Answered By: Michael Pujals
Last Updated: Sep 28, 2018     Views: 96

What is a Literature Review?


Not to be confused with a book review, a literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work.
The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.



A literature review may be a:

  • Self-contained unit -- an end in itself
  • Preface to and rationale for engaging in primary research
  • Required part of grant and research proposals
  • Chapter in a thesis or a dissertation


  • Provides an overview of significant literature published on a topic
  • Places each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describes the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
  • Identifies new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolves conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
  • Identifies areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Points the way forward for further research
  • Places one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature



Similar to primary research, development of the literature review requires four stages:

  • Problem formulation—which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
  • Literature search—finding materials relevant to the subject being explored
  • Data evaluation—determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
  • Analysis and interpretation—discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature

In assessing each source under review, consideration should be given to:

  • 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)?
  • 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/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?



Writing the introduction

·         Define or identify the general topic, issue, or area of concern that you are researching, thus providing an appropriate context for reviewing the literature.

·         Point out overall trends in what has been published about the topic; or conflicts in theory, methodology, evidence, and conclusions; or gaps in research and scholarship; or a single problem or new perspective of immediate interest.

·         Establish your objective for reviewing the literature; explain the criteria to be used in analyzing and comparing literature and the organization of the review (sequence); and, when necessary, state why certain literature is or is not included (scope).

Writing the body

  • Group research studies and other types of literature (reviews, theoretical articles, case studies, etc.) according to common denominators such as qualitative versus quantitative approaches; conclusions of authors (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely); specific purpose or objective; chronology, etc.
  • Summarize individual studies or articles with as much or as little detail as each merits according to its comparative importance in the literature, remembering that space (length) denotes significance.

Writing the conclusion

·         Summarize major contributions of significant studies and articles to the body of knowledge under review, maintaining the focus established in the introduction.

  • Explain how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others. Explain which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research

·         Evaluate the current "state of the art" for the body of knowledge reviewed, pointing out major methodological flaws or gaps in research, inconsistencies in theory and findings, and areas or issues pertinent to future study.

·         Conclude by providing some insight into the relationship between the central topic of the literature review and a larger area of study such as a discipline, a scientific endeavor, or a profession.









Adapted from UCSC Library and
UW-Madison The Writing Center

For more information on writing a literature review see the Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: