This guide provides an overview of the literature review process including useful tips and advice on effective searching and managing of resources. The guide is intended as a starting point for any student or researcher new to the literature review process.
You may have heard of a number of different types of literature review. Common terms include:
There are a number of organisations, such as the international Cochrane and Campbell Collaborations, and the Joanna Briggs Institute which support the conduct of systematic reviews in health, social welfare, criminal justice and education (see the Systematic Reviews tab for more information).
For the purposes of this guide, we will focus on general principles that apply to anyone (from any discipline) conducting a good-quality literature review.
A literature review can be defined as follows:
A critical summary and assessment of the range of existing materials dealing with knowledge and understanding in a given field … Its purpose is to locate the research project, to form its context or background, and to provide insights into previous work
(The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods 2006)
Jupp, V 2006, 'Literature review', The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods, SAGE Publications, London
Common goals include:
Salkind, N. J. (2010). Encyclopedia of research design Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781412961288
1. Defining the review topic or question
2. Locating sources
3. Judging the quality of studies identified
4. Synthesising the studies identified
5. Reporting the findings of the review
While the stages are presented as a linear process, most ‘real world’ reviews do not follow a simple progression through stages 1 to 5. Doing a literature review should be an iterative process and searching should continue throughout the review process as the reviewer develops a closer understanding of the topic.
Determine what it is you need to know – ask yourself a few questions while you are reading abstracts or summaries of each article or information source you find. This can help you decide whether or not a source is relevant to your research or if you need to broaden or narrow your focus.
Once you have read through a few items, look for trends and related subjects or topics within the research - ask yourself again what you need to know and start setting up a framework which will assist you to find the information you need.
In the early stages of the literature review, it is quite common to experience a shift in specific areas of interest once you start reading relevant literature. For this reason, be flexible in the early stages when reading relevant articles and be prepared to revise any specific objectives for your review during the early stages of the review.
It is common during thesis research to spend several weeks or months clarifying the specific areas of focus for a review. During the early stages of reading relevant literature, a good strategy is to note emerging themes and ideas, and develop and revise a set of specific questions, or sub-topics to create an overall framework for the review.
A useful tool for this early stage of exploring themes and ideas is mind-mapping. This can be done using the traditional pen and paper, or there are online equivalents that offer extra functionality. Consult the Literature Review Toolbox section of this guide for more information.
Doing a literature review. (2010). In Thomas, D. R. & Hodges, I. D. Designing and managing your research project: Core skills for social and health research (pp. 105-130). London: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781446289044
Consider factors that will influence the scope of the review, such as:
Be sure to note down all the details of the scope as part of your project plan. These details should be included in the introduction of the review.