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Literature reviews: Stand-alone review

“Simple [stand-alone] literature review - A written document that critically reviews the relevant literature on a research topic, presenting a logical case that establishes a thesis delineating what is currently known about the subject.”

Lawrence Machi & Brenda McEvoy, The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success

Literature reviews do not have to be part of a larger research project. Sometimes you are asked to undertake a stand-alone (sometimes referred to as 'simple') literature review as an separate assignment. In such cases, the review should summarise, synthesise and evaluate existing knowledge on a specific topic and come to a conclusion about current understanding.

Structure of a stand-alone literature review

A stand-alone review has a similar structure to a standard essay:

  • Introduction - Show how the topic of your review fits in with the wider field, indicate how you conducted the review (details about specific search strategies are not needed, more an overview of the process) and summarise your main findings about the literature.
  • Main body - Analyse the literature, identifying themes, gaps in understanding and areas of disagreement.
  • Conclusion - Summarise the main points and how they relate to each other. Restate your main findings in a bit more detail than you did in the introduction. Give any implications for the wider field.

Essay vs stand-alone literature review

The main different between an essay and a literature review is that an essay is focused on answering a question through a series of arguments supported by the literature; whereas, in a stand-alone literature review the focus is on the literature itself—what it tells you, but also its reliability and quality.

Another important difference is that with an essay you have more freedom about choosing literature that supports the argument you are making.

With a literature review, it is far more important to make sure you are representing all aspects of the topic.

This is not to say you are not making your own argument - it is just that your argument is about what you think the literature shows.

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