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Literature Reviews: Start

What is a Literature Review?

The literature review is an overview of the significant literature on a topic. The word literature (in 'literature review') broadly refers to the scholarly or scientific writing on a topic. It may include: scholarly articles, books, book chapters, conference papers, theses and other sources of information relevant to your particular area of research.  

It should not be purely descriptive: a literature review needs to include summary and critical evaluation. 

Overall, a literature review should do the following: 

  • Identify key debates in your field of study 

  • Present and critically evaluate previous research and ideas 

  • Highlight gaps in the research 

Types of Literature Reviews

There are four types of literature reviews:

1. A literature review as a standalone assessment

2. A literature review leading to your original research project (dissertation)

3. Annotated bibliographies

4. Critical reviews / Critical summaries

 

Type 1: Literature Review as Standalone Assessment

A literature review as a standalone assessment provides an overview of a specific topic/area. This kind of review does not answer a specific research question, but addresses questions like: 

  • What are the different approaches / theories on...? 

  • What is the current thinking / state of knowledge about...? 

  • How did we come to be where we are now? 

Most of the information in this guide can help doing a literature review leading to your original research project (dissertation).

Type 2: Literature Review as Part of Research Project (Dissertation)

A literature review leading to your original research project (dissertation) prepares the ground for your own study. This involves reading widely to help you to refine your topic and formulate your research question or hypothesis. The purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate familiarity with and understanding of research in your field of study before conducting a new investigation. Therefore, it will enable you to uncover research which has been done before and to illuminate what is not yet known about your topic. 

Most of the information in this guide can help doing a literature review leading to your original research project (dissertation).

Type 3: Annotated Bibliography

Annotated bibliographies are a list of selected sources such as articles, books and reports. The list consists of accurate bibliographical reference of the source (Harvard style referencing in most departments at Westminster) and focused description of each text. Some annotated bibliographies require a critical evaluation of the source as well. In fact, there are generally two types of annotated bibliography: 

  • In a descriptive annotated bibliography, you provide a description of the listed authors' main arguments without evaluating them (about 100-200 words). This is a useful model for determining whether a source is useful for a particular research question or topic. 

  • In a critical annotated bibliography, you should summarise the material you have read and offer an analysis of each listed source, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the authors’ arguments (about 100-200 words). You should think about how a writer’s conclusions might impact your own field of study/research or interests. 

Tips! 

  • For all types of annotated bibliography, always focus on demonstrating your understanding of the texts as succinctly as possible.  

  • Visit the Referencing Guide for more information on Harvard style, citing accurately and avoiding plagiarism. 

Remember! 

Always consult your lecturer’s instructions before beginning your annotated bibliography as this will let you know what types of texts to focus on, the purpose of the assignment, the marking criteria as well as how you should approach the task. The instructions may ask you to produce an introduction and a conclusion to sum up your findings, for instance. 

Type 4: Critical Reviews and Critical Summaries

Critical reviews and critical summaries analyse and assess the work of others in terms of the approach they took to conduct their research, how they carried out their research and the conclusions they reached.  

So, what are the features of a critical review/summary? 

  • Usually short and concise - about 1000 words 

  • Can contain a short reference list: 1-10 possibly 

  • Secondary sources you use aside from the article can help you to illustrate your own points/arguments as well as critique the text you are focusing on

  • A critical summary/review should contain a very brief introduction to tell the reader what they are going to be reading 

  • The introduction should contain an outline of the summary and your main argument 

  • You should include a brief conclusion at the end 

Further, to assess the value of a source in a critical review or critical summary, you should provide a description of it along with an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses. To do this, you will need to examine its contents and main arguments. It is not enough to describe the views of an author – you should challenge them! 

To describe a source you have read for a critical review or critical summary, you should consider: 

  • The questions or arguments being answered/proposed 

  • The research methods used 

  • The conclusions reached 

  • The structure of the text 

  • The arguments being made 

  • Why the author thinks their argument/position/hypothesis/question is important 

To challenge the views of an author, you should think about: 

  • The evidence provided. Is it strong or weak? Why? 

  • Is the author biased? Why?  

  • Does the author offer any new insight into a particular problem? 

  • Is the question being answered, relevant? How and why?  

  • Are the conclusions logical based on the information/evidence presented? 

  • Is the structure of the text, logical?  

  • Were the research methods used, appropriate?  

  • Is the question being answered, important? 

Checklist for use after you have written your critical review/summary: 

  • Is there a clear introduction? 

  • Have you included the most relevant information from the original text in your summary? 

  • Have you paraphrased effectively? You should not change the meaning of the author’s words. 

  • Have you evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the text? You can cite other sources to support your position. 

  • Have you adhered to the word count? 

  • Have you included a reference list? 

  • Have you used appropriate in text citations in your department’s preferred referencing style (Harvard, etc.)? 

Tip!

Always check the marking criteria provided for all assignments to gain a better understanding of what your lecturer expects from your work.

Stages

To produce an effective literature review, you could follow these steps: 

  1. Research 

  1. Assess the quality of studies 

  1. Structure your work 

  1. Synthesise information 

  1. Express critical analysis 

These steps are addressed in the tabs of this guide. 

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