What is a Literature Review?
A literature review aims at discussing published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes at a certain time period. Not to be confused with book review, a literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources such as dissertations and conference proceedings which are relevant to the particular issue, theory, or area of research one is pursuing. This survey aims at providing description, summary, and critical evaluation of each of these works for the purpose of giving an overview on significant literature published on a certain topic.
A literature review can just be a simple summary of sources, but in most cases it follows an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis in its writing. A summary is a sum up of the important information about the source while a synthesis is a re-organization of that information. This may end up giving a new interpretation of the old material or combine old with new interpretations to give more detailed meanings. The review may also follow progressions on the field such as major debates; and depending on the situation, evaluate sources and advise the reader on those that are more significant or relevant.
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How does it differ from an academic research paper?
Literature review differs from an academic paper in that the main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument. The research paper contains literature as one of its parts, whereby the review is used as a foundation to support a new insight that a researcher is contributing towards. The focus of literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the ideas and arguments of other scholars and researchers without adding any new contributions.
What makes a good literature review?
- A good research is not a chronological catalog of all sources but rather an evaluation that integrates the previous research together and also explains how it integrates into the proposed research program. All sides of an argument must be clearly discussed to avoid bias.
- A good literature review should also have some evaluation on the quality of findings of the research.
- A great literature review should avoid the temptation of impressing the significance of a specific research program. The fact that a researcher is carrying out the research program outlines the importance itself, and an educated reader may be insulted that they are not given the chance to judge the importance for themselves.
- As a general rule and certainly for a longer review, each paragraph of the review should address one point at a time while at the same time evaluating all the evidence supporting differing points of view.
- Using up-to-date Sources. Your readers will not get much insight of the problem if you are summarizing a state in which the theories were two or three decades ago.
- A good literature review evaluates and analyzes all information on the topic critically. This helps detect any possible inconsistencies such as theoretical issues, methodological flaws, generalizations, and sample size errors. A good literature review will not only summarize the information, but also point out weaknesses in the experimental procedures as well as feasible theoretical conflicts.
Literature review structure
There are two primary ways of organizing and structuring your literature review namely; thematically and chronologically.
Chronological literature review structure
In this structuring, you group and discuss your sources in order of their publication dates; highlighting the changes in the field and your particular topic over time. This structure is particularly helpful for reviews focusing on historiographical papers, research methodology, and other forms of writing in which you want to create emphasis on how ideas have developed over time.
Thematic literature review structure
When a review is organized thematically, you group and discuss your sources in terms of themes, theoretical concepts, and those topics that you decide are important to understanding your topic. This structuring is considered better than chronological organization because you define the theories, categories, constructs, or themes that are important to your research. In this type of reviews, you discuss why certain information is treated together while your headings define your unique organization of the topic. The sequence of your concepts or themes should be from broad to specific.
Literature review writing tips
Literature reviews should comprise of the following elements;
- An overview of the issue, subject, or theory under construction with the objectives of the literature review
- Division of works/sources under review into various categories such as those in support of a particular position, those against the position, and those offering alternative theses completely
- Explanation of how each work is either similar or varying from the others
- Conclusions as to which pieces are best well thought-out in their argument, are most persuasive of their opinions, and that make the greatest contribution towards the understanding and development of their area of research
- In assessing each piece, consideration should be given to the author's credentials, author's objectivity, author's persuasiveness, and whether the author's arguments and conclusions are convincing. Ask yourself, does the work ultimately contribute significantly in understanding the subject?
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