How do you write a literature review?
Many students may run shy of writing a literature review and may find it challenging. Challenging or not, it is an indispensable requirement of many academic curriculum. A literature review is often a requirement of your module. Usually students have to submit a literature review before they start on their research project or paper.
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What is a literature review?
A literature review is not just simply a review of literature (though you may think that it has some connection with English literature). It is a review of the existing set of information on a given topic, which is collated from information and research results available in current widely read and accepted research and literary journals. It can be a review on just about any topic from any subject. It is usually quite in-depth and requires exhaustive research. A literature review can be submitted on a stand-alone basis; or it can be the introductory part of an essay, research report, thesis or dissertation. Sometimes, it can be in the form of an annotated bibliography. Though annotated bibliographies do not exactly fall within the definition of a literature review; they are individual summaries of select set of articles chosen as research basis for your project. But that is a different issue and topic, here we focus on literature reviews primarily.
The purpose of a literature review
The literature review serves a variety of purposes. It serves both as a tool to develop and evaluate your skills in two areas: the area of information searching, retrieval and organisation and the area of critical appraisal to identify valid and reliable information. A literature review must demonstrate the following things:
- It should be focussed around the research thesis or the main idea of your research study. All the information presented should be connected to the thesis.
- It should aggregate all information and generate a synthesis from it. The results should include advancements in research, gaps and missing areas in the field that needs to be filled, limitations of studies, future prospects and interrelationships with other connected areas. All the works should be correlated to the work you will be presenting in this project. There has to be a demonstrated and organised pattern.
- A synthesis would present an overview with some interpretations; while a summary is just a recap of salient facts uncovered as a result of the investigation.
- It should present information to all areas around the topic including controversial questions.
- It should present future line of research and questions. It should evaluate sources and highlight the most valuable and reliable sources of information. It should be able to highlight those sources which do not provide accurate or reliable information.
- It should provide thorough grounding for a study or project. A high quality literature review provides a robust foundation on which a study is based.
How do you start on a literature review?
The first thing you need to do is to read and understand your instructor’s instructions regarding the literature review. Different courses and different instructors may have different expectations from their students as to what they expect in terms of quality and quantity. So ask around and your homework first on this part.You can check our previous literature review samples from your department or course, to get an idea of how it looks like, when completed. So you can see the layout, organisation of text, formatting, attention to language and spelling.
Find out the kind of formatting you need to use for the literature review, which you have to submit. There are different academic styles such as APA, Harvard, MLA, Oxford and so on. These styles specify how to present your document, font, margins, spacing, title, headers and footers, abstract, body text, references etc. You need to follow the style proscribed by your academic module.
Choosing the topic – This depends on whether your literature review is a stand-alone work or is part of a larger work such as the dissertation. If you are doing it as a background for the research project, it is better to keep the topic for both, the same.
Select the online databases and library- For a useful literature review, you need to develop very good researching skills, which enables you to search out and identify relevant pieces of work. You would need to be familiar with using online databases and library referencing research methods. Make sure that you understand and get familiar with the way search is carried out using online databases. There are various search strategies which can be used. The use of filters to move from general search to specific search is recommended. The use of search terms can start from general terms to more specific terms as you get close to the finer details of the topics. You can modify the range of search by defining whether the term should be found in the title text, abstract, or anywhere in the body of the text.
How do you select the papers for your review?
It is good to write down a list of criteria before you start out on the hunt for the papers relevant to your topic. Here are some useful questions which can help keep you on track and focussed while sifting through those many references which will pop up during your search.
Read the title or abstract and check whether the issue is related directly or indirectly to your issue. You can pick keywords from there and use it in your own search for more specific results. Discard the ones, which do not match your own search topic or words in any way. If the topic is related to your topic of interest, ask yourself how relevant it is- in terms of years following publication i.e. how recent it is; what is the scope of the paper; does it ask and answer questions above and beyond your scope?
If so, you can retain these articles and use them for your work. Is the methodology defined? Are the methods used appropriate? Does the paper present relevant and interesting information related to your field? Are the results unique and worthy of being considered as “valuable contribution”? Does the studies challenge existing notions and concepts? If so, how much? The overall literature review should show the standard division of the text into introduction, body and conclusion. In the conclusion, you have to highlight the salient results in conjunction with the main body.
A literature review, in short, represents the wealth of thought which is currently available on a particular subject. It is a starting point towards understanding an issue in greater depth. It allows new areas of research to be uncovered and allows in the shaping of theories. Do your literature review well; you can expect to do well on your research project.
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