Getting an effective literature review down is important for several reasons, not least of which it will immerse you in the topic or field you are looking at and give you a decent grip on what is known about it, and what isn’t. This is enough justification for doing a literature review – to become an expert on a subject – but there are other motives, such as being able to convince others that you know what you’re talking about; that your proposed research or study is worth investing in; that you are serious and committed to a proposed project; that there are new frontiers yet to explore.
For social sciences, literature reviews are often associated with new research to show how and where it fits in with what has been done before: they locate the research within a field of study, providing context, and identifying areas that need to be strengthened or filled.
How they work
To get started with your own literature review, find 4 to 6 literature reviews and look at what they look like. Deconstruct them to see how they work: a literature review should identify a research question that provides the central topic of interest; it should provide the “hook” that explains why the research is relevant, interesting, timely or important; it should cite important people who are writing in the field; as the author of the review establishes authority, they note the gaps in the literature that the proposed new research addresses. When writing about what the literature says, it’s not necessary to write everything that is known – a good literature review will keep tightly focused on the research question (and within the word count).
A sketch or visual representation can help organise thinking and develop understanding when writing a literature review. Steps to this are:
- find the literature (e.g. Web of Science, ERIC, or even Google Scholar), noting how well cited they are
- screen (scan) about 20 articles to check they are on the topic.
- within those articles, look for themes – of agreement or disagreement, cultures, or contexts
Take a large piece of paper and draw what you have found – a hierarchy, spider diagram, or anything visual that helps you make connections, connect authors to themes – show gaps in a different shape. Now look for what’s missing in the chart – step back to do this, and use your common sense to see the overall shape, structure and connections in the literature as well as the gaps.
The written literature review is a description of the chart that will make way to introduce your research proposal. Beyond this initial review, going deeper will require more finding, and reading, of papers, books and articles.
A good literature search is systematic, starting with background reading: from the question, title or broad theme, do some background reading to get a good grasp of the theories and concepts in the topic. Use text books and encyclopaedia to get under way. From this, work up feasible draft titles and identify the search terms and their synonyms. For each key term, list alternative terms and related terms to help your search.
Now you are ready to try your resources for finding literature: many universities have unified search tools such as DiscoverEd but you will need to find more specific sources relevant to your field. Your library will have a databases A-Z or listed by topic which will help you make a list of resources to search for literature.
You will need to develop a good technique for asking the search engine in a way that yields helpful results. Logical combination of terms (like AND, OR) and using wild cards are required, and will be determined by the search tool you are using. Read the help pages (e.g. for Web of Science, ERIC or Google Scholar) and learn how to work the tool properly before spending hours with it.
Finally, as you find papers and articles to read, try to organise them logically: identify and prioritise the important papers (e.g. those that everyone else cites); group them by sub-topic or theme; push peripheral papers aside until you need to draw them into your research or thesis. A good reference manager like Mendeley is invaluable for keeping track and organising what you find. It then makes the task citing and referencing extremely straightforward.
Reading and writing
Keep notes of the key points of the papers you are reading, and keep them organised. Try in your notes to capture “thesisable prose” that you can use easily in your essay or thesis. Keep in mind the structure of your review: is it time-based, or thematic? Organise your notes in the same way, making connections. Remember your drawing if it helps you sustain a vision of the structure and relationships.
When writing, try to avoid being descriptive: your authorial voice ought to be heard in the discussion as you build it, with a clear view of the evidence that has given you your stance. Also, prune out anything irrelevant or superfluous to your research question.
Keep your research question clearly in view when approaching and completing the literature review. Make a visual representation of relevant themes and their structure. Use that to structure the review and develop it as you read. Prune, check for your stance, and the evidence for it.
As well as drawing on my own experience in initial teacher education, and information from the IAD at the University of Edinburgh, I have also used the following in writing this post.
White, C. (2018). How to Conduct an Effective Literature Review. In SAGE Research Methods Video: Practical Research and Academic Skills. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781526442734
Faculty Librarians. (2012). Doing a literature search : a step by step guide. March, 1–21.
EDIT 29 March 21: added WoK and ERIC