Literature Reviews

What is a literature review?

An organized discussion of  published information like surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) in a particular subject area (and/or a subject within a certain time period) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory.

It provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work.


What is it NOT?

  • A descriptive list
  • Not JUST a summary
  • Not a survey of everything ever written on a subject


How is a literature review different from a research paper? 

The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument. Often times, a research paper or published article contains a literature review as one of its main sections. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that YOU contribute.

The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions or new arguments like you would in a research paper.


What is the purpose?

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • provide an overview of sources explored while researching a topic (surveys the literature)
  • provide solid background (summary of prior research) for a research paper’s investigation or research question/topic
  • synthesize (integrate and analyze) information about the subject
  • define what you have learned from others and what the relationship of each work is to the others
  • critically evaluate  the information gathered
  • identify gaps in current knowledge (shows limitations of theories or points of view) and revealing those gaps
  • demonstrate how your research fits within the larger field of study
  • establish credibility for your work


4 Easy Tasks

Let’s break it down more simply. There are 4 main tasks or reasons for completing a literature review. We present those for tasks below, and we also break down some of the difficult terms for a clearer understanding.

Literature Review Tasks Definition of Key Terms What it Means 

1. It surveys the literature in your chosen area of study

Survey: the process of finding, reading, analyzing, and organizing, novel conclusions from the results of the chosen literature on a particular topic or field 

By reading, analyzing, and organizing the sources you collect, you are demonstrating a familiarity with a body of knowledge/topic/subject by showing you have read the relevant research that is out there.



2. It presents the literature in an organized way

Present: To clearly show and/or outline Once you know what information is out there on your subject or field, you will summarize the prior research and present it as part of your analysis. This helps establish the credibility of your work and your contribution to advancing the conversation and knowledge of the topic.

3. It synthesizes the information in that literature into a summary

Synthesize:  To combine or put together separate readings, discussions, sources, etc. so that they make a connected discussion about a particular subject or topic

After you write your brief summary of the other literature, you must combine the sources in a logical manner. How are all the sources you chose connected? How are they not?


It also makes it clear how your project/research is linked to the larger topic.

4. It critically evaluates the information gathered for gaps, limitations, and further areas of research

Critically Analyze: To examine something complex in detail. To separate or break up something into its fundamental elements by carefully weighing, comparing, contrasting, critiquing, and evaluating all relevant factors  

This is where you begin to judge the literature based on your developing expertise on a subject. You are checking for gaps in the literature (are some sub-topics covered thoroughly but others not?) and for  limitations (were the methods and findings from a particular piece questionable?).


This is where you demonstrate what you have learned from others in your field and that your research is a starting point for new ideas. Why does your research matter and how does it contribute to the big picture? 



Evaluation and Synthesis

Things to consider as you evaluate and synthesize:

  • Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
  • Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
  • Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
  • Value -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?



Literature reviews usually consist of 3 major sections: an introduction, main body, and conclusion.


  • Defines topic
  • Establishes reasons/point of view for reviewing literature
  • Explains the organization (see Literature Review page for more information)
  • States the scope/depth of the review
  • Current situation or information needed to understand topic and focus
  • History and/or progression of topic (if necessary)
  • Methods and/or standards for selecting sources for your literature review (i.e. only peer-reviewed articles and journals, current news, resources published between certain dates, etc.)


Main Body:

Offers conclusions about which pieces are better considered on analysis above, objectivity of topic, and greatest contribution to area of research

  • Share source’s credentials and whether or not arguments within source are supported by evidence
  • Examine methodology and techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data
  • Explanation of how each work is similar to and/or how it varies from others
  • Discuss relationship between topic and the wider subject area
  • Evaluate objectivity (perspective) of source and persuasiveness



  • Summarize key points in your main body—what have you learned from the survey of the literature?
  • Outlines areas for future study—where might discussion proceed?


Ways to organize a literature review

Once you have the basic categories in place, then you must consider how you will present the sources themselves within the body of your paper. Create an organizational method to focus this section even further. Below are the 5 most commons ways of organizing a literature review:


1. Chronologically: writing about the materials according to when they were published.

This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development.Think of a timeline—can you write about your sources in a way that would fit nicely on a timeline? For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union over a clear span of time would be a good reason to organize your topic chronologically.

If you choose this route, you might need to also sub-organize your review by publication only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on biological studies of sperm whales if the progression revealed a change in dissection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.


2. Thematically (conceptual categories):  writing about a cluster of topics and subtopics.

Here, you are going to focus on a specific topic or subtopic. You will provide background for the topic OR put the problem into historical perspective (why is this topic important, historically). This forces you to summarize your sources and to group topics that are important to your research.


3. Methodologically: focusing on the methods utilized by the researchers in your sources.

This differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” of the researcher or writer. For questions to consider when evaluating the methods, see the "Common Errors" section below. 


Avoiding Common Errors

Many students commit the following errors when they write annotated bibliographies.

Errors Solutions
Lack of time management to find appropriate and relevant sources  This can be the biggest source of frustration for students. Make sure you prioritize spending enough time to find quality sources AND reading them. If you find an article that does relate to your topic, find another one.
Sources do not clearly relate to the topic/research question/problem Sometimes, we find research that contains key words that are related to our research problem or topic, but there is no clear connection. Skim through the resources to make sure the topic fits in to the larger picture of what you are discussing.
Not narrowing topic

There are hundreds or even thousands of articles and books on most areas of study. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the material.

As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together. Do they present one or different solutions? Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory? Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate? Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.

And don’t forget to tap into your professor’s (or other professors’) knowledge in the field. Ask your professor questions such as: “If you had to read only one book from the 90’s on topic X, what would it be?” This can help you when you are stuck.

Too many direct quotes and incorrect paraphrasing

the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Only quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge.

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. This avoids plagiarism and shows that you have the necessary skills to analyze and summarize texts.

accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis


Not describing search procedures and methods identifying the literature to review

To avoid this error, consider the following questions:

  • How did the researchers conduct their research?
  • Was it qualitative or quantitative?
  • Did the study appear in a peer-reviewed journal?
  • Who was studied? Where were they studied? How big was the sample?
  • Did the researchers control key differences? Was there a control group?
  • Did the researchers establish causality, correlation, dependence, or some other kind of relationship?
  • Is the researcher overstating or understating the result?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest? Did the researcher seem to have an agenda?
  • Do the researchers acknowledge limitations and entertain alternative explanations? 

Only including research that validates your own assumptions and not considering contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature (AND/OR not looking for these in the literature)

Are you including information and sources that speak to the other side of the argument, or things that are only speaking to what you want to hear and that validate whatever point you want to make in your research paper?