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Literature Reviews

What is a literature review?
A literature review presents a discussion of the published information within a particular subject area and is often used to set the stage for empirical research, either proposed or completed. The review may serve as a portion of a larger paper, although it also can be a paper in itself. The review usually has a very clear thematic or conceptual organization that combines both summary of the published information and the reviewer’s evaluation. The review may also include pertinent analysis of authors’ purposes, methodologies, statistics, results, and/or theoretical frameworks.

How is a literature review different from a research paper?
A research paper and a literature review may contain much of the same material, but key differences exist:

   Research Paper  Literature Review
 Role  To present and support your own argument.  To critically explain others’ findings and arguments that are pertinent to your research.
 Purpose  To prove your argument.  To show gaps that still exist in the literature.
 Use of Sources  To support your position with credible published evidence.   To demonstrate that answer(s) to your research question(s) are not already known.
• What still needs to be explored?
• What has not yet been addressed in detail by the literature?
• How does the literature set the stage for your research question(s) and findings?
Kinds of sources  Primarily sources that fit your argument.   Many varying sources, including any controversies or contradictions that have arisen in your research field.
 Format  Stand-alone document.  Stand-alone document OR part of larger experimental research paper.

What kind of information goes into a literature review?
A literature review frequently covers original, groundbreaking works as well as the latest research. Be sure all of your information directly relates to your research question(s). If the connection is not clear, then explicitly show how the literature relates to your question(s).

How is a literature review organized?
The information you present in your literature review should be organized by theme or topic, not by source. Some sources may contribute to multiple topics. Moving from general themes to specific information helps to convince your reader of the logical importance of your research:

1. Introduction to your research focus and statement of your research question(s)/problem
2. Broad, general topics
3. More specific topics
4. The “gap” in the literature and how your research question(s) will address it.

As you plan your literature review, lay out the rationale for your research question(s)/problem in chronological order. The major points in your argument will help you organize topics that move from broad to specific. Below are two examples for developing your topics by paragraph(s). The first example is for a shorter review (10-15 pages), in which each topic has only one paragraph. The second example is for a longer review (15+ pages), in which you may have multiple subtopics for each topic. Typically writers of either short reviews or long reviews use a combination of the two.

Example #1: Topics by single paragraph
Introduction to published literature in research field and research question/statement of problem

Topic #1 (section heading); paragraph includes

  • A topic sentence that summarizes how this topic relates to the research question.
  • Supporting sentences that explain how each piece of evidence relates to the topic.
  • Appropriate in-text citation(s) to support your explanation.

Topic #2 (section heading)
Example #2: Topics by multiple paragraphs
Introduction to published literature in research field and research question(s)/statement of problem
Topic #1 (section heading); first paragraph introduces/defines Topic #1 and includes an explanation of how Topic #1 relates to your research question.
      Subtopic A; paragraph includes

  • A topic sentence that summarizes how this subtopic relates to Topic #1 and/or the research question
  • Supporting sentences that explain how each piece of evidence relates to subtopic A.
  • Appropriate  in-text citation(s) to support your explanation.

      Subtopic B, ditto.
      Subtopic C, etc.

Topic #2 (section heading)

NOTE: Your number of topics/subtopics will vary, depending on your research focus. For help with finding sources, taking notes, and categorizing research information, visit For additional help with creating a literature review, visit

To write an effective literature review, remember these tips:

  • Do not organize your review by summarizing sources one source at a time. Even within topics, do not simply summarize sources. Depending on your subject area and focus, you also may need to include pertinent assessments of an author's purpose, methodology, statistics, results and/or theoretical framework, as well as any controversies between or among authors.
  • Make connections between the literature and your research question(s). These connections might not be obvious to your reader.
  • Organize the information for your review from general to specific, creating a logical, well-supported argument in support of your research question(s).

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