that support or agree with your argument. Make it clear what controversies and unsettled point of views exist.
Make sure your literature review chapter has a clear introduction, main body, and conclusion.
Use quotes sparingly.
What is a literature review? +
A literature review is a summary of the major studies and sources related to your topic that already exist and provides critical analysis of these sources. A literature review is not a bibliography or a list of sources. It is written in a narrative format.
e.g. “Clowes and McKnight (2002) argue that chronic Lyme disease is analogous to post-viral syndrome.”
What kinds of sources can be included in a literature review? +
Anything you can cite in an academic paper can be included in a literature review. This includes journal articles, books, news sources, interviews, and so on. You should not include Wikipedia or your Uncle Bob as a source in the literature review (unless your Uncle Bob is a recognized expert in your topic!).
Do I really have to write a literature review? +
A literature review is part of most social science or natural science theses/dissertations. your institutional requirements inform you to, then you have to write a literature review. If you are writing a thesis/dissertation in humanities or in another field where the structure does not mandate a literature review, you may be able to skip it. Always check with your advisor and your institution about the requirements of your thesis/dissertation structure.
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Writing Research Papers
- Writing a Literature Review
When writing a research paper on a specific topic, you will often need to include an overview of any prior research that has been conducted on that topic. For example, if your research paper is describing an experiment on fear conditioning, then you will probably need to provide an overview of prior research on fear conditioning. That overview is typically known as a literature review.
Please note that a full-length literature review article may be suitable for fulfilling the requirements for the Psychology B.S. Degree Research Paper . For further details, please check with your faculty advisor.
Different Types of Literature Reviews
Literature reviews come in many forms. They can be part of a research paper, for example as part of the Introduction section. They can be one chapter of a doctoral dissertation. Literature reviews can also “stand alone” as separate articles by themselves. For instance, some journals such as Annual Review of Psychology , Psychological Bulletin , and others typically publish full-length review articles. Similarly, in courses at UCSD, you may be asked to write a research paper that is itself a literature review (such as, with an instructor’s permission, in fulfillment of the B.S. Degree Research Paper requirement). Alternatively, you may be expected to include a literature review as part of a larger research paper (such as part of an Honors Thesis).
Literature reviews can be written using a variety of different styles. These may differ in the way prior research is reviewed as well as the way in which the literature review is organized. Examples of stylistic variations in literature reviews include:
- Summarization of prior work vs. critical evaluation. In some cases, prior research is simply described and summarized; in other cases, the writer compares, contrasts, and may even critique prior research (for example, discusses their strengths and weaknesses).
- Chronological vs. categorical and other types of organization. In some cases, the literature review begins with the oldest research and advances until it concludes with the latest research. In other cases, research is discussed by category (such as in groupings of closely related studies) without regard for chronological order. In yet other cases, research is discussed in terms of opposing views (such as when different research studies or researchers disagree with one another).
Overall, all literature reviews, whether they are written as a part of a larger work or as separate articles unto themselves, have a common feature: they do not present new research; rather, they provide an overview of prior research on a specific topic .
How to Write a Literature Review
When writing a literature review, it can be helpful to rely on the following steps. Please note that these procedures are not necessarily only for writing a literature review that becomes part of a larger article; they can also be used for writing a full-length article that is itself a literature review (although such reviews are typically more detailed and exhaustive; for more information please refer to the Further Resources section of this page).
Steps for Writing a Literature Review
1. Identify and define the topic that you will be reviewing.
The topic, which is commonly a research question (or problem) of some kind, needs to be identified and defined as clearly as possible. You need to have an idea of what you will be reviewing in order to effectively search for references and to write a coherent summary of the research on it. At this stage it can be helpful to write down a description of the research question, area, or topic that you will be reviewing, as well as to identify any keywords that you will be using to search for relevant research.
2. Conduct a literature search.
Use a range of keywords to search databases such as PsycINFO and any others that may contain relevant articles. You should focus on peer-reviewed, scholarly articles. Published books may also be helpful, but keep in mind that peer-reviewed articles are widely considered to be the “gold standard” of scientific research. Read through titles and abstracts, select and obtain articles (that is, download, copy, or print them out), and save your searches as needed. For more information about this step, please see the Using Databases and Finding Scholarly References section of this website.
3. Read through the research that you have found and take notes.
Absorb as much information as you can. Read through the articles and books that you have found, and as you do, take notes. The notes should include anything that will be helpful in advancing your own thinking about the topic and in helping you write the literature review (such as key points, ideas, or even page numbers that index key information). Some references may turn out to be more helpful than others; you may notice patterns or striking contrasts between different sources ; and some sources may refer to yet other sources of potential interest. This is often the most time-consuming part of the review process. However, it is also where you get to learn about the topic in great detail. For more details about taking notes, please see the “Reading Sources and Taking Notes” section of the Finding Scholarly References page of this website.
4. Organize your notes and thoughts; create an outline.
At this stage, you are close to writing the review itself. However, it is often helpful to first reflect on all the reading that you have done. What patterns stand out? Do the different sources converge on a consensus? Or not? What unresolved questions still remain? You should look over your notes (it may also be helpful to reorganize them), and as you do, to think about how you will present this research in your literature review. Are you going to summarize or critically evaluate? Are you going to use a chronological or other type of organizational structure? It can also be helpful to create an outline of how your literature review will be structured.
5. Write the literature review itself and edit and revise as needed.
The final stage involves writing. When writing, keep in mind that literature reviews are generally characterized by a summary style in which prior research is described sufficiently to explain critical findings but does not include a high level of detail (if readers want to learn about all the specific details of a study, then they can look up the references that you cite and read the original articles themselves). However, the degree of emphasis that is given to individual studies may vary (more or less detail may be warranted depending on how critical or unique a given study was). After you have written a first draft, you should read it carefully and then edit and revise as needed. You may need to repeat this process more than once. It may be helpful to have another person read through your draft(s) and provide feedback.
6. Incorporate the literature review into your research paper draft.
After the literature review is complete, you should incorporate it into your research paper (if you are writing the review as one component of a larger paper). Depending on the stage at which your paper is at, this may involve merging your literature review into a partially complete Introduction section, writing the rest of the paper around the literature review, or other processes.
Further Tips for Writing a Literature Review
Full-length literature reviews
- Many full-length literature review articles use a three-part structure: Introduction (where the topic is identified and any trends or major problems in the literature are introduced), Body (where the studies that comprise the literature on that topic are discussed), and Discussion or Conclusion (where major patterns and points are discussed and the general state of what is known about the topic is summarized)
Literature reviews as part of a larger paper
- An “express method” of writing a literature review for a research paper is as follows: first, write a one paragraph description of each article that you read. Second, choose how you will order all the paragraphs and combine them in one document. Third, add transitions between the paragraphs, as well as an introductory and concluding paragraph. 1
- A literature review that is part of a larger research paper typically does not have to be exhaustive. Rather, it should contain most or all of the significant studies about a research topic but not tangential or loosely related ones. 2 Generally, literature reviews should be sufficient for the reader to understand the major issues and key findings about a research topic. You may however need to confer with your instructor or editor to determine how comprehensive you need to be.
Benefits of Literature Reviews
By summarizing prior research on a topic, literature reviews have multiple benefits. These include:
- Literature reviews help readers understand what is known about a topic without having to find and read through multiple sources.
- Literature reviews help “set the stage” for later reading about new research on a given topic (such as if they are placed in the Introduction of a larger research paper). In other words, they provide helpful background and context.
- Literature reviews can also help the writer learn about a given topic while in the process of preparing the review itself. In the act of research and writing the literature review, the writer gains expertise on the topic .
- How to Write APA Style Research Papers (a comprehensive guide) [ PDF ]
- Tips for Writing APA Style Research Papers (a brief summary) [ PDF ]
- Example APA Style Research Paper (for B.S. Degree – literature review) [ PDF ]
- Writing Research Paper Videos
- UCSD Library Psychology Research Guide: Literature Reviews
- Developing and Writing a Literature Review from N Carolina A&T State University
- Example of a Short Literature Review from York College CUNY
- How to Write a Review of Literature from UW-Madison
- Writing a Literature Review from UC Santa Cruz
- Pautasso, M. (2013). Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review. PLoS Computational Biology, 9 (7), e1003149. doi : 1371/journal.pcbi.1003149
1 Ashton, W. Writing a short literature review . [PDF]
2 carver, l. (2014). writing the research paper [workshop]. , prepared by s. c. pan for ucsd psychology.
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A general guide on how to conduct and write a literature review.
Please check course or programme information and materials provided by teaching staff , including your project supervisor, for subject-specific guidance.
What is a literature review?
A literature review is a piece of academic writing demonstrating knowledge and understanding of the academic literature on a specific topic placed in context. A literature review also includes a critical evaluation of the material; this is why it is called a literature review rather than a literature report. It is a process of reviewing the literature, as well as a form of writing.
To illustrate the difference between reporting and reviewing, think about television or film review articles. These articles include content such as a brief synopsis or the key points of the film or programme plus the critic’s own evaluation. Similarly the two main objectives of a literature review are firstly the content covering existing research, theories and evidence, and secondly your own critical evaluation and discussion of this content.
Usually a literature review forms a section or part of a dissertation, research project or long essay. However, it can also be set and assessed as a standalone piece of work.
What is the purpose of a literature review?
…your task is to build an argument, not a library. Rudestam, K.E. and Newton, R.R. (1992) Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process. California: Sage, p49.
In a larger piece of written work, such as a dissertation or project, a literature review is usually one of the first tasks carried out after deciding on a topic. Reading combined with critical analysis can help to refine a topic and frame research questions. Conducting a literature review establishes your familiarity with and understanding of current research in a particular field before carrying out a new investigation. After doing a literature review, you should know what research has already been done and be able to identify what is unknown within your topic.
When doing and writing a literature review, it is good practice to:
- summarise and analyse previous research and theories;
- identify areas of controversy and contested claims;
- highlight any gaps that may exist in research to date.
Conducting a literature review
Focusing on different aspects of your literature review can be useful to help plan, develop, refine and write it. You can use and adapt the prompt questions in our worksheet below at different points in the process of researching and writing your review. These are suggestions to get you thinking and writing.
Developing and refining your literature review (pdf)
Developing and refining your literature review (Word)
Developing and refining your literature review (Word rtf)
Writing a literature review has a lot in common with other assignment tasks. There is advice on our other pages about thinking critically, reading strategies and academic writing. Our literature review top tips suggest some specific things you can do to help you submit a successful review.
Literature review top tips (pdf)
Literature review top tips (Word rtf)
Our reading page includes strategies and advice on using books and articles and a notes record sheet grid you can use.
Reading at university
The Academic writing page suggests ways to organise and structure information from a range of sources and how you can develop your argument as you read and write.
The Critical thinking page has advice on how to be a more critical researcher and a form you can use to help you think and break down the stages of developing your argument.
As with other forms of academic writing, your literature review needs to demonstrate good academic practice by following the Code of Student Conduct and acknowledging the work of others through citing and referencing your sources.
Good academic practice
As with any writing task, you will need to review, edit and rewrite sections of your literature review. The Editing and proofreading page includes tips on how to do this and strategies for standing back and thinking about your structure and checking the flow of your argument.
Editing and proofreading
Guidance on literature searching from the University Library
The Academic Support Librarians have developed LibSmart I and II, Learn courses to help you develop and enhance your digital research skills and capabilities; from getting started with the Library to managing data for your dissertation.
Searching using the library’s DiscoverEd tool: DiscoverEd
Finding resources in your subject: Subject guides
The Academic Support Librarians also provide one-to-one appointments to help you develop your research strategies.
1 to 1 support for literature searching and systematic reviews
Advice to help you optimise use of Google Scholar, Google Books and Google for your research and study: Using Google
Managing and curating your references
A referencing management tool can help you to collect and organise and your source material to produce a bibliography or reference list.
Referencing and reference management
Information Services provide access to Cite them right online which is a guide to the main referencing systems and tells you how to reference just about any source (EASE log-in may be required).
Cite them right
Published study guides
There are a number of scholarship skills books and guides available which can help with writing a literature review. Our Resource List of study skills guides includes sections on Referencing, Dissertation and project writing and Literature reviews.
Study skills guides
Writing your thesis and conducting a literature review
Writing your thesis.
- Your literature review
- Defining a research question
- Choosing where to search
- Search strings
- Limiters and filters
- Developing inclusion/exclusion criteria
- Managing your search results
- Screening, evaluating and recording
- Snowballing and grey literature
- Further information and resources
We understand that writing your thesis can be a daunting process! These pages will guide you through the process and help to get you started. Don't forget you can also always speak to your Librarian to discuss search strategies and resources you might use.
Writing your literature review
Your literature review is intended to show your understanding of a subject area and also identifies different research methodologies and tools. Read Writing a Literature review for practical tips that cover searching our resources, creating the basic structure and refining the final document.
You can also look at existing theses , not only for finding information, but also for looking at examples of the structure, methodology and referencing styles you should use.
This guide will explain the differences between a traditional literature review and a structured or systematic literature review.
The EPPI Centre also offers support and expertise to those undertaking systematic reviews.
Read our guide and top tips for getting started on your Master's thesis .
You will also find advice and support to help you develop a variety of skills on our Study Skills Hub .
There are set guidelines for the layout and submission of your thesis, depending on whether you are a taught or research student. University advice for conducting, writing, printing and submitting your thesis is published on the Thesis submission site on the intranet .
Note: you can browse our collection of theses and dissertations .
Are you a student in the School of Management? The Association of Business Schools publishes the Academic Journal Guide . It uses a range of metrics (including range, subject matter and relative quality of journals) to help you decide which journals to approach to publish your work. It is sometimes used by students to find the 4* and 3* journal titles that are being published in their area of interest. It will be replaced in 2024 and will aim to comply with the new DORA (the San Francisco Declaration on Research Access).
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Writing a Literature Review
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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.
Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?
There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.
A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.
Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.
What are the parts of a lit review?
Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.
- An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
- A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
- Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
- Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.
- Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
- Connect it back to your primary research question
How should I organize my lit review?
Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:
- Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
- Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
- Qualitative versus quantitative research
- Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
- Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.
What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?
Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .
As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.
Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:
- It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
- Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
- Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
- Read more about synthesis here.
The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.
Conduct a literature review
What is a literature review.
A literature review is a summary of the published work in a field of study. This can be a section of a larger paper or article, or can be the focus of an entire paper. Literature reviews show that you have examined the breadth of knowledge and can justify your thesis or research questions. They are also valuable tools for other researchers who need to find a summary of that field of knowledge.
Unlike an annotated bibliography, which is a list of sources with short descriptions, a literature review synthesizes sources into a summary that has a thesis or statement of purpose—stated or implied—at its core.
How do I write a literature review?
Step 1: define your research scope.
- What is the specific research question that your literature review helps to define?
- Are there a maximum or minimum number of sources that your review should include?
Ask us if you have questions about refining your topic, search methods, writing tips, or citation management.
Step 2: Identify the literature
Start by searching broadly. Literature for your review will typically be acquired through scholarly books, journal articles, and/or dissertations. Develop an understanding of what is out there, what terms are accurate and helpful, etc., and keep track of all of it with citation management tools . If you need help figuring out key terms and where to search, ask us .
Use citation searching to track how scholars interact with, and build upon, previous research:
- Mine the references cited section of each relevant source for additional key sources
- Use Google Scholar or Scopus to find other sources that have cited a particular work
Step 3: Critically analyze the literature
Key to your literature review is a critical analysis of the literature collected around your topic. The analysis will explore relationships, major themes, and any critical gaps in the research expressed in the work. Read and summarize each source with an eye toward analyzing authority, currency, coverage, methodology, and relationship to other works. The University of Toronto's Writing Center provides a comprehensive list of questions you can use to analyze your sources.
Step 4: Categorize your resources
Divide the available resources that pertain to your research into categories reflecting their roles in addressing your research question. Possible ways to categorize resources include organization by:
- theoretical/philosophical approach
Regardless of the division, each category should be accompanied by thorough discussions and explanations of strengths and weaknesses, value to the overall survey, and comparisons with similar sources. You may have enough resources when:
- You've used multiple databases and other resources (web portals, repositories, etc.) to get a variety of perspectives on the research topic.
- The same citations are showing up in a variety of databases.
Undergraduate student resources.
- Literature Review Handout (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
- Learn how to write a review of literature (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Graduate student and faculty resources
- Information Research Strategies (University of Arizona)
- Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students (NC State University)
- Oliver, P. (2012). Succeeding with Your Literature Review: A Handbook for Students [ebook]
- Machi, L. A. & McEvoy, B. T. (2016). The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success
Graustein, J. S. (2012). How to Write an Exceptional Thesis or Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Guide from Proposal to Successful Defense [ebook]
Thomas, R. M. & Brubaker, D. L. (2008). Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing