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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.
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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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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.
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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.
- Sampling methods
- 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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- Apr 15, 2021
7 Secrets to Write a PhD Literature Review The Right Way
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
A literature review gives your readers an idea about your scholarly understanding of the previous work in your research domain. It requires you to justify your work and demonstrate the importance of your research work with respect to the current state of knowledge. It is a great opportunity for you to examine the previous work and fill any gaps in it which may help you to make it a foundation for your own research.
The role of a literature review and its importance in your thesis can also be seen from here:
Role of a Literature Review|Walden University
Writing a literature review requires gathering loads of information by reading many articles, books, and papers related to your Ph.D. topic. And once you are done with the initial stage, you have to organize the important data collected and discuss it according to your learning. Now, all of this seems quite tedious.
You may have seen many people ranting when they have to write a literature review, and it is totally fine. But, does it help in writing a review? Obviously, no. You have to make this process interesting for yourself to remain focused.
Here are some secrets which can help you to enjoy writing an amazing literature review.
1. Make a Well-Structured Outline:
A literature review is exhaustive research on the topic under investigation so that you can become an expert on that topic. Therefore, it is important for you to make a well-structured outline before you start writing otherwise you won’t understand where to end as you’ll be having a lot of information. For example, a literature review must include an introduction and conclusion section, you should avoid direct quotations and use paraphrasing instead. Your literature review should be organized according to the theme and should be divided into various headings to shift from one topic to another. You can use comparative terms to agree or disagree with the author and provide your own opinion.
Check out this literature review template to have a more clear understanding of creating a well-structured outline for your literature review: Literature Review Template|Thompson Rivers University
2. Use Synthesis Matrix:
When you are gathering information from a lot of resources, and you have to ultimately gather them in one place then using a synthesis matrix could be very helpful for this purpose. A synthesis matrix is an outline that permits a researcher to sort and arrange the various contentions introduced on an issue. Across the highest point of the chart are the spaces to record sources, and at the edge of the chart are the spaces to record the primary concerns of contention on the current theme.
You can outline your whole literature review and keep a check and balance of which things you have covered and what is left. It simplifies your work greatly and helps in writing a literature review in a very organized manner.
See more on the use of synthesis matrix at Literature Review using synthesis Matrix and Synthesizing various sources
3. Change Your Perspective:
Another important thing that you must do before you start writing a literature review is to change your writing perspective. You don’t have to take it as a burden that Why am I even doing this? Yes, we know it is quite a dull task, but why not enjoy it if you have to do it after all?
Write it for yourself. Question yourself from time to time. Like what information would you like to extract from it while you are reading this review? Would it sound interesting to your self? Would you remain focused while reading this writing style? Will you love this review as a third person? Will this be an interesting thing to read?
When you become your critique you have high chances of improvement. You start writing a review such that you would like to read it yourself, and gradually you can write one interesting literature review for your thesis.
4. Read and Write Simultaneously:
A common mistake that many people make while writing a literature review is that they do all the readings and information gathering first and leave the writing at last. What happens is that they utilize all their energy and focus in the reading phase and when it's time to start the actual writing they feel exhausted and over-worked. Moreover, when they see a blank page in front of them after reading piles of paperwork they get demotivated and feel anxious that how they will manage to write such a long review.
How to avoid this anxiety?
One simple way is to start writing parallel to reading. When you are reading an article or paper, make notes of it or short bullet points. It will help you to keep a track of both what you have read and what you need to add to your literature review. And when you finally start compiling the review you will have your guideline instead of a blank paper which makes it quite easy for you to jot it all down on a paper.
5. Make a Proper Timeline and Stick To It:
Making a proper timeline to write a literature review is crucial. You don’t want to get stuck in it and end up completing your review in a year instead of weeks. To avoid this, take a day or two off, search through the internet or other resources that what helping material you would require reading, and then make a proper timeline of completing them and making notes simultaneously.
It will help you a lot to stay on track.
Here is a sample timeline you could follow: Research Sample Timeline
6. Go Easy On Yourself:
Yes, you heard it. Don’t be so harsh on yourself. Keep days off in your schedule and relax fully on those days. You don’t have to keep reading and writing 24/7, all days a week. Our mind needs to be relaxed on and off to remain functional. If you over-burden yourself you will eventually end up doing absolutely nothing because of over-work.
If you get stuck somewhere, seek help from your supervisor, friends or other resources, Don’t let your shyness or shame keep you away from achieving your target. We are all humans, and we do need help at some point in our lives so don’t discourage yourself to do so.
7. Interpret Your Understanding Comprehensively:
When writing a review you need to portray what you have truly learned from the already published work of other scholars. What many people do is they start cramming information to write a review and end up writing only a summary of that data, They don’t learn and understand anything from it. They just take it as a formality that has to be fulfilled. That is wrong.
You need to have clear concepts and must be able to demonstrate to others what you learned from the previous work and how your work would contribute towards it. This is the true essence of writing a literature review, and it will benefit you the most for your research process.
If you are having any difficulty in writing or editing your thesis Literature Review you can visit our website to seek help and guidance by the following link:
Scholars Doctoral Editing and Consulting
Scholars Professional Editing Group LLC :
Email Us: [email protected]
Contact Us: (302) 295-4953
CLICK HERE TO BOOK A FREE CONSULTATION NOW: Scholars Consultation
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- 04 December 2020
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How to write a superb literature review
Andy Tay is a freelance writer based in Singapore.
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Literature reviews are important resources for scientists. They provide historical context for a field while offering opinions on its future trajectory. Creating them can provide inspiration for one’s own research, as well as some practice in writing. But few scientists are trained in how to write a review — or in what constitutes an excellent one. Even picking the appropriate software to use can be an involved decision (see ‘Tools and techniques’). So Nature asked editors and working scientists with well-cited reviews for their tips.
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Correction 09 December 2020 : An earlier version of the tables in this article included some incorrect details about the programs Zotero, Endnote and Manubot. These have now been corrected.
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How To Structure Your Literature Review
3 options to help structure your chapter.
By: Amy Rommelspacher (PhD) | Reviewer: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | November 2020 (Updated May 2023)
Writing the literature review chapter can seem pretty daunting when you’re piecing together your dissertation or thesis. As we’ve discussed before , a good literature review needs to achieve a few very important objectives – it should:
- Demonstrate your knowledge of the research topic
- Identify the gaps in the literature and show how your research links to these
- Provide the foundation for your conceptual framework (if you have one)
- Inform your own methodology and research design
To achieve this, your literature review needs a well-thought-out structure . Get the structure of your literature review chapter wrong and you’ll struggle to achieve these objectives. Don’t worry though – in this post, we’ll look at how to structure your literature review for maximum impact (and marks!).
But wait – is this the right time?
Deciding on the structure of your literature review should come towards the end of the literature review process – after you have collected and digested the literature, but before you start writing the chapter.
In other words, you need to first develop a rich understanding of the literature before you even attempt to map out a structure. There’s no use trying to develop a structure before you’ve fully wrapped your head around the existing research.
Equally importantly, you need to have a structure in place before you start writing , or your literature review will most likely end up a rambling, disjointed mess.
Importantly, don’t feel that once you’ve defined a structure you can’t iterate on it. It’s perfectly natural to adjust as you engage in the writing process. As we’ve discussed before , writing is a way of developing your thinking, so it’s quite common for your thinking to change – and therefore, for your chapter structure to change – as you write.
Need a helping hand?
Like any other chapter in your thesis or dissertation, your literature review needs to have a clear, logical structure. At a minimum, it should have three essential components – an introduction , a body and a conclusion .
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
1: The Introduction Section
Just like any good introduction, the introduction section of your literature review should introduce the purpose and layout (organisation) of the chapter. In other words, your introduction needs to give the reader a taste of what’s to come, and how you’re going to lay that out. Essentially, you should provide the reader with a high-level roadmap of your chapter to give them a taste of the journey that lies ahead.
Here’s an example of the layout visualised in a literature review introduction:
Your introduction should also outline your topic (including any tricky terminology or jargon) and provide an explanation of the scope of your literature review – in other words, what you will and won’t be covering (the delimitations ). This helps ringfence your review and achieve a clear focus . The clearer and narrower your focus, the deeper you can dive into the topic (which is typically where the magic lies).
Depending on the nature of your project, you could also present your stance or point of view at this stage. In other words, after grappling with the literature you’ll have an opinion about what the trends and concerns are in the field as well as what’s lacking. The introduction section can then present these ideas so that it is clear to examiners that you’re aware of how your research connects with existing knowledge .
2: The Body Section
The body of your literature review is the centre of your work. This is where you’ll present, analyse, evaluate and synthesise the existing research. In other words, this is where you’re going to earn (or lose) the most marks. Therefore, it’s important to carefully think about how you will organise your discussion to present it in a clear way.
The body of your literature review should do just as the description of this chapter suggests. It should “review” the literature – in other words, identify, analyse, and synthesise it. So, when thinking about structuring your literature review, you need to think about which structural approach will provide the best “review” for your specific type of research and objectives (we’ll get to this shortly).
There are (broadly speaking) three options for organising your literature review.
Option 1: Chronological (according to date)
Organising the literature chronologically is one of the simplest ways to structure your literature review. You start with what was published first and work your way through the literature until you reach the work published most recently. Pretty straightforward.
The benefit of this option is that it makes it easy to discuss the developments and debates in the field as they emerged over time. Organising your literature chronologically also allows you to highlight how specific articles or pieces of work might have changed the course of the field – in other words, which research has had the most impact . Therefore, this approach is very useful when your research is aimed at understanding how the topic has unfolded over time and is often used by scholars in the field of history. That said, this approach can be utilised by anyone that wants to explore change over time .
For example , if a student of politics is investigating how the understanding of democracy has evolved over time, they could use the chronological approach to provide a narrative that demonstrates how this understanding has changed through the ages.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you structure your literature review chronologically.
- What is the earliest literature published relating to this topic?
- How has the field changed over time? Why?
- What are the most recent discoveries/theories?
In some ways, chronology plays a part whichever way you decide to structure your literature review, because you will always, to a certain extent, be analysing how the literature has developed. However, with the chronological approach, the emphasis is very firmly on how the discussion has evolved over time , as opposed to how all the literature links together (which we’ll discuss next ).
Option 2: Thematic (grouped by theme)
The thematic approach to structuring a literature review means organising your literature by theme or category – for example, by independent variables (i.e. factors that have an impact on a specific outcome).
As you’ve been collecting and synthesising literature , you’ll likely have started seeing some themes or patterns emerging. You can then use these themes or patterns as a structure for your body discussion. The thematic approach is the most common approach and is useful for structuring literature reviews in most fields.
For example, if you were researching which factors contributed towards people trusting an organisation, you might find themes such as consumers’ perceptions of an organisation’s competence, benevolence and integrity. Structuring your literature review thematically would mean structuring your literature review’s body section to discuss each of these themes, one section at a time.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when structuring your literature review by themes:
- Are there any patterns that have come to light in the literature?
- What are the central themes and categories used by the researchers?
- Do I have enough evidence of these themes?
PS – you can see an example of a thematically structured literature review in our literature review sample walkthrough video here.
Option 3: Methodological
The methodological option is a way of structuring your literature review by the research methodologies used . In other words, organising your discussion based on the angle from which each piece of research was approached – for example, qualitative , quantitative or mixed methodologies.
Structuring your literature review by methodology can be useful if you are drawing research from a variety of disciplines and are critiquing different methodologies. The point of this approach is to question how existing research has been conducted, as opposed to what the conclusions and/or findings the research were.
For example, a sociologist might centre their research around critiquing specific fieldwork practices. Their literature review will then be a summary of the fieldwork methodologies used by different studies.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when structuring your literature review according to methodology:
- Which methodologies have been utilised in this field?
- Which methodology is the most popular (and why)?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the various methodologies?
- How can the existing methodologies inform my own methodology?
3: The Conclusion Section
Once you’ve completed the body section of your literature review using one of the structural approaches we discussed above, you’ll need to “wrap up” your literature review and pull all the pieces together to set the direction for the rest of your dissertation or thesis.
The conclusion is where you’ll present the key findings of your literature review. In this section, you should emphasise the research that is especially important to your research questions and highlight the gaps that exist in the literature. Based on this, you need to make it clear what you will add to the literature – in other words, justify your own research by showing how it will help fill one or more of the gaps you just identified.
Last but not least, if it’s your intention to develop a conceptual framework for your dissertation or thesis, the conclusion section is a good place to present this.
Example: Thematically Structured Review
In the video below, we unpack a literature review chapter so that you can see an example of a thematically structure review in practice.
In this article, we’ve discussed how to structure your literature review for maximum impact. Here’s a quick recap of what you need to keep in mind when deciding on your literature review structure:
- Just like other chapters, your literature review needs a clear introduction , body and conclusion .
- The introduction section should provide an overview of what you will discuss in your literature review.
- The body section of your literature review can be organised by chronology , theme or methodology . The right structural approach depends on what you’re trying to achieve with your research.
- The conclusion section should draw together the key findings of your literature review and link them to your research questions.
If you’re ready to get started, be sure to download our free literature review template to fast-track your chapter outline.
Psst… there’s more!
This post is an extract from our bestselling Udemy Course, Literature Review Bootcamp . If you want to work smart, you don't want to miss this .
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Great work. This is exactly what I was looking for and helps a lot together with your previous post on literature review. One last thing is missing: a link to a great literature chapter of an journal article (maybe with comments of the different sections in this review chapter). Do you know any great literature review chapters?
I agree with you Marin… A great piece
I agree with Marin. This would be quite helpful if you annotate a nicely structured literature from previously published research articles.
Awesome article for my research.
I thank you immensely for this wonderful guide
It is indeed thought and supportive work for the futurist researcher and students
Very educative and good time to get guide. Thank you
Great work, very insightful. Thank you.
Thanks for this wonderful presentation. My question is that do I put all the variables into a single conceptual framework or each hypothesis will have it own conceptual framework?
Thank you very much, very helpful
This is very educative and precise . Thank you very much for dropping this kind of write up .
Pheeww, so damn helpful, thank you for this informative piece.
I’m doing a research project topic ; stool analysis for parasitic worm (enteric) worm, how do I structure it, thanks.
comprehensive explanation. Help us by pasting the URL of some good “literature review” for better understanding.
great piece. thanks for the awesome explanation. it is really worth sharing. I have a little question, if anyone can help me out, which of the options in the body of literature can be best fit if you are writing an architectural thesis that deals with design?
I am doing a research on nanofluids how can l structure it?
Beautifully clear.nThank you!
Brilliant work, well understood, many thanks
I like how this was so clear with simple language 😊😊 thank you so much 😊 for these information 😊
Insightful. I was struggling to come up with a sensible literature review but this has been really helpful. Thank you!
You have given thought-provoking information about the review of the literature.
Thank you. It has made my own research better and to impart your work to students I teach
I learnt a lot from this teaching. It’s a great piece.
I am doing research on EFL teacher motivation for his/her job. How Can I structure it? Is there any detailed template, additional to this?
You are so cool! I do not think I’ve read through something like this before. So nice to find somebody with some genuine thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This site is one thing that is required on the internet, someone with a little originality!
I’m asked to do conceptual, theoretical and empirical literature, and i just don’t know how to structure it
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The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It
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What is a review of the literature?
A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. Occasionally you will be asked to write one as a separate assignment (sometimes in the form of an annotated bibliography —see the bottom of the next page), but more often it is part of the introduction to an essay, research report, or thesis. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries
Besides enlarging your knowledge about the topic, writing a literature review lets you gain and demonstrate skills in two areas
- information seeking : the ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles and books
- critical appraisal : the ability to apply principles of analysis to identify unbiased and valid studies.
A literature review must do these things
- be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you are developing
- synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known
- identify areas of controversy in the literature
- formulate questions that need further research
Ask yourself questions like these:
- What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?
- What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research (e.g. on the effectiveness of a new procedure)? qualitative research (e.g., studies of loneliness among migrant workers)?
- What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, popular media)? What discipline am I working in (e.g., nursing psychology, sociology, medicine)?
- How good was my information seeking ? Has my search been wide enough to ensure I’ve found all the relevant material? Has it been narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material? Is the number of sources I’ve used appropriate for the length of my paper?
- Have I critically analysed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them? Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?
- Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?
- Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate, and useful ?
Ask yourself questions like these about each book or article you include:
- Has the author formulated a problem/issue?
- Is it clearly defined? Is its significance (scope, severity, relevance) clearly established?
- Could the problem have been approached more effectively from another perspective?
- What is the author’s research orientation (e.g., interpretive, critical science, combination)?
- What is the author’s theoretical framework (e.g., psychological, developmental, feminist)?
- What is the relationship between the theoretical and research perspectives?
- Has the author evaluated the literature relevant to the problem/issue? Does the author include literature taking positions she or he does not agree with?
- In a research study, how good are the basic components of the study design (e.g., population, intervention, outcome)? How accurate and valid are the measurements? Is the analysis of the data accurate and relevant to the research question? Are the conclusions validly based upon the data and analysis?
- In material written for a popular readership, does the author use appeals to emotion, one-sided examples, or rhetorically-charged language and tone? Is there an objective basis to the reasoning, or is the author merely “proving” what he or she already believes?
- How does the author structure the argument? Can you “deconstruct” the flow of the argument to see whether or where it breaks down logically (e.g., in establishing cause-effect relationships)?
- In what ways does this book or article contribute to our understanding of the problem under study, and in what ways is it useful for practice? What are the strengths and limitations?
- How does this book or article relate to the specific thesis or question I am developing?
A literature review is a piece of discursive prose , not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another. It’s usually a bad sign to see every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher. Instead, organize the literature review into sections that present themes or identify trends, including relevant theory. You are not trying to list all the material published, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question
If you are writing an annotated bibliography , you may need to summarize each item briefly, but should still follow through themes and concepts and do some critical assessment of material. Use an overall introduction and conclusion to state the scope of your coverage and to formulate the question, problem, or concept your chosen material illuminates. Usually you will have the option of grouping items into sections—this helps you indicate comparisons and relationships. You may be able to write a paragraph or so to introduce the focus of each section
This handout and many others are available in Writing in the Health Sciences: a comprehensive guide .
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What is a literature review?
A literature review is an integrated analysis -- not just a summary-- of scholarly writings and other relevant evidence related directly to your research question. That is, it represents a synthesis of the evidence that provides background information on your topic and shows a association between the evidence and your research question.
A literature review may be a stand alone work or the introduction to a larger research paper, depending on the assignment. Rely heavily on the guidelines your instructor has given you.
Why is it important?
A literature review is important because it:
- Explains the background of research on a topic.
- Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
- Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
- Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
- Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.
- Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies.
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1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.
Your literature review should be guided by your central research question. The literature represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, interpreted and analyzed by you in a synthesized way.
- Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow. Is it manageable?
- Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.
- If you have the opportunity, discuss your topic with your professor and your class mates.
2. Decide on the scope of your review
How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover?
- This may depend on your assignment. How many sources does the assignment require?
3. Select the databases you will use to conduct your searches.
Make a list of the databases you will search.
Where to find databases:
- use the tabs on this guide
- Find other databases in the Nursing Information Resources web page
- More on the Medical Library web page
- ... and more on the Yale University Library web page
4. Conduct your searches to find the evidence. Keep track of your searches.
- Use the key words in your question, as well as synonyms for those words, as terms in your search. Use the database tutorials for help.
- Save the searches in the databases. This saves time when you want to redo, or modify, the searches. It is also helpful to use as a guide is the searches are not finding any useful results.
- Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.
- Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.
- Check with your professor, or a subject expert in the field, if you are missing any key works in the field.
- Ask your librarian for help at any time.
- Use a citation manager, such as EndNote as the repository for your citations. See the EndNote tutorials for help.
Review the literature
Some questions to help you analyze the research:
- What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
- Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
- What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions.
- Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
- If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
- How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited? If so, how has it been analyzed?
- Review the abstracts carefully.
- Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.
- Create a matrix of the studies for easy analysis, and synthesis, across all of the studies.
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Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review
1 Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE), CNRS, Montpellier, France
2 Centre for Biodiversity Synthesis and Analysis (CESAB), FRB, Aix-en-Provence, France
Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-increasing output of scientific publications  . For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three, eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and biodiversity, respectively  . Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to examine in detail every single new paper relevant to their interests  . Thus, it is both advantageous and necessary to rely on regular summaries of the recent literature. Although recognition for scientists mainly comes from primary research, timely literature reviews can lead to new synthetic insights and are often widely read  . For such summaries to be useful, however, they need to be compiled in a professional way  .
When starting from scratch, reviewing the literature can require a titanic amount of work. That is why researchers who have spent their career working on a certain research issue are in a perfect position to review that literature. Some graduate schools are now offering courses in reviewing the literature, given that most research students start their project by producing an overview of what has already been done on their research issue  . However, it is likely that most scientists have not thought in detail about how to approach and carry out a literature review.
Reviewing the literature requires the ability to juggle multiple tasks, from finding and evaluating relevant material to synthesising information from various sources, from critical thinking to paraphrasing, evaluating, and citation skills  . In this contribution, I share ten simple rules I learned working on about 25 literature reviews as a PhD and postdoctoral student. Ideas and insights also come from discussions with coauthors and colleagues, as well as feedback from reviewers and editors.
Rule 1: Define a Topic and Audience
How to choose which topic to review? There are so many issues in contemporary science that you could spend a lifetime of attending conferences and reading the literature just pondering what to review. On the one hand, if you take several years to choose, several other people may have had the same idea in the meantime. On the other hand, only a well-considered topic is likely to lead to a brilliant literature review  . The topic must at least be:
- interesting to you (ideally, you should have come across a series of recent papers related to your line of work that call for a critical summary),
- an important aspect of the field (so that many readers will be interested in the review and there will be enough material to write it), and
- a well-defined issue (otherwise you could potentially include thousands of publications, which would make the review unhelpful).
Ideas for potential reviews may come from papers providing lists of key research questions to be answered  , but also from serendipitous moments during desultory reading and discussions. In addition to choosing your topic, you should also select a target audience. In many cases, the topic (e.g., web services in computational biology) will automatically define an audience (e.g., computational biologists), but that same topic may also be of interest to neighbouring fields (e.g., computer science, biology, etc.).
Rule 2: Search and Re-search the Literature
After having chosen your topic and audience, start by checking the literature and downloading relevant papers. Five pieces of advice here:
- keep track of the search items you use (so that your search can be replicated  ),
- keep a list of papers whose pdfs you cannot access immediately (so as to retrieve them later with alternative strategies),
- use a paper management system (e.g., Mendeley, Papers, Qiqqa, Sente),
- define early in the process some criteria for exclusion of irrelevant papers (these criteria can then be described in the review to help define its scope), and
- do not just look for research papers in the area you wish to review, but also seek previous reviews.
The chances are high that someone will already have published a literature review ( Figure 1 ), if not exactly on the issue you are planning to tackle, at least on a related topic. If there are already a few or several reviews of the literature on your issue, my advice is not to give up, but to carry on with your own literature review,
The bottom-right situation (many literature reviews but few research papers) is not just a theoretical situation; it applies, for example, to the study of the impacts of climate change on plant diseases, where there appear to be more literature reviews than research studies  .
- discussing in your review the approaches, limitations, and conclusions of past reviews,
- trying to find a new angle that has not been covered adequately in the previous reviews, and
- incorporating new material that has inevitably accumulated since their appearance.
When searching the literature for pertinent papers and reviews, the usual rules apply:
- be thorough,
- use different keywords and database sources (e.g., DBLP, Google Scholar, ISI Proceedings, JSTOR Search, Medline, Scopus, Web of Science), and
- look at who has cited past relevant papers and book chapters.
Rule 3: Take Notes While Reading
If you read the papers first, and only afterwards start writing the review, you will need a very good memory to remember who wrote what, and what your impressions and associations were while reading each single paper. My advice is, while reading, to start writing down interesting pieces of information, insights about how to organize the review, and thoughts on what to write. This way, by the time you have read the literature you selected, you will already have a rough draft of the review.
Of course, this draft will still need much rewriting, restructuring, and rethinking to obtain a text with a coherent argument  , but you will have avoided the danger posed by staring at a blank document. Be careful when taking notes to use quotation marks if you are provisionally copying verbatim from the literature. It is advisable then to reformulate such quotes with your own words in the final draft. It is important to be careful in noting the references already at this stage, so as to avoid misattributions. Using referencing software from the very beginning of your endeavour will save you time.
Rule 4: Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write
After having taken notes while reading the literature, you will have a rough idea of the amount of material available for the review. This is probably a good time to decide whether to go for a mini- or a full review. Some journals are now favouring the publication of rather short reviews focusing on the last few years, with a limit on the number of words and citations. A mini-review is not necessarily a minor review: it may well attract more attention from busy readers, although it will inevitably simplify some issues and leave out some relevant material due to space limitations. A full review will have the advantage of more freedom to cover in detail the complexities of a particular scientific development, but may then be left in the pile of the very important papers “to be read” by readers with little time to spare for major monographs.
There is probably a continuum between mini- and full reviews. The same point applies to the dichotomy of descriptive vs. integrative reviews. While descriptive reviews focus on the methodology, findings, and interpretation of each reviewed study, integrative reviews attempt to find common ideas and concepts from the reviewed material  . A similar distinction exists between narrative and systematic reviews: while narrative reviews are qualitative, systematic reviews attempt to test a hypothesis based on the published evidence, which is gathered using a predefined protocol to reduce bias  ,  . When systematic reviews analyse quantitative results in a quantitative way, they become meta-analyses. The choice between different review types will have to be made on a case-by-case basis, depending not just on the nature of the material found and the preferences of the target journal(s), but also on the time available to write the review and the number of coauthors  .
Rule 5: Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest
Whether your plan is to write a mini- or a full review, it is good advice to keep it focused 16 , 17 . Including material just for the sake of it can easily lead to reviews that are trying to do too many things at once. The need to keep a review focused can be problematic for interdisciplinary reviews, where the aim is to bridge the gap between fields  . If you are writing a review on, for example, how epidemiological approaches are used in modelling the spread of ideas, you may be inclined to include material from both parent fields, epidemiology and the study of cultural diffusion. This may be necessary to some extent, but in this case a focused review would only deal in detail with those studies at the interface between epidemiology and the spread of ideas.
While focus is an important feature of a successful review, this requirement has to be balanced with the need to make the review relevant to a broad audience. This square may be circled by discussing the wider implications of the reviewed topic for other disciplines.
Rule 6: Be Critical and Consistent
Reviewing the literature is not stamp collecting. A good review does not just summarize the literature, but discusses it critically, identifies methodological problems, and points out research gaps  . After having read a review of the literature, a reader should have a rough idea of:
- the major achievements in the reviewed field,
- the main areas of debate, and
- the outstanding research questions.
It is challenging to achieve a successful review on all these fronts. A solution can be to involve a set of complementary coauthors: some people are excellent at mapping what has been achieved, some others are very good at identifying dark clouds on the horizon, and some have instead a knack at predicting where solutions are going to come from. If your journal club has exactly this sort of team, then you should definitely write a review of the literature! In addition to critical thinking, a literature review needs consistency, for example in the choice of passive vs. active voice and present vs. past tense.
Rule 7: Find a Logical Structure
Like a well-baked cake, a good review has a number of telling features: it is worth the reader's time, timely, systematic, well written, focused, and critical. It also needs a good structure. With reviews, the usual subdivision of research papers into introduction, methods, results, and discussion does not work or is rarely used. However, a general introduction of the context and, toward the end, a recapitulation of the main points covered and take-home messages make sense also in the case of reviews. For systematic reviews, there is a trend towards including information about how the literature was searched (database, keywords, time limits)  .
How can you organize the flow of the main body of the review so that the reader will be drawn into and guided through it? It is generally helpful to draw a conceptual scheme of the review, e.g., with mind-mapping techniques. Such diagrams can help recognize a logical way to order and link the various sections of a review  . This is the case not just at the writing stage, but also for readers if the diagram is included in the review as a figure. A careful selection of diagrams and figures relevant to the reviewed topic can be very helpful to structure the text too  .
Rule 8: Make Use of Feedback
Reviews of the literature are normally peer-reviewed in the same way as research papers, and rightly so  . As a rule, incorporating feedback from reviewers greatly helps improve a review draft. Having read the review with a fresh mind, reviewers may spot inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and ambiguities that had not been noticed by the writers due to rereading the typescript too many times. It is however advisable to reread the draft one more time before submission, as a last-minute correction of typos, leaps, and muddled sentences may enable the reviewers to focus on providing advice on the content rather than the form.
Feedback is vital to writing a good review, and should be sought from a variety of colleagues, so as to obtain a diversity of views on the draft. This may lead in some cases to conflicting views on the merits of the paper, and on how to improve it, but such a situation is better than the absence of feedback. A diversity of feedback perspectives on a literature review can help identify where the consensus view stands in the landscape of the current scientific understanding of an issue  .
Rule 9: Include Your Own Relevant Research, but Be Objective
In many cases, reviewers of the literature will have published studies relevant to the review they are writing. This could create a conflict of interest: how can reviewers report objectively on their own work  ? Some scientists may be overly enthusiastic about what they have published, and thus risk giving too much importance to their own findings in the review. However, bias could also occur in the other direction: some scientists may be unduly dismissive of their own achievements, so that they will tend to downplay their contribution (if any) to a field when reviewing it.
In general, a review of the literature should neither be a public relations brochure nor an exercise in competitive self-denial. If a reviewer is up to the job of producing a well-organized and methodical review, which flows well and provides a service to the readership, then it should be possible to be objective in reviewing one's own relevant findings. In reviews written by multiple authors, this may be achieved by assigning the review of the results of a coauthor to different coauthors.
Rule 10: Be Up-to-Date, but Do Not Forget Older Studies
Given the progressive acceleration in the publication of scientific papers, today's reviews of the literature need awareness not just of the overall direction and achievements of a field of inquiry, but also of the latest studies, so as not to become out-of-date before they have been published. Ideally, a literature review should not identify as a major research gap an issue that has just been addressed in a series of papers in press (the same applies, of course, to older, overlooked studies (“sleeping beauties”  )). This implies that literature reviewers would do well to keep an eye on electronic lists of papers in press, given that it can take months before these appear in scientific databases. Some reviews declare that they have scanned the literature up to a certain point in time, but given that peer review can be a rather lengthy process, a full search for newly appeared literature at the revision stage may be worthwhile. Assessing the contribution of papers that have just appeared is particularly challenging, because there is little perspective with which to gauge their significance and impact on further research and society.
Inevitably, new papers on the reviewed topic (including independently written literature reviews) will appear from all quarters after the review has been published, so that there may soon be the need for an updated review. But this is the nature of science  –  . I wish everybody good luck with writing a review of the literature.
Many thanks to M. Barbosa, K. Dehnen-Schmutz, T. Döring, D. Fontaneto, M. Garbelotto, O. Holdenrieder, M. Jeger, D. Lonsdale, A. MacLeod, P. Mills, M. Moslonka-Lefebvre, G. Stancanelli, P. Weisberg, and X. Xu for insights and discussions, and to P. Bourne, T. Matoni, and D. Smith for helpful comments on a previous draft.
This work was funded by the French Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) through its Centre for Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity data (CESAB), as part of the NETSEED research project. The funders had no role in the preparation of the manuscript.
- What Is a PhD Literature Review?
- Doing a PhD
A literature review is a critical analysis of published academic literature, mainly peer-reviewed papers and books, on a specific topic. This isn’t just a list of published studies but is a document summarising and critically appraising the main work by researchers in the field, the key findings, limitations and gaps identified in the knowledge.
- The aim of a literature review is to critically assess the literature in your chosen field of research and be able to present an overview of the current knowledge gained from previous work.
- By the conclusion of your literature review, you as a researcher should have identified the gaps in knowledge in your field; i.e. the unanswered research questions which your PhD project will help to answer.
- Quality not quantity is the approach to use when writing a literature review for a PhD but as a general rule of thumb, most are between 6,000 and 12,000 words.
What Is the Purpose of a Literature Review?
First, to be clear on what a PhD literature review is NOT: it is not a ‘paper by paper’ summary of what others have done in your field. All you’re doing here is listing out all the papers and book chapters you’ve found with some text joining things together. This is a common mistake made by PhD students early on in their research project. This is a sign of poor academic writing and if it’s not picked up by your supervisor, it’ll definitely be by your examiners.
The biggest issue your examiners will have here is that you won’t have demonstrated an application of critical thinking when examining existing knowledge from previous research. This is an important part of the research process as a PhD student. It’s needed to show where the gaps in knowledge were, and how then you were able to identify the novelty of each research question and subsequent work.
The five main outcomes from carrying out a good literature review should be:
- An understanding of what has been published in your subject area of research,
- An appreciation of the leading research groups and authors in your field and their key contributions to the research topic,
- Knowledge of the key theories in your field,
- Knowledge of the main research areas within your field of interest,
- A clear understanding of the research gap in knowledge that will help to motivate your PhD research questions .
When assessing the academic papers or books that you’ve come across, you must think about the strengths and weaknesses of them; what was novel about their work and what were the limitations? Are different sources of relevant literature coming to similar conclusions and complementing each other, or are you seeing different outcomes on the same topic by different researchers?
When Should I Write My Literature Review?
In the structure of your PhD thesis , your literature review is effectively your first main chapter. It’s at the start of your thesis and should, therefore, be a task you perform at the start of your research. After all, you need to have reviewed the literature to work out how your research can contribute novel findings to your area of research. Sometimes, however, in particular when you apply for a PhD project with a pre-defined research title and research questions, your supervisor may already know where the gaps in knowledge are.
You may be tempted to skip the literature review and dive straight into tackling the set questions (then completing the review at the end before thesis submission) but we strongly advise against this. Whilst your supervisor will be very familiar with the area, you as a doctoral student will not be and so it is essential that you gain this understanding before getting into the research.
How Long Should the Literature Review Be?
As your literature review will be one of your main thesis chapters, it needs to be a substantial body of work. It’s not a good strategy to have a thesis writing process here based on a specific word count, but know that most reviews are typically between 6,000 and 12,000 words. The length will depend on how much relevant material has previously been published in your field.
A point to remember though is that the review needs to be easy to read and avoid being filled with unnecessary information; in your search of selected literature, consider filtering out publications that don’t appear to add anything novel to the discussion – this might be useful in fields with hundreds of papers.
How Do I Write the Literature Review?
Before you start writing your literature review, you need to be clear on the topic you are researching.
1. Evaluating and Selecting the Publications
After completing your literature search and downloading all the papers you find, you may find that you have a lot of papers to read through ! You may find that you have so many papers that it’s unreasonable to read through all of them in their entirety, so you need to find a way to understand what they’re about and decide if they’re important quickly.
A good starting point is to read the abstract of the paper to gauge if it is useful and, as you do so, consider the following questions in your mind:
- What was the overarching aim of the paper?
- What was the methodology used by the authors?
- Was this an experimental study or was this more theoretical in its approach?
- What were the results and what did the authors conclude in their paper?
- How does the data presented in this paper relate to other publications within this field?
- Does it add new knowledge, does it raise more questions or does it confirm what is already known in your field? What is the key concept that the study described?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of this study, and in particular, what are the limitations?
2. Identifying Themes
To put together the structure of your literature review you need to identify the common themes that emerge from the collective papers and books that you have read. Key things to think about are:
- Are there common methodologies different authors have used or have these changed over time?
- Do the research questions change over time or are the key question’s still unanswered?
- Is there general agreement between different research groups in the main results and outcomes, or do different authors provide differing points of view and different conclusions?
- What are the key papers in your field that have had the biggest impact on the research?
- Have different publications identified similar weaknesses or limitations or gaps in the knowledge that still need to be addressed?
Structuring and Writing Your Literature Review
There are several ways in which you can structure a literature review and this may depend on if, for example, your project is a science or non-science based PhD.
One approach may be to tell a story about how your research area has developed over time. You need to be careful here that you don’t just describe the different papers published in chronological order but that you discuss how different studies have motivated subsequent studies, how the knowledge has developed over time in your field, concluding with what is currently known, and what is currently not understood.
Alternatively, you may find from reading your papers that common themes emerge and it may be easier to develop your review around these, i.e. a thematic review. For example, if you are writing up about bridge design, you may structure the review around the themes of regulation, analysis, and sustainability.
As another approach, you might want to talk about the different research methodologies that have been used. You could then compare and contrast the results and ultimate conclusions that have been drawn from each.
As with all your chapters in your thesis, your literature review will be broken up into three key headings, with the basic structure being the introduction, the main body and conclusion. Within the main body, you will use several subheadings to separate out the topics depending on if you’re structuring it by the time period, the methods used or the common themes that have emerged.
The important thing to think about as you write your main body of text is to summarise the key takeaway messages from each research paper and how they come together to give one or more conclusions. Don’t just stop at summarising the papers though, instead continue on to give your analysis and your opinion on how these previous publications fit into the wider research field and where they have an impact. Emphasise the strengths of the studies you have evaluated also be clear on the limitations of previous work how these may have influenced the results and conclusions of the studies.
In your concluding paragraphs focus your discussion on how your critical evaluation of literature has helped you identify unanswered research questions and how you plan to address these in your PhD project. State the research problem you’re going to address and end with the overarching aim and key objectives of your work .
When writing at a graduate level, you have to take a critical approach when reading existing literature in your field to determine if and how it added value to existing knowledge. You may find that a large number of the papers on your reference list have the right academic context but are essentially saying the same thing. As a graduate student, you’ll need to take a methodological approach to work through this existing research to identify what is relevant literature and what is not.
You then need to go one step further to interpret and articulate the current state of what is known, based on existing theories, and where the research gaps are. It is these gaps in the literature that you will address in your own research project.
- Decide on a research area and an associated research question.
- Decide on the extent of your scope and start looking for literature.
- Review and evaluate the literature.
- Plan an outline for your literature review and start writing it.
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Drowning in a sea of authors – How to be critical in a PhD literature review.
Feb 10, 2019
One of the problems I see often when I proofread PhDs is people being too descriptive and not being critical enough. This is most often the case in the literature review.
Critical thinking is one of the hardest skills to master in the entire PhD. Yet, it’s frustrating that many supervisors and doctoral training programs assume that PhD students are already capable critical thinkers.
To be critical in your PhD literature review doesn’t just mean describing what others have written. Instead, it means evaluating and analysing what it is that is being said.
In this post we explain how to master the art of being critical in your literature review. If you haven’t already, check out our post on how to conduct a literature review.
We’ve also made an infographic. Simply click on the image below to download it.
So many questions…
When we say ‘you must be critical’, we mean that you must critically evaluate whatever it is you are discussing. Your job when critically evaluating is to think analytically, rather than descriptively.
However, being critical doesn’t mean criticising. Instead it means evaluating.
We saw in our post on how to write a literature review and in the PhD Writing Template that the literature review serves three purposes.
- To provide sufficient background information so that your own research problem can be contextualised
- To discuss how, how well, or even if, others have solved similar problems
- To outline the methods used by others when discussing similar problems
It is the first and second purposes that require critical thinking skills, because you want to be evaluating each work you read and act as an investigator.
A quick and easy way to do so is to ask five standard questions of each thing you read:
1. Who? 2. Where? 3. What? 4. When? 5. Why?
Asking these questions means we don’t just take what is written at face value. Instead, we evaluate, interpret, explain, analyse and comment on the text. These questions are a starting point for you to do that.
You’ll need to expand on these questions in order to go into more depth. You can do this by asking (you’ll find these questions in your PhD Writing Template ):
- Who wrote this and why?
- What are the authors trying to say?
- On what basis are they forming their judgements and arguments?
- Are they convincing?
- What theories or perspectives have been used? What alternative ones may have been used instead?
- What perspective are they coming from? What research tradition? What methods do they use? Are they appropriate?
- How does this work relate to others in the field?
- What are others arguing about the same topic?
- How does it relate to your research question or problem?
Ultimately, you’re asking: so what?
Don’t drown in a sea of authors
Let’s take an example of what not to do. Consider the following paragraph, from my very own PhD, on a theory of environmental politics known as ecological modernisation (that’s what the EM stands for):
We can see that I’ve become lost in the literature. All I’m really doing is listing various different studies. I’ve failed to think analytically and instead I’m just thinking descriptively.
I’m drowning in authors, navigating complex ideas and theories with little care for critically thinking about each of them. Instead I am piling up layers of ‘this person said this’ in order to showcase the field.
I – the academic – do not appear in this text at all. I offer no insight into my own critical reflection on any of the concepts, authors or ideas that I have listed. I have become invisible. I have not used the literature to put forward my own argument about the state of the discipline or to make the case for my own study.
There are two things to take from this:
- You need to speak with authority. Avoid falling into the trap of ‘he said, she said’, simply listing scholars and becoming invisible in the process.
- Avoid being overwhelmed by the literature.
How could I have improved my own literature review, using what I know now after years of working as an academic, proofreader and a literature review writer?
Consider the following excerpt from a literature review a colleague and I wrote as part of a journal article we had published . Notice how we aren’t invisible in a sea of authors and a sea of ‘he said, she said’.
Instead, we offer our own voice and put forward our own analysis of the literature. The sentence, ’this article argues, however, that all institutional formations are characterised by a combination or formal rules…’ is just one example of this.
Read, read, read, then write, write, write
Counterintuitively, when you are reading something for the first time, you should do so uncritically. Get a sense of what the writer is trying to do and whether the problem that they are tackling is in itself interesting.
We’ve written a guide about how to find content for your literature review. Check it out here .
You want to understand at this stage the ‘how’ and the ‘what’.
Once you have read the chapter, article, or book, and once you have a good sense of what it is about, you can then ask the when, why and how.
You can begin to unpack whether the conclusions are valid, whether the methods are appropriate, whether alternative theories or concepts could have been applied, and so on.
It is also at this stage that you can judge the validity of the paper as a whole. You need to ask yourself:
- Is it an incremental increase in the knowledge in your field, or is it game-changing?
- Is it a classic, or does it just add a little to what we knew before?
The answer to these questions can impact the significance the article or book plays in your literature review when you come to write.
As you write, you are forced to tackle what might seem like a wide range of literature. You are forced to relate different articles and books to one another and to explain the who, where, what, when and why.
But, you need a filter; much of what you read won’t be relevant to the study you are trying to develop or may be of poor quality.
It is these five questions above that act as your filter and which serve as your guide, against which you relate one piece of literature with another.
Master your lit review & theory framework.
Learn what goes where (and why), and how it all fit together with this free, interactive guide to the PhD literature review and theory framework.
Conclusion: Don’t be mean
So, thinking critically involves thinking like a detective in order to understand what others have written, why, and how it relates to that which came before and to your thesis. It involves not taking things at face value and questioning everything.
But, it’s not your job to be mean to other scholars. It’s your job to understand how well something was written and how relevant it is to your purposes. If you just list articles in a descriptive way, you won’t be doing this. You need instead to be critical, to ask questions, to probe the words.
Doing so will give you a voice and avoid you getting lost in sources.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Be able to call yourself Doctor sooner with our five-star rated How to Write A PhD email-course. Learn everything your supervisor should have taught you about planning and completing a PhD.
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Thanks this was useful!
Great! Glad you found it useful.
I am yet to write a Ph.D. literature review in English Literature on Kazuo Ishiguro. This article boosted me up to the importance of Critical and analytical thinking rather than descriptive thinking. I am also a blogger of Ph.D. https://phdstudytips.com But this information I have not written anywhere on my blog. Thanks for all efforts Dr.Max Lempriere
Thanks for the kind words. Critical thinking is so important, but so hard! I hope this article helped you in your academic journey.
Do you have any tips on how to approach a research proposal regarding structure and the do’s and don’ts ?
Thank you David
Sure – you can check out a guide we’ve written here: https://www.thephdproofreaders.com/writing/how-to-write-a-phd-proposal/
Hope this helps,
Hey Max.. This is very helpful for me. Thank u for writing this blog, i am now confident to start my review
I’m glad you are finding it useful. Good luck!
Really helpful. Thank you.
You’re welcome. I’m glad you found it useful.
Hi Dr Max, I’m about to write my Literature review. Your blog helps me a lot. However could you share with me some samples of Literature reviews in Phd?
Hi Sachin. Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you’re finding the blog useful. I can’t offer any specific examples of literature reviews. It depends on your discipline. My advice would be to read similar PhDs in your discipline for inspiration. If in doubt, ask your supervisor or colleagues for their suggestions of particularly good examples. I hope this helps! Good luck!
Hello Dr. Max. I must say that I enjoyed in this guide to literature review, and while I initially made the same mistake about just listing different studies, I have corrected that thanks to your guide.
There is one thing that I would like to ask you. How to approach to a thesis that is rarely documented, with very small number of published and relevant papers. Obviously, future PhD. thesis is going to offer better understanding of the matter that is about to be explored by experimental study, but what to do when very small number of researchers is dealing with this subject, or all of the available literature is of old date, but there is nothing new or better than this literature from the 60’s or 70’s.
Wish you all the best, and once again thank you for this guide.
Hi Faruk, thanks for the kind words. Your struggle is a common one. If there isn’t much literature to review, your literature review will necessarily be shorter than average and that’s okay. Make sure you thoroughly review the literature that goes exist, even if it is old, and make sure that your argument in the literature review chapter is built upon this idea that the literature is poorly developed. In some ways this makes your life easier, as the gap in your literature is so large that it will be easier for you to fill it. Hope this helps!
Thank you for the prompt response. Yes, this definitely helps. It gives hope 🙂
Thanks for this article. My thesis is on a specific artist about whom very little has been written, relative to other artists. On the other hand, my general approach to the questions I am asking about this artist is interdisciplinary, which means there is a massive literature from about five different fields to review. Do you have any advice about how to manage this. I’ve written about 17,000 words, but my supervisor keeps telling me it’s not enough.
Hi! Without knowing more about your topic it’s hard to say, but I know from my own PhD that blending various literatures together in a review is tough. If you find yourself getting stuck and tied in knots, step away from the chapter/review for a few days and come back with a fresh set of eyes.
Very Very helpful Sir. I am about to start my PhD.
Welcome to the club! Good luck on your amazing PhD journey.
Dear Dr Max
I just started this course and would like to say that its contents are very useful to my current confused state of mind. Thank you for making me see the clearer picture so as not be overwhelmed by the PhD thesis writing. I was at the brink of giving up few years of work, and am so glad I came across your website and registered for the course. Thank you.
I’m glad you’re finding it useful. It’s my mission to make other students’ lives easier than mine was when I was doing my PhD, so I’m glad to see it is having the desired effect.
Thank you so much Dr. Max. It is very helpful, I joined PhD in this year 2020 in January.
You’re welcome. Thanks for reading.
Dear Dr Max ,
Good day sir and thanks for all your good work trying to make sure we get it easier than you did . am not yet in PHD class yet but in DR class .Please how soon can i start my Thesis Writing ? and how do i chose topic to write on ? Please i need help . Thanks again and God bless. Osy
Hi Osy, I’m afraid I can’t offer any advice to help you choose a topic. Have you approach any potential supervisors and asked them? They’ll be better placed to help.
This was very useful. However, I find it difficult to articulate some complex thoughts (English is not my first language). Developing a discursive writing style is my greatest challenge in doing a Ph.D. I am only able to recognize them when someone else has written them,
You might want to work with a proofreader. Check out our website for more info.
Very good pointers shared. thanks for this post.
Thank you very much for your article. It addresses some of the many struggles PhD students seem to face. Knowing that I am not alone is a good start. I have finished my methodology and currently writing my literature review. I thought I would have enjoyed it more… but it’s a tough one! I must say I am finding it quite overwhelming particularly to organize the chapter. The first part contexualising the research is fine and done, but trying to critique the main text that acted as a springboard to my research is tough.
I am not quite sure whether I should engage with recent research that has adopted the same main text/research I am using and critically discuss those or else fuse the said recent existing research with other broader themes (which I still need to include as part of the lit review).
Getting my head around this is overwhelming!
When it gets too tough, remind yourself that this stuff is meant to be difficult.
Thank you, Dr. Max. This blog is a booster for me. I am a research scholar in agribusiness I cover green marketing in agro-based industries. This blog helps me a lot.
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How to Write a Literature Review for Your Thesis
While writing a literature review for your PhD thesis or dissertation, you will have to dig past literature on your topic throughly.
Simple steps to write a literature review for PhD thesis :
- Prepare upto 10 research questions.
- Keep ready with topic’s keywords.
- The length is a quarter of whole thesis.
- Gather Primary and Secondary Sources
- Take sources from all channels.
- Save every source weblink on your laptop.
- Never deviate from your topic of research.
- Prepare summaries for each source.
- Finally, derive conclusions.
Advanced tips to write a literature review for PhD thesis
Where to start.
You must first take it into consideration about the date bases that your professors are recommending you.
A lot of people start the literature review by quickly searching google scholar with some keywords. The issue with this is that you got so many results.
These bunch of results are not in a way going to help you and are not relevant either. Those results are not sometimes specific to the questions that you need to answer your review.
You need to ask you tutors or supervisor or professor to search rightly and which portal you must use. Come up with central research questions.
What this does is that these central research questions will refer strongly to the title of the review.
By answering these questions you can basically say that you have answered basic questions.
You must also talk to your classmates and colleagues when you are doing a literature review. There are chances that you may do your Ph.D. literature review in isolation.
Do meet your friends and ask them whether they have come across your literature questions. You must also choose bibliography. For a lot of PhD, scholars bibliography is quite intimidating.
You can use some software for the purpose of bibliography.
How to search for resources?
After choosing research questions, carefully use keyword terms in your PhD literature review.. There are chances that you may not use right key terms.
So take care that you are using appropriate key terms or keywords that are relevant to the research questions.
The best way to know that you used the wrong keyword in your PhD literature review is that when you end up with lot many results. This says that your keyword is way too general.
So you need to pull with a narrow keyword to get the right rich results. Sometimes you may not find even though you use right key terms.
In such a case you must make sure to change the search portal that you are using. Do not rely on only one portal.
Have lots of journals, magazines which your tutor or supervisors suggest. Also check the results carefully. Pick up the right result for your literature review.
The best way to know the right result is that see that the article has lots of citations and the very latest one that is highly trending.
And also make sure that the article is a peer-reviewed journal. To know this you can go to the about section of the article’s journal and check whether that is peer-reviewed or not.
Peer review is nothing but it speaks the academic originality. It is not that you just read the title of the article but try to read the abstract and a few lines at the beginning of the article.
See whether that article matches to your research questions and keywords so that it matches to your literature review piece.
There are some sources that you can do this. They are with the help of Zotero and Mendeley . Zotero is the add on the google chrome which will store all the bibliography of the articles you are coming across.
You do not need to write them on an extra piece of paper or store them on your folders. It all gets stored in the cloud any amount of them.
You can access at any point of time unlimited.
Picking up right sources
You must understand how many sources that you are going to quote in your PhD literature review. Also, it depends now on 20, 30 or 40. Ask you a lecturer or PhD supervisor about this. Use Zotero for this.
Make sure you are picking up right sources that are written by established scholars with good citations.
Try to pick up resources also from direct journals which are written directly about your topic. You can also take from authored books.
Read actively and review literature thoroughly.
Always read the articles analytically by keeping the keywords in mind. Try to compare different articles that you are reading to get a good literature review for your thesis. This will really help your PhD literature review.
Try to constantly exercise your brain by thinking in an analytical way. Try to engage what is going on in the filed that you have chosen.
Many scholars make mistake by just highlighting the text while they read but forget to take notes about why they have highlighted.
Probably you may think that you can remember later why have you highlighted a particular text but after some days, when you look into the article you do not remember why it was worth highlighting.
Again constantly thinking about the relevance and validity of what you are reading, try to talk to your PhD supervisor.
Structure of the PhD literature review for thesis
Use subheadings in your literature review clearly. This will help you to navigate properly. The essential central research questions can act as subheadings at the beginning.
If your supervisor is telling you not to use subheading and asks you flow through a paragraph, you can do it at the end. But particularly while doing a PhD review it is good to have good subheadings.
Use the technique of color coding in the literature review so that you know which color represents what. And also go with cross-referencing.
Keep always connected how critics are bringing up the topic differently by comparing and contrasting in order to position yourself in the field of research.
The other common mistake in literature review is keeping block quotations. Use only essential quotations.
The problem with block quotation is that critic’s work is very difficult to understand just by reading block quotations.
Always put block quotations in your own words. You need to just slow down and read the chapter.
Say to yourself a challenge, give yourself 4 sentences and understand the chapter what is going on. If there are particularly important quotations, then you can include. Always make yourself comments while doing a literature review. You can delete them later.
Use footnotes. This is useful to understand better though it is something outside the parameters. The next important thing is the bibliography and the works that are cited.
Works cited are those specifically analyzed in the review. The bibliography is something a larger work if you want to come back and review and if you want to double check the source.
It tells what the review is about. what points it addresses and what is the conclusion that you are going to give.
It is not an introduction to what you are going to do but the abstract is much more complete than that and it is usually to 100 to 150 words in length followed by keywords.
It is an overview of the literature review. You can also list some subheadings and describe briefly about each.
Bonus helpful tips
Take short notes always. Do not read everything line by line. Look for reviews and major journals . Set some deadlines.
You may limit your review. For PhD length will vary. Avoid being remorse. Do not be too lengthy. Be focused.
Why literature review?
The main reason that you want to do literature review or submitting dissertation is to improve your understanding so that you can follow your work based on your understanding. During PhD, you are expected to be more knowledgeable more than your PhD supervisor.
It is because you are going to be an expert in that particular field. Another important thing why you need to do a literature review is to demonstrate knowledge.
This demonstration is useful when you want to depend on your thesis with your opponent. Also, you do this review to give the reader what is happening in the context of research in the field of professionalism.
One of the major checks that you need to see when you start your literature review is that you need to collect good quality of resources. Quality means relevancy.
Be narrow. Take the field of specialization rightly. There are different types of resources like dissertations, thesis, magazines, newspapers, recordings, online articles, conferences, peer-reviewed works, technical works and journals, and standards.
Make sure they are of good quality. When professors see your literature review, they see references. You must cite peer-reviewed journals. Use more resources.
The source must not come from one domain. You must make sure that your resources are coming from different geographical backgrounds.
This shows that your review is of quality from various resources. The bad resources are Wikipedia and lecturer notes etc.
A literature review is trying to cover major concepts of the literature of your topic. Make sure that your review is up to date. This is all important to do. Extract and present well.
Any literature review asks this question whether it gives a good understanding of topics. Once you did your review you must start with resources screening list.
This is based on the idea to regroup all the sources. If you only depend on google scholar, you are not sure whether have you covered fully.
You can look at Elsevier or government or google scholar and many other portals. Keep on growing with the exploration of domains to have better coverage of review. Also, make sure you have to use keywords.
This is also called a literature survey.
Literature review must have at least 100 references and later on pick right ones. Also, make sure the quality of citations. Google scholar will list all the citations.
It does not mean that a document with zero citations is not of quality. It can also help you more with more intelligence.
So keep in mind citations are everything when comes to quality.
Syam Prasad Reddy T
Hello, My name is Syam, Asst. Professor of English and Mentor for Ph.D. students worldwide. I have worked years to give you these amazing tips to complete your Ph.D. successfully. Having put a lot of efforts means to make your Ph.D. journey easier. Thank you for visiting my Ph.D. blog.
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Dr. Phillips is a well-known French translator specializing in a variety of areas in Translation Studies. Abdulmajeed Alajaji is currently a PhD student in Literature at the University of Texas at Dallas.
You can find the interview in the UIUC online library catalog by searching for Translation Review under the "journals" tab.
Congratulations to both Patricia and Abdulmajeed!
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