Writing a literature review
On Slateford Aqueduct
Nick Hood

Writing a literature review

2021, Nov 22    

This event is one of many within the PostGraduate Research (PGR) provision at Moray House. It is aimed specifically at first year PGR students. I am thankful to John Kelly for putting this lecture on for us and for fielding Q&A at the end. This was an extremely timely and useful session. These are my own notes from the event – I am responsible for any errors or omissions. Caveat lector.

DATE/TIME: Tuesday 30 November   [13:00-15:00]
LOCATION: St Leonard’s Land, 3.25
PGR STUDENT GROUP: PGR Students - Year 1
SEMINAR: Writing a literature review
PRESENTER: Dr John Kelly
Director of PG Research

Errors in communication delayed the start of this lecture (for it was lecture rather than seminar) which turned out to be not on campus, after all. Delegates quickly sorted out sharing arrangements for laptops as we connected. Others left, presumably to catch the recording later.

John quickly offered his disclaimers for the lecture and urged delegates to check in with their supervisors to ensure the approaches they are taking are consistent with the specifics of their project and scope. What followed was presented as general guidance in sections which in practice overlap with each other.

What is a literature review?

John defined a literature review as a presentation of the literature which provides

  • a problem definition
  • overview of previous research
  • ideas on methodology (but don’t overdo this in the literature chapter)
  • evaluation or critique of existing work
  • general conclusions about work done to date

Each of the above statements imply “within the specific area of your research project” at the end. Within the Literature Review chapter there will be what John described as “flashing bulbs” which introduce ideas and people that will be significant features in the later chapters of discussion in the thesis. The opportunity exists to raise these ideas or important names in the field within the Literature Review chapter without going too deep – although it is a significant piece of writing it is not meant to dominate: after all, it is about the work that has gone before your research and it is your work that ought to dominate the thesis.

A good literature review aids the researcher’s understanding of their subject and also the relationship between your research and the existing literature. John exhorted us all to read widely, to be clear about what’s new in your work, or where gaps exists and how your work fits in to what has gone before. It is a UK requirement that PhDs are new knowledge or findings and so this should be made clear in the thesis. The literature review does this.

Summarising the purpose of the literature review, John quoted from a textbook on sports research methods:

“By the end of the literature review section in our papers, a reader should not only be able to predict the question driving a study, but clearly understand why someone would ask this question to begin with.”(Atkinson, 2012)

Planning a literature review

Although every thesis is different, the literature review component tends to be a single chapter within it. The chapter may address a number of themes, perhaps 4 or 5, and be topped and tailed with a brief introduction and a summary of the key messages. Word estimates may not be at all right for each PhD thesis but might be of the order of 5,000 words per theme.

Because the literature review chapter follows immediately on the heels of the thesis introduction chapter, it need not repeat in any detail that which went before but must offer the reader its own introduction or roadmap into the thematic sections, and some signposting out. The methodology chapter often follows the literature review chapter and so the summary of the literature review should provide a “bridge” to methodology that helps situate the literature review in the research. The opening sections of the thesis are thus structured:

  • Chapter 1 Introduction
  • Chapter 2 Literature Review
  • Chapter 3 Methodology

This is not to constrain at all, nor even tie the PhD researcher to these titles, but this is what the start of a thesis looks like, structurally.

So, how to get started? John used a “bullseye” metaphor to describe how the literature search relates to your topic. In describing the literature in your thesis, you might begin with a broad scope and progress towards the narrower focus of your very specific niche: the gap you are filling my well be very niche indeed, for so much has been been done before. Not everything! That’s why you’re doing this PhD. However, in getting started in on the literature search and the reading that goes with it, you are going to begin at the bullseye and construct search terms that are highly specific, revealing from “hits” that include all of your terms, published material very close to your specific interest. From here, you work out through layers of relevance, sketching out themes and names that you can describe and set up (see “flashing bulbs” above) in your thorough review of what has gone before and where it came from. This needs to be thorough, keep going and become the expert on the topic of your research and the fields and branches that it is part of.

In reading all of this material, there are some specific things to pay attention to. First, some questions as you read:

  • what methods were used?
  • what data did they collect?
  • what choices did they have to make and how did they make those choices?
  • what data collections techniques did they use and are they relevant to your own research?

These relate to learning about how others before have worked, and perhaps how things might be done in your own project. You are not going to be passive in your reading, however, at this level you are expected to be critically engaged in evaluating the literature you find. More questions to ask as you read:

  • who wrote it and who/how was it reviewed before publication?
  • who cites this piece?
  • how recent is it and has it been overtaken by newer literature?
  • how relevant is it to your project?

Answers to these questions will help you see how they did it – what structure they used, how they wrote it, how they designed their research, what analysis methods were used and even how they chose to report their findings.

Start here

Your way in to all of this is in developing a basic understanding of the themes in your project (remember, this lecture was aimed at first year PGR students, mostly PhD students only a few weeks in to their PhDs, me included). This basic understanding can be had by first of all engaging with textbooks – often the first 4 – 5 chapters of the key texts in your domain will address the main themes. Once you have some confidence in your basic knowledge, then you can begin to go deeper by finding relevant journal articles by searching databases using keywords of concepts. Start with selecting your keywords, then pair them up. Combining more and more terms will lead you back towards the “bullseye” of your area of interest.


Narrowing scope by combining keywords

Writing a literature review

Your finished literature review needs to be a coherent and integrated account of what exists in the literature but don’t be a leave to structure, especially early on. Allow the structure to emerge organically as you read and capture “thesisable prose” in your notes. These notes are going to integrate the findings in the literature you read, in other words, you are going to highlight similarities across the literature that emerge from your reading, as well as agreements (or disagreements). The whole point of this is to enable you to identify the place where your research fits in – how it adds new knowledge or extends understanding in the literature, or fills the gaps that are there.

The structure includes connecting sections that follow the main thesis introduction and lead out to your methodology, with the main findings in the existing literature as the bulk of the chapter.

Cautions and tips

John briefly spoke about weak literature reviews which may be bland, or that list unconnected summaries. The Literature Review chapter in your thesis does not stand alone, it sets out the key themes that your discussion chapters will link back to, addressing the gap you have identified. It’s not “fire and forget”, either, and should be kept fresh throughout your PhD project as you keep your finger on the new papers that emerge in your field.

Practical tips included being clear about the scope of the information you are using: books are good for breadth, whereas journal articles are good for reliability and depth (because of the review process). The internet, as we all know, has no quality control. Anyone can publish anything they like on the internet (this present article being a case in point). Avoid the “shopping basket” approach to collecting great lists of references: the number of references cited is not proportional to the quality of your literature review. Be selective.

Top tips also include seeing how others have done it before you in your specific area. This comes from your reading but with a warning: don’t become paralysed by what’s out there already, nor seduced by what other people are doing that it distracts you from your own vision. I am fortunate in that the very first thing my supervisors did, was to have me write down that vision with a sketch plan of how I am going to do it. Formulating that vision for the project has been extremely powerful and has enabled me to be able confidently to talk to others about my project. I can state clearly what the exact point of my research is: John suggested that when PGR students can’t do this, it is because of a poor literature review. That made me feel particularly good about where I am on this journey.


  1. Atkinson, Michael. 2012. “Literature Reviews.” In Key Concepts in Sport and Exercise Research Methods, 1–245. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446288092.