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Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide: Literature Reviews?

What is a Literature Review?

So, what is a literature review? 

"A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. 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." - Quote from Taylor, D. (n.d)."The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting it".

What kinds of literature reviews are written?

Each field has a particular way to do reviews for academic research literature. In the social sciences and humanities the most common are:

  • Narrative Reviews: The purpose of this type of review is to describe the current state of the research on a specific research topic and to offer a critical analysis of the literature reviewed. Studies are grouped by research/theoretical categories, and themes and trends, strengths and weaknesses, and gaps are identified. The review ends with a conclusion section that summarizes the findings regarding the state of the research of the specific study, the gaps identify and if applicable, explains how the author's research will address gaps identify in the review and expand the knowledge on the topic reviewed.
  • Book review essays/ Historiographical review essays: A type of literature review typical in History and related fields, e.g., Latin American studies. For example, the Latin American Research Review explains that the purpose of this type of review is to “(1) to familiarize readers with the subject, approach, arguments, and conclusions found in a group of books whose common focus is a historical period; a country or region within Latin America; or a practice, development, or issue of interest to specialists and others; (2) to locate these books within current scholarship, critical methodologies, and approaches; and (3) to probe the relation of these new books to previous work on the subject, especially canonical texts. Unlike individual book reviews, the cluster reviews found in LARR seek to address the state of the field or discipline and not solely the works at issue.” - LARR
The hard sciences and health sciences produce other types of reviews such as systematic reviews, meta-analysis, and meta-synthesis. These reviews use both quantitative and qualitative methods to analyze research studies. Make sure to ask your professor which type of review you need to do.

What are the Goals of Creating a Literature Review?

  • To develop a theory or evaluate an existing theory
  • To summarize the historical or existing state of a research topic
  • Identify a problem in a field of research 
When do you need to write a Literature Review?
  • When writing a prospectus or a thesis/dissertation
  • When writing a research paper
  • When writing a grant proposal

In all these cases you need to dedicate a chapter in these works to showcase what has been written about your research topic and to point out how your own research will shed new light into a body of scholarship.

Where I can find examples of Literature Reviews?

Most literature reviews are embedded in articles, books, and dissertations. In most research articles, there are set as a specific section, usually titled, "literature review", so they are hard to miss. But, sometimes, they are part of the narrative of the introduction of a book or article. This section is easily recognized since the author is engaging with other academics and experts by discussing the research that has been published regarding the main research topic of an article or book. They will include in-text citations, e.g. (Engel 1899) or (Garcia Marquez 55), formatted depending on the citation style used by the author, e.g. MLA, APA, Chicago, etc. Another place you will find literature review is as part of a dissertation, as a dedicated chapter, or as part of the introduction

 

Note: In the humanities, even if they don't use the term "literature review", they may have a dedicated chapter that reviewed the "critical bibliography" or they incorporated that review in the introduction or first chapter of the dissertation, book, or article.

If you are in an Honors, Master's, or Doctoral program and are planning to write a thesis or dissertation, I recommend the following databases where you can find thesis and dissertations that you can use to look for examples of literature review in your discipline! 

Where to Find Standalone Literature Reviews

Literature reviews are also written as standalone articles as a way to survey a particular research topic in-depth. This type of literature review looks at a topic from a historical perspective to see how the understanding of the topic has changed over time. 

Annual Review journals are journals that specialize in publishing standalone literature reviews for a particular subject or field. Check out the links below to find journals that publish these articles and for specific examples of Annual Review journals in different fields.
Here are some examples of journals that specialize in literature reviews!

Social Sciences

Hard science and health sciences:


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