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Literature reviews: Reviewing for research

“The researcher first addresses the current state of knowledge about the study question. Then, based on these findings, the researcher proposes a thesis defining an issue for further study”

Lawrence A Machi, The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success

This page concentrates on undertaking a literature review as the first stage of a research-based dissertation or independent project. Such a review needs to both position your study within the wider literature and justify the research question that you are asking. This page is looking at a traditional literature review rather than a systematic review which has its own page in this guide.


What a literature review for a research project should do

 

Position your research within the wider body of literature on the topic.

Demonstrate an in-depth understanding of your topic area.

Identify who the major thinkers are.

Identify what research has already been done in that area.

Find gaps or new directions to help you formulate your own question.

Identify the main research methodologies in your area.

Identify the main areas of agreement or controversy.

Convince the reader that your research questions are significant, important and interesting.

Convince the reader that your research will make an original contribution.


The structure of a literature review

Funnel structure

The most common structure is one where you start your literature review looking at the bigger picture and then increasingly focus onto the specific aspects you are interested in. This is known as a funnel structure.

Funnel structure - visual representation of the text below

  • As can be seen, the review starts by looking at a fair number of papers but not in great detail - these position your research within the wider literature to show how your topic fits in to the bigger picture.
  • The review then moves to consider a number of papers (less than the previous part) in a bit more detail. These papers cover more narrow categories that are closer to your topic but not matched directly. 
  • The review should then focus on a few papers that are the most relevant to your work. You are likely to look at these in considerably more detail.
  • You finish the review by confirming how the literature has led you to your specific question.

Jigsaw structure

Sometimes, if your topic area has clear sub-areas it can be more appropriate to use a jigsaw structure.

Structure showing how separate topics fit together into a whole - with arrows connecting each section to all the others to indicate links between them.

  • Give a proportion of your review to each sub-area.
  • Discuss the links between each of the sub-areas.
  • Make sure your conclusion pulls these together and shows where your research will fit into this picture.

Chronological structure

This structure is not particularly common but can be useful for some reviews - specifically when you need to show how ideas have changed through time. For example, in medicine you could look at how treatments for a particular condition have progressed from early treatments to the present day.

Visual interpretation of the text below

  • You will begin with the earliest papers, grouping them together by publication date. For example, papers from 1990-1999 then papers from 2000-2009, then 2010-2019, finishing with the very latest papers from 2020 onwards. 
  • You focus on how the research (ideas, theories or methods) has changed over the period and emphasise the key changes that happened.
  • You finish by showing how this led you to choose the direction that your own research will take.

What a literature review is, and isn't

Is

  • Critical analysis
  • Evaluation of previous research on a topic
  • Organised
  • Addressing a clearly articulated question (or questions)

Tick

Isn't

  • A descriptive list
  • Summaries of books/articles
  • Exhausted bibliography of everything written on the topic
  • Your arguments and ideas

cross

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