A literature review is a survey of all existing literature in a specific field. It serves two purposes. First is to exhaustively describe research done in a specific area. The second is to evaluate this body of literature to identify established findings, conflicting evidence and gaps in research. A literature review includes research articles, dissertations, conference papers, scholarly articles and other sources.
This might seem daunting to a beginner. However it is easy to write a literature review. All you need is patience and good analytic skills. All literature reviews have a basic structure. There are slight variations in this format, depending on the discipline and the purpose of the literature review.
The first step is to identify a topic on which you want to write the review of literature. Finding a suitable topic is the hardest part of a literature review. You must begin searching for a topic early. This would involve extensive reading. Choosing a personally-relevant topic, which motivates and interests you, will make the entire process much more enjoyable.
Before finalizing a topic, you need to ensure that there is considerable research in that area. So several individuals should have conducted research and written about the topic. As a result you will have various viewpoints to compare and analyze.
Once you are well versed with the broad area of interest, narrow it down to a specific topic. The more specific your topic, the more comprehensive your review will be.
The second step is to begin collecting and reading the articles. While choosing a topic you would have done already condected some preliminary research. Now you would need to systematically build on this initial research. Libraries and online journal collections are good starting points. Interviews with subject matter experts, books, documentaries, and archival data can be used during this stage.
Remember reading academic articles can be challenging and you might be inclined to give up. Here are some tips to make your reading of the literature easier:
1. Begin with the easier articles and then proceed to the harder ones.
2. Read the abstract first. Then scan through the article and identify key themes and elements such as the research questions, the findings etc. Make a note of these elements.
3. Next do an in-depth reading of the literature you have collected. Read each article line by line to completely understand it. Look for hidden themes, contradictions and logical gaps in arguments. Try to link it to other literature in the area.
4. Reading requires time and patience. So plan accordingly and allocate maximum time for this phase.
After you have read through sufficient material, you would need to shortlist the articles to the ones most relevant to your topic. Try to look for connections between the articles, and loopholes in the existing research and consensus regarding the subject matter.
Keep an open mind, and look critically at all the information. Your literature review should not be a simple summary of a couple of articles and books. It should provide a unique perspective on the existing literature, and facilitate further debate. Once you have mapped your ideas, arguments and created a loose structure for the review, you will begin the actual writing process.
You would need at least 15 – 20 articles for a good literature review. However, a literature review can have up to 100 articles. Student literature reviews are typically 20 pages long or of 3000 words approximately.
Make sure that your literature review is well organized. A natural flow makes a literature review easier and more pleasant to read. Most literature reviews begin with the title page, the abstract followed by a brief introduction to the topic. The introduction should include the purpose and questions of the review.
The body usually contains a detailed description of each study, along with observations and comparisons of the studies. The findings are then put concisely in the conclusion, after which the implications of the literature review are mentioned. Implications are your personal addition to the topic based on your reading and analysis. It includes your impressions of what the studies show and the need for further research.
Some pointers while you write your review:
• Write only when you have read all your text and have understood it.
• Take breaks in between writing the review, so that you don’t burn out.
• Always use simple and concise language. Illustrate your points with concrete examples from the text you have read.
• Summarize and paraphrase the articles, instead of using long quotes.
• Edit and review the article, to avoid grammatical and formatting errors.
• Finally never indulge in plagiarism. Use in text citations and references.
In text citations are used when you quote someone else’s idea within your article. It includes the author’s last name and the year of the study. References must include the author’s name, the title of the book, the year of the publication, the publishing house and the location. There are detailed instructions for citations available at all major university websites such as Harvard etc. You could read through them for more clarity on how to write the references.
Now that you know the steps involved in writing a literature review, you will be well equipped to begin your review.