What is a literature review?
The term “literature” in “literature review” comprises scholarly articles, books, and other sources (e.g. reports) relevant to a particular issue, area of research or theory. In a dissertation, the literature review illustrates what the literature already says on your research subject, providing summary, synthesis and critical analysis of such literature. It is generally structured by topic, starting from general background and concepts, and then addressing what can be found - and cannot be found - on the specific focus of your dissertation. Indeed, the literature review should identify gaps in the literature, that your research aims to fill.
What is the purpose of a literature review in a dissertation?
Find in this page guidance on how to write a literature review, step by step.
In order to know what literature you need to research, you need to know what question you need to answer! The literature review is the first attempt to answer the research question. It provides background on what is known about the subject, but also exhibits a gap, which your research should fill. To learn more about research questions and hypotheses see First Steps.
What an exciting part of your research! Here is where you investigate and learn more about your research topic. You can follow these steps:
Broaden your search
Initially, broaden your search not to overlook relevant results.
Mind mapping for generating ideas and creative thinking
Place a blank sheet in landscape position and write the essay question in the middle. Draw branches from the question, which are possible ideas and topics to include in the essay. Add sub-topics (“leaves”) and connect ideas and evidence from your reading. You can use colours and images to stimulate your thinking. Some leaves can be used as key words for your search.
Play with your key words
Look for synonyms and related terms:
Topic: “The impact of Covid-19 on the British environment”
What to search?
Covid-19 British Environment
Synonyms and related words:
Pollution; air quality; waste
Britain; United Kingdom, UK, England, Scotland, Wales, British Isles, Ireland.
Be selective: get relevant sources
Keep an open mind but only look for and use sources which are relevant for your dissertation (unless of course you are reading for interest!). After an initial phase of broadening your research, you should narrow it down and focus on the issues you want to deal with in your literature review.
How to find sources
Try different search tools:
Internet (for example, Google): will give you the largest number of results, but most of the results will not be peer-reviewed and may not be reliable. You can use it to have a general overview of your research topic.
Library search: this will give you only academic, peer-reviewed sources. All these resources are accessible to you online and/or in the library. See the guide on Library Search.
Library subject guides: these provide subject-specific research support, including access to subject-specific books, journals, databases, legal materials, archives etc. They also provide guidance on citing and referencing. Check your Library subject guides.
Contact your Academic Liaison Librarian: the Academic Liaison Librarian will be able to suggest resources, search tools and research techniques that can help you get a head start on your research. You can find the details of your Librarian here.
Google Scholar: this provides scholarly results as well as technical reports from governments and other organisations, and other academically valuable sources like patents, theses etc. Google Scholar allows the useful feat of forward citation tracking (finding newest sources that cite a given source) that can help you find what other literature comments on a certain source. It has to be noted, however, that not all resources on Google Scholar are peer-reviewed and reliable. See the library guide on using Google Scholar.
Think of how CRAAP the text you are reading is!
CRAAP = Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose
How recent/old is your source? In certain fields it is very important that the sources are as recent as possible. In others, like history, a source or document from the past may be more valuable.
Is the text relevant to your dissertation? Does it help fill some section and answer your research question?
Who is the source of the information? Where was it published? Was it peer-reviewed?
What evidence is the source relying on? Is the evidence up to date? Is the evidence correctly interpreted? Is the argument made in the source logical? Is the methodology sound?
What's the purpose of the source? Is there an agenda? If it's a company report, it may try to portray the company in a positive light. If it's a government report, it may try to defend government policies.
In order to better evaluate a piece of work, you need to compare it with other sources dealing with the same topic(s). This is a main function of the literature review. Try to adopt a triple perspective:
Uncertain about how to structure your literature review? Have a look at this revelatory video by Dr Jodie Salter and the University of Guelph.
The literature review should have an introduction, a body and a conclusion.
As shown in the video, above, the body shall NOT be organised author by author. It should be organised by topic (normally, from general background to specific aspects of the subject your dissertation is dealing with). Some paragraphs can be organised chronologically (for example outlining the development of an idea throughout time), by method, by sector, or other criteria.
This should be a paragraph that can include some of the following:
How should you write, more specifically, the paragraphs within the body of your literature review? You will need to present a synthesis of the texts you read. Doug Specht, Senior Lecturer at the Westminster School of Media and Communication, explains synthesis for us in the following video.
What is synthesis?
Synthesis is an important element of academic writing, demonstrating comprehension, analysis, evaluation and original creation.
How to synthesise in a literature review:
The best synthesis requires a "recursive process" whereby you read the source texts, identify relevant parts, take notes, produce drafts, re-read the source texts, revise your text, re-write... (Mateos and Sole, 2009)
What is good synthesis?
The quality of your synthesis can be assessed considering the following (Mateos and Sole, 2009, p439):
Original texts (fictitious):
Animal testing is necessary to save human lives. Incidents have happened where humans have died or have been seriously harmed for using drugs that had not been tested on animals (Smith 2008).
Animals feel pain in a way that is physiologically and neuroanatomically similar to humans (Chowdhury 2012).
Animal testing is not always used to assess the toxicology of a drug; sometimes painful experiments are undertaken to improve the effectiveness of cosmetics (Turner 2015)
Animals in distress can suffer psychologically, showing symptoms of depression and anxiety (Panatta and Hudson 2016).
Animal experimentation is a subject of heated debate. Some argue that painful experiments should be banned. Indeed it has been demonstrated that such experiments make animals suffer physically and psychologically (Chowdhury 2012; Panatta and Hudson 2016). On the other hand, it has been argued that animal experimentation can save human lives and reduce harm on humans (Smith 2008). This argument is only valid for toxicological testing, not for tests that, for example, merely improve the efficacy of a cosmetic (Turner 2015). It can be suggested that animal experimentation should be regulated to only allow toxicological risk assessment, and the suffering to the animals should be minimised.
The literature review of a dissertation should include critical analysis. You cannot simply juxtapose the literature you find: you have to evaluate and draw conclusions from it. You can use the CRAAP test (box above) and find guidance on critical reading here.
Try expressing your voice in each paragraph of your literature review. Write strong paragraphs. In strong paragraphs your voice can be heard in the topic sentence, development (where you analyse and compare/contrast the sources, sometimes as individual pieces, sometimes in a synthesis) and, even more easily, in the concluding sentence, where you present the "therefore" of the paragraph.
How to express criticality at the paragraph level:
Literature review level
Try to take ownership of the literature review. Remember the purposes of the review (providing background on the subject you are researching, and identifying a gap in the existing literature on this subject). Thus, throughout the review:
Your literature review should present an argument (which you can recap in the concluding paragraph of the literature review) sounding like "the literature says/illustrates/reveals that... there are debates in the literature as of... it can be understood from the literature that... however, there are gaps in the literature... the literature does not specifically address (specific sector/location/population)... there is a lack of independent/recent studies on... therefore in order to answer the research question(s) (you can repeat the question) this dissertation uses method xyz, as illustrated in the next section (if applicable)".
Ridley, D. (2008). The literature review: a step-by- step guide for students. London: Sage