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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. It 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. One of your purposes is to establish that you are not repeating research that has already taken place. It will enable you to uncover existing research and to illuminate what is not yet known about your topic. 


Type 3: Annotated Bibliography

An annotated bibliography is a list of selected sources such as articles, books and reports. The list consists of correctly formatted bibliographical references (Cite Them Right Harvard referencing in used most departments at Westminster) as well as a concise description of each text. Some annotated bibliographies also require a critical evaluation of the source.

There are generally two types of annotated bibliography: 

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

  • In a critical annotated bibliography, your summary of each text should also include a critical analysis that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the authors’ arguments (about 100-200 words). You should think about the implications of their work for your field and your research project. 


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

  • Visit the Referencing Guide for information on the Cite Them Right Harvard referencing style and how to avoid plagiarism. 


Always consult your module leader's instructions before beginning your annotated bibliography. Their guidance should help you understand the purpose of the assessment, what types of texts to focus on and the marking criteria. 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

A Critical review usually focuses on a single text (e.g. a journal article) and critically examines the approach taken and conclusions reached. 

  • Usually short and concise - about 1000 words 

  • Secondary sources can be used to support your critique 

  • Should contain a brief introduction that establishes the purpose of your review, concisely summarises the text under review, and briefly states your general view of the text 

  • Should include a brief conclusion at the end 

  • Should include a reference list for any sources cited


Critique in a critical review

Being critical does not mean 'being negative'. Rather, it means testing each part of a study to see whether the best approach was taken. Each section of a journal article, for instance, should be scrutinised in relation to the purpose it serves. 


  • Is the author asking the right question? In the context of the field of study, is the question relevant, useful, insightful?

Literature review

  • Have they clearly identified the problem?
  • Have they established that their research question has not yet been answered?
  • Have they missed any significant pieces of research? 


  • Have they taken a sensible approach in answering their question? Was the study well-designed? Have they ruled out confounding factors that might produce a misleading result?


  • How have they interpreted their data? Is there an alternative interpretation?
  • Do their conclusions agree or disagree with prior research? Do they acknowledge and account for differing results?


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


Below are the basic steps to produce an effective literature review: 

  1. Read

  1. Select texts for inclusion, based on relevance to your topic and significance within the field

  2. Evaluate quality of studies to be included  

  1. Plan the structure of your work 

  1. Synthesise information (bring together studies that are similar or complementary)   

These steps are addressed in the tabs of this guide. 

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