Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Merced
Writing a literature review is often the most daunting part of writing an article, book, thesis, or dissertation. “The literature” seems (and often is) massive. I have found it helpful to be as systematic as possible when completing this gargantuan task.
Sonja Foss and William Walters* describe an efficient and effective way of writing a literature review. Their system provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature for any purpose: in a dissertation, an M.A. thesis, or an article or book in any field of study. Below is a summary of the steps they outline as well as a step-by-step method for writing a literature review.
Step One: Decide on your areas of research:
Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in those areas, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas. A literature review I am currently working on, for example, explores barriers to higher education for undocumented students.
Step Two: Search for the literature:
Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and/or print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out. Set a specific time frame for how long you will search. It should not take more than two or three dedicated sessions.
Step Three: Find relevant excerpts in your books and articles:
Skim the contents of each book and article and look specifically for these five things:
1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
2. Definitions of terms
3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
4. Gaps you notice in the literature
5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating
When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as summarizing takes longer than simply typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following each excerpt. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out your excerpts.
Step Four: Code the literature:
Get out a pair of scissors and cut each excerpt out. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes are. Place each excerpt into a themed pile. Make sure each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.
Step Five: Create Your Conceptual Schema:
Type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the titles into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper.
Step Six: Begin to Write Your Literature Review:
Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.
Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.
I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review is ideal for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.
It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.
For people writing literature reviews for articles or books, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field with which you are already familiar. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.
*Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation
Image Credit/Source: Goldmund Lukic/Getty Images
A literature review provides an overview of the scholarly information published to date on a specific topic, summarizing and synthesizing the ideas presented. At the undergraduate level, a literature review differs from a research paper in that no new primary research is presented. At the graduate level, literature reviews often constitute a chapter of a thesis or dissertation and provide an intellectual context for the author's own research.
The literature review differs from an annotated bibliography: it is a narrative document that synthesizes the sources consulted to develop a conclusion. An annotated bibliography deals with each resource in turn, describing and evaluating the source in a single paragraph.
- Decide on your topic. Begin with an Overview of the topic, including the thesis statement for the review
- Search relevant databases and library catalogs to Locate Sources
- Write Annotations for each source, placing it in the context of their contribution to the research on the topic.
- Organize the Sources into categories - e.g. those that support one position, those against the position, those that offer an alternative thesis. You may also choose to organize sources in chronological order within your categories
- Connect Sources - explain how each source relates to other sources
- Conclusion - discuss which sources are most effective in supporting their position and which sources contribute the most to the current understanding of the topic
Evaluating Review Sources
- What are the author's credentials? Is the author's position supported by scholarly evidence (primary sources, case studies, statistics, peer reviewed research)?
- Is the author objective? Is the information presented in an unbiased manner? Is opposing information reviewed in an open manner?
- Is the author persuasive? Is the presented position convincing?
- Is the presented information of value? Does the author make a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic?
Source: Notor, C. E., & Cole, V. (2010). Literature review organizer. International Journal of Education, 2(2). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5296/ije.v2i2.319
Literature Review Checklist
- Analyze the topic carefully
- Identify the key aspects of the topic
- Define the key terms
- Explain the organization of the review
- Use primary research from peer-reviewed journals
- Summarize the research in your own words
- Evaluate the research in your own words
- Identify areas for further research
The Library's Annual Review Database covers ecology, medicine, psychology, public health, and computer science. Included are reviews of the scholarly literature for a variety of specific topics. All articles are written by experts in the field. These authors carefully examine the primary research done on a topic and then select the major articles in that subject area.
Searching for Literature Reviews in Argos
On the Advanced screen, change your search scope to "databases". Enter "literature review" in the first search box and select "Title" and "Articles" as the material type. Enter your topic in the second box and select "subject". See this search for literature reviews on Music Therapy:
The search results include 36 articles:
To search for literature reviews in specific databases see the strategies listed in the box in the right-hand column.
Searching for Lit Reviews in Databases
Academic Search Premier, Business Source Premier, Communication Source, MEDLINE, SocINDEX with Full Text
Limit Your Results to "Scholarly Journals" and include "Literature Review" as a "Title" word
Enter "Literature Review" and select "Document Type"
CINAHL (Nursing & Allied Health Database)
Enter "Systematic Review" and Select "Publication Type"
ERIC (Education Database)
Enter "literature reviews" and select "Descriptors"
Google Scholar (Advance Search)
Enter "literature review" as an exact phrase
PsycARTICLES (Psychology Database)
Enter your subject and "literature review" and select "Methodology"
Enter "literature review" and select "Document Type"
Sage Full Text Collections (Communications, Health Sciences, Psychology, Sociology)
Enter "Review" and Select "Title"
Select "Journals" and enter "Literature Review" in the 2nd box and choose "Abstract, Title, Keywords" from the drop-down menu.
Enter "Systematic Review" and Select "Title"