How To Write Literature Review Research Paper

"How to" Guideline series is coordinated by Helen Mongan-Rallis of the Education Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions to improve these guidelines please me at e-mail hrallis@d.umn.edu.

Guidelines for writing a literature review

by Helen Mongan-Rallis. Last updated: November 21, 2014
[Note: For these guidelines, in some sections I have quoted directly some of the the steps from: Galvan, J. (2006). Writing literature reviews: a guide for students of the behavioral sciences (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing.]

What is a literature review?

A literature review is not an annotated bibliography in which you summarize briefly each article that you have reviewed. While a summary of the what you have read is contained within the literature review, it goes well beyond merely summarizing professional literature. It focuses on a specific topic of interest to you and includes a critical analysis of the relationship among different works, and relating this research to your work. It may be written as a stand-alone paper or to provide a theoretical framework and rationale for a research study (such as a thesis or dissertation).

Step-by-step guide

These guidelines are adapted primarily from Galvan (2006). Galvan outlines a very clear, step-by-step approach that is very useful to use as you write your review. I have integrated some other tips within this guide, particularly in suggesting different technology tools that you might want to consider in helping you organize your review. In the sections from Step 6-9 what I have included is the outline of those steps exactly as described by Galvan. I also provide links at the end of this guide to resources that you should use in order to search the literature and as you write your review.

In addition to using the step-by-step guide that I have provided below, I also recommend that you (a) locate examples of literature reviews in your field of study and skim over these to get a feel for what a literature review is and how these are written (I have also provided links to a couple of examples at the end of these guidelines (b) read over other guides to writing literature reviews so that you see different perspectives and approaches: Some examples are:

  1. Review of Literature: University of Wisconsin - Madison The Writing Center.
  2. How to ..Write a Literature Review: University of California, Santa Cruz University Library).
  3. Information Fluency - Literature Review: Washington & Lee University
  4. How to Do A Literature Review? North Carolina A&T State University F.D. Bluford Library.
  5. Selected Links to Resources on Writing a Literature Review

Step 1: Review APA guidelines

Read through the links provided below on APA guidelines so that you become familiar with the common core elements of how to write in APA style: in particular, pay attention to general document guidelines (e.g. font, margins, spacing), title page, abstract, body, text citations, quotations.

Step 2: Decide on a topic

It will help you considerably if your topic for your literature review is the one on which you intend to do your final M.Ed. project, or is in some way related to the topic of your final project. However, you may pick any scholarly topic.

Step 3: Identify the literature that you will review:

  1. Familiarize yourself with online databases (see UMD library resource links below for help with this), identifying relevant databases in your field of study.
  2. Using relevant databases, search for literature sources using Google Scholar and also searching using Furl (search all sources, including the Furl accounts of other Furl members). Some tips for identifying suitable literature and narrowing your search :
    1. Start with a general descriptor from the database thesaurus or one that you know is already a well defined descriptor based on past work that you have done in this field. You will need to experiment with different searches, such as limiting your search to descriptors that appear only in the document titles, or in both the document title and in the abstract.
    2. Redefine your topic if needed: as you search you will quickly find out if the topic that you are reviewing is too broad. Try to narrow it to a specific area of interest within the broad area that you have chosen (remember: this is merely an introductory literature review for Educ 7001). It is a good idea, as part of your literature search, to look for existing literature reviews that have already been written on this topic.
    3. As part of your search, be sure to identify landmark or classic studies and theorists as these provide you with a framework/context for your study.
  3. Import your references into your RefWorks account (see: Refworks Import Directions for guide on how to do this from different databases). You can also enter references manually into RefWorks if you need to.

Step 4: Analyze the literature

Once you have identified and located the articles for your review, you need to analyze them and organize them before you begin writing:

  1. Overview the articles: Skim the articles to get an idea of the general purpose and content of the article (focus your reading here on the abstract, introduction and first few paragraphs, the conclusion of each article. Tip: as you skim the articles, you may want to record the notes that you take on each directly into RefWorks in the box for User 1. You can take notes onto note cards or into a word processing document instead or as well as using RefWorks, but having your notes in RefWorks makes it easy to organize your notes later.
  2. Group the articles into categories (e.g. into topics and subtopics and chronologically within each subtopic). Once again, it's useful to enter this information into your RefWorks record. You can record the topics in the same box as before (User 1) or use User 2 box for the topic(s) under which you have chosen to place this article.
  3. Take notes:
    1. Decide on the format in which you will take notes as you read the articles (as mentioned above, you can do this in RefWorks. You can also do this using a Word Processor, or a concept mapping program like Inspiration (free 30 trial download), a data base program (e.g. Access or File Maker Pro), in an Excel spreadsheet, or the "old-fashioned" way of using note cards. Be consistent in how you record notes.
    2. Define key terms: look for differences in the way keys terms are defined (note these differences).
    3. Note key statistics that you may want to use in the introduction to your review.
    4. Select useful quotes that you may want to include in your review. Important: If you copy the exact words from an article, be sure to cite the page number as you will need this should you decide to use the quote when you write your review (as direct quotes must always be accompanied by page references). To ensure that you have quoted accurately (and to save time in note taking), if you are accessing the article in a format that allows this, you can copy and paste using your computer "edit --> copy --> paste" functions. Note: although you may collect a large number of quotes during the note taking phase of your review, when you write the review, use quotes very sparingly. The rule I follow is to quote only when when some key meaning would be lost in translation if I were to paraphrase the original author's words, or if using the original words adds special emphasis to a point that I am making.
    5. Note emphases, strengths & weaknesses: Since different research studies focus on different aspects of the issue being studied, each article that you read will have different emphases, strengths. and weaknesses. Your role as a reviewer is to evaluate what you read, so that your review is not a mere description of different articles, but rather a critical analysis that makes sense of the collection of articles that you are reviewing. Critique the research methodologies used in the studies, and distinguish between assertions (the author's opinion) and actual research findings (derived from empirical evidence).
    6. Identify major trends or patterns: As you read a range of articles on your topic, you should make note of trends and patterns over time as reported in the literature. This step requires you to synthesize and make sense of what you read, since these patterns and trends may not be spelled out in the literature, but rather become apparent to you as you review the big picture that has emerged over time. Your analysis can make generalizations across a majority of studies, but should also note inconsistencies across studies and over time.
    7. Identify gaps in the literature, and reflect on why these might exist (based on the understandings that you have gained by reading literature in this field of study). These gaps will be important for you to address as you plan and write your review.
    8. Identify relationships among studies: note relationships among studies, such as which studies were landmark ones that led to subsequent studies in the same area. You may also note that studies fall into different categories (categories that you see emerging or ones that are already discussed in the literature). When you write your review, you should address these relationships and different categories and discuss relevant studies using this as a framework.
    9. Keep your review focused on your topic: make sure that the articles you find are relevant and directly related to your topic. As you take notes, record which specific aspects of the article you are reading are relevant to your topic (as you read you will come up with key descriptors that you can record in your notes that will help you organize your findings when you come to write up your review). If you are using an electronic form of note taking, you might note these descriptors in a separate field (e.g. in RefWorks, put these under User 2 or User 3; in Excel have a separate column for each descriptor; if you use Inspiration, you might attach a separate note for key descriptors.
    10. Evaluate your references for currency and coverage: Although you can always find more articles on your topic, you have to decide at what point you are finished with collecting new resources so that you can focus on writing up your findings. However, before you begin writing, you must evaluate your reference list to ensure that it is up to date and has reported the most current work. Typically a review will cover the last five years, but should also refer to any landmark studies prior to this time if they have significance in shaping the direction of the field. If you include studies prior to the past five years that are not landmark studies, you should defend why you have chosen these rather than more current ones.

Step 5: Summarize the literature in table or concept map format

  1. Galvan (2006) recommends building tables as a key way to help you overview, organize, and summarize your findings, and suggests that including one or more of the tables that you create may be helpful in your literature review. If you do include tables as part of your review each must be accompanied by an analysis that summarizes, interprets and synthesizes the literature that you have charted in the table. You can plan your table or do the entire summary chart of your literature using a concept map (such as using Inspiration)
    1. You can create the table using the table feature within Microsoft Word, or can create it initially in Excel and then copy and paste/import the the Excel sheet into Word once you have completed the table in Excel. The advantage of using Excel is that it enables you to sort your findings according to a variety of factors (e.g. sort by date, and then by author; sort by methodology and then date)
    2. Examples of tables that may be relevant to your review:
      1. Definitions of key terms and concepts.
      2. Research methods
      3. Summary of research results

Step 6: Synthesize the literature prior to writing your review

Using the notes that you have taken and summary tables, develop an outline of your final review. The following are the key steps as outlined by Galvan (2006: 71-79)

  1. Consider your purpose and voice before beginning to write. In the case of this Educ 7001 introductory literature review, your initial purpose is to provide an overview of the topic that is of interest to you, demonstrating your understanding of key works and concepts within your chosen area of focus. You are also developing skills in reviewing and writing, to provide a foundation on which you will build in subsequent courses within your M.Ed. and ultimately in your final project. In your final project your literature review should demonstrate your command of your field of study and/or establishing context for a study that you have done.
  2. Consider how you reassemble your notes: plan how you will organize your findings into a unique analysis of the picture that you have captured in your notes. Important: A literature review is not series of annotations (like an annotated bibliography). Galvan (2006:72) captures the difference between an annotated bibliography and a literature review very well: "...in essence, like describing trees when you really should be describing a forest. In the case of a literature review, you are really creating a new forest, which you will build by using the trees you found in the literature you read."
  3. Create a topic outline that traces your argument: first explain to the reader your line or argument (or thesis); then your narrative that follows should explain and justify your line of argument. You may find the program Inspiration useful in mapping out your argument (and once you have created this in a concept map form, Inspiration enables you to convert this to a text outline merely by clicking on the "outline" button). This can then be exported into a Microsoft Word document.
  4. Reorganize your notes according to the path of your argument
  5. Within each topic heading, note differences among studies.
  6. Within each topic heading, look for obvious gaps or areas needing more research.
  7. Plan to describe relevant theories.
  8. Plan to discuss how individual studies relate to and advance theory
  9. Plan to summarize periodically and, again near the end of the review
  10. Plan to present conclusions and implications
  11. Plan to suggest specific directions for future research near the end of the review
  12. Flesh out your outline with details from your analysis

Step 7: Writing the review (Galvan, 2006: 81-90)

  1. Identify the broad problem area, but avoid global statements
  2. Early in the review, indicate why the topic being reviewed is important
  3. Distinguish between research finding and other sources of information
  4. Indicate why certain studies are important
  5. If you are commenting on the timeliness of a topic, be specific in describing the time frame
  6. If citing a classic or landmark study, identify it as such
  7. If a landmark study was replicated, mention that and indicate the results of the replication
  8. Discuss other literature reviews on your topic
  9. Refer the reader to other reviews on issues that you will not be discussing in details
  10. Justify comments such as, "no studies were found."
  11. Avoid long lists of nonspecific references
  12. If the results of previous studies are inconsistent or widely varying, cite them separately
  13. Cite all relevant references in the review section of thesis, dissertation, or journal article

Step 8: Developing a coherent essay (Galvan, 2006: 91-96)

  1. If your review is long, provide an overview near the beginning of the review
  2. Near the beginning of a review, state explicitly what will and will not be covered
  3. Specify your point of view early in the review: this serves as the thesis statement of the review.
  4. Aim for a clear and cohesive essay that integrates the key details of the literature and communicates your point of view (a literature is not a series of annotated articles).
  5. Use subheadings, especially in long reviews
  6. Use transitions to help trace your argument
  7. If your topic teaches across disciplines, consider reviewing studies from each discipline separately
  8. Write a conclusion for the end of the review: Provide closure so that the path of the argument ends with a conclusion of some kind. How you end the review, however, will depend on your reason for writing it. If the review was written to stand alone, as is the case of a term paper or a review article for publication, the conclusion needs to make clear how the material in the body of the review has supported the assertion or proposition presented in the introduction. On the other hand, a review in a thesis, dissertation, or journal article presenting original research usually leads to the research questions that will be addressed.
  9. Check the flow of your argument for coherence.

Reference:

Galvan, J. (2006). Writing literature reviews: a guide for students of the behavioral sciences ( 3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing.

Resources

  1. UMD & library resources and links:
    1. UMD library research tools: includes links to
    2. Refworks Import Directions: Links to step-by-step directions on how to important to Refworks from different databases
  2. Writing guidelines:
    1. Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab): A user-friendly writing lab that parallels with the 5th edition APA manual.
  3. APA guidelines:
    1. APA Style Essentials: overview of common core of elements of APA style.
    2. APA Research Style Crib Sheet is a summary of rules for using APA style.
    3. APA Style for Electronic Media and URL's: commonly asked questions regarding how to cite electronic media
  4. Examples of literature reviews:
    1. Johnson, B. & Reeves, B. (2005). Challenges. Literature review chapter from unpublished master's thesis, University of Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota.
    2. Maguire, L. (2005). Literature review – faculty participation in online distance education: barriers and motivators. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume 8, No. 1, Spring 2005. State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center.

 

Return to the Index of How To Guidelines


Writing a literature review seems to be a bit more difficult than first imagined by students. Part of this may be due to the writing experience that students bring with them to the project. What types of papers have you written before? Book reviews? Essays? Critiques? Have you ever tried to synthesize the literature (both theoretical and empirical) regarding some subject before?
 
Basic tools for writing are the same (such as style) but the goal of a literature review in a research paper is somewhat different from other types of writing. The goal is to bring together what is "known" to sociologists about your research topic in a way that sets up the "need" for your specific research. You will be looking for unanswered questions, or gaps in the knowledge. You might want to test established ideas on new populations or test a theory using variables measured in different ways. But you need to always keep in mind the following question: "how will my research take our understanding a step further?"
 
There are two basic parts to doing a literature review. One is to collect information on your topic. The other is writing the literature review. You've probably been to the library and looked up sociology journals by now. You've most likely had several courses in general sociology and in specialized courses. Maybe you've even had a course in theory. So you have access to a wealth of information. But how do you go through it and make sense of it "one the whole?" And how do you do this keeping in mind that the end of this review will convince the reader that your research is going to add something new? Below are a set of questions that may help you synthesize the information in a way that will help you write the literature review.
 
These questions are only a guide-some suggestions of issues to keep in mind as you read the texts you've accumulated. You will not need to address ALL of these questions in your literature review.

Some research is done to test theoretically informed hypotheses, while other research is designed to explore relationships. Either way, most research has some basic questions about why something varies: why do some adolescents use drugs while others do not? Why do some couples get divorced and others do not? What determines the number of children women have? Why do some people earn higher salaries than others? What leads to success in college? The dependent variable in the examples above are (in order): adolescent drug use; divorce; fertility; earnings; academic success.
 
The first thing you should consider is what is the status of the dependent variable? How many adolescents are reported to have used drugs? Have these rates increased lately? What is the current divorce rate? Has it changed? Are rates variable across regions of the country? If variations exist, this might provide a case for your research.
 

 
This is sometimes the most difficult part for undergraduates, but of course it is the most important question. Most of you have had a course or two that introduced you to the dominant paradigms in the discipline. But you may not have applied them to your specific research question. In this case, you will have to do some searching. You may find that some theories are discussed in the empirical literature, but not always. So you might want to check out the books used in related classes in sociology. For example, check out the books assigned for the deviance or juvenile delinquency courses. Or, you might think about making an appointment with your advisor or a faculty member in the area of your research to ask for help.
 

 
When reading through the literature, it is very important to make a note of just who was studied. If you are studying adolescents you'll want to make sure that you try to locate theories and research on appropriate age groups. This doesn't mean that research on adults (or any population that is different than the one you study) is not useful, but you do need to think about how relationships differ across groups of people.
 
Varying populations is one of the most common reasons for doing additional research on a topic. If sociologists have been studying primarily urban populations, you might want to see if relationships are similar in more rural settings. You might want to see if theories developed on adult populations work for teens. But remember, you really need to think sociologically about this. Why might you expect relationships to varying across regions or age groups?
 

 
Another reason for doing research is that you have a new way of looking at your variable(s) of interest. Previous research may focus on attitudes about something (say divorce) and you want to look at a related behavior (whether or not couples actually divorce). Another example comes from research on drug use. Let's say you want to understand why adolescents drink alcohol. There are many ways you can operationalize alcohol use. One way is to know whether or not adolescents have "ever tried" alcohol. Another is "how many times" in the past week or month or year. Still another way to explore alcohol use is to know "how many drinks are consumed on one occasion. You must first decide specifically what you want to research (maybe you did this in answering question number one), then be attentive to how the concept has been measured in previous research.
 
This will also be true for your independent variables. Let's say you want to see how the division of household labor affects the level of satisfaction that a person has with their partner. You will find research that measures the division of household labor by asking "who does more-you or your partner?" Other research elicits direct time estimates of domestic activity (how many hours per week spent in cleaning, for example). The first measure will allow a general test of the hypothesis: a person is happier when tasks are shared. The direst time estimates will allow for a couple of assessments. One is the issue of just how much time someone spends doing housework. The more time, the more unhappy. But combing estimates of both partners time allows for a more specific test of the first hypothesis: the greater the inequity, the more unhappy a person is. A 60-40 split may not make a difference for some, but an 80-20 split in responsibility seems more unfair.
 
Pay attention to how authors have explained these variations. The point is that how variables are measured can lead to the testing of very different hypotheses. You'll want to be aware of variation in measurement in the literature you read.
 

 
You may already have addressed this question somewhat in answering number one above. You may notice that adolescent alcohol use has actually declined, while use of other drugs has increased. This would lead you to doing additional research to understand and explain why these declines in use have occurred.
 

 
Recall from discussions of causality in social science that we try to do three things: show a correlation between two variables, establish a time ordering, and control for variables suspected of explaining away observed correlations. You may want to think about how theories you are familiar with would point you to control for certain variables (gender, social class, ethnicity, education).
 

 
As you read through the literature and think about the questions above, you will start to notice differences between what you intended to do and what has been done. Some of those differences may actually lead you to change your plans. But other differences are what make your research unique or different. They may be small, such as doing your research on a local community instead of a regional one. Or you may be operationalizing some of your variables differently. But small or large, these variations make additions to the literature. The most challenging part will be when you try to theorize what difference it makes.
 

 
You now have a lot of ideas about what is known on your topic and how your particular research fits in. What's next? There is no set standard for writing up your literature review. Everyone has their own way of getting from point to point. So what follows is one suggested outline. It assumes that you've thought about all seven questions above. See how it works and think about how to make transitions between sections. You will need to find what's most comfortable for you.
 
I.    Description of the dependent variable. What is the incidence of it and what has been the major concern by sociologists in studying it. Why are you interested in studying it?
II    Description of the main sociological theories that address the topic.
      A.   Summary of research done using one theory. This could also be a summary of research finding that X is related to Y. Be sure to group articles together by writing points. If several articles have found that X affects Y, just make the substantive point once and cite all articles.
      B.   Critiques of that theory, or set of relationships, with a discussion of research that differs.
      C.   Summary of research done using another theory or set of variables.
      D.   Critiques of that approach.
III   Summary of what is known and the "problem" with it.
IV  What your research will do to expand our knowledge or fill a gap in the literature.




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