Write a Literature Review

1. narrow your topic and select papers accordingly, 2. search for literature, 3. read the selected articles thoroughly and evaluate them, 4. organize the selected papers by looking for patterns and by developing subtopics, 5. develop a thesis or purpose statement, 6. write the paper, 7. review your work.

  • Resources for Gathering and Reading the Literature
  • Resources for Writing and Revising
  • Other Useful Resources

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Consider your specific area of study. Think about what interests you and what interests other researchers in your field.

Talk to your professor, brainstorm, and read lecture notes and recent issues of periodicals in the field.

Limit your scope to a smaller topic area (ie. focusing on France's role in WWII instead of focusing on WWII in general).

  • Four Steps to Narrow Your Research Topic (Video) This 3-minute video provides instructions on how to narrow the focus of your research topic.
  • Developing a Research Question + Worksheet Use this worksheet to develop, assess, and refine your research questions. There is also a downloadable PDF version.

Define your source selection criteria (ie. articles published between a specific date range, focusing on a specific geographic region, or using a specific methodology).

Using keywords, search a library database.

Reference lists of recent articles and reviews can lead to other useful papers.

Include any studies contrary to your point of view.

Evaluate and synthesize the studies' findings and conclusions.

Note the following:

  • Assumptions some or most researchers seem to make
  • Methodologies, testing procedures, subjects, material tested researchers use
  • Experts in the field: names/labs that are frequently referenced
  • Conflicting theories, results, methodologies
  • Popularity of theories and how this has/has not changed over time
  • Findings that are common/contested
  • Important trends in the research
  • The most influential theories

Tip: If your literature review is extensive, find a large table surface, and on it place post-it notes or filing cards to organize all your findings into categories.

  • Move them around if you decide that (a) they fit better under different headings, or (b) you need to establish new topic headings.
  • Develop headings/subheadings that reflect the major themes and patterns you detected

Write a one or two sentence statement summarizing the conclusion you have reached about the major trends and developments you see in the research that has been conducted on your subject.

  • Templates for Writing Thesis Statements This template provides a two-step guide for writing thesis statements. There is also a downloadable PDF version.
  • 5 Types of Thesis Statements Learn about five different types of thesis statements to help you choose the best type for your research. There is also a downloadable PDF version.
  • 5 Questions to Strengthen Your Thesis Statement Follow these five steps to strengthen your thesis statements. There is also a downloadable PDF version.

Follow the organizational structure you developed above, including the headings and subheadings you constructed.

Make certain that each section links logically to the one before and after.

Structure your sections by themes or subtopics, not by individual theorists or researchers.

  • Tip: If you find that each paragraph begins with a researcher's name, it might indicate that, instead of evaluating and comparing the research literature from an analytical point of view, you have simply described what research has been done.

Prioritize analysis over description.

  • For example, look at the following two passages and note that Student A merely describes the literature, whereas Student B takes a more analytical and evaluative approach by comparing and contrasting. You can also see that this evaluative approach is well signaled by linguistic markers indicating logical connections (words such as "however," "moreover") and phrases such as "substantiates the claim that," which indicate supporting evidence and Student B's ability to synthesize knowledge.

Student A: Smith (2000) concludes that personal privacy in their living quarters is the most important factor in nursing home residents' perception of their autonomy. He suggests that the physical environment in the more public spaces of the building did not have much impact on their perceptions. Neither the layout of the building nor the activities available seem to make much difference. Jones and Johnstone make the claim that the need to control one's environment is a fundamental need of life (2001), and suggest that the approach of most institutions, which is to provide total care, may be as bad as no care at all. If people have no choices or think that they have none, they become depressed.

Student B: After studying residents and staff from two intermediate care facilities in Calgary, Alberta, Smith (2000) came to the conclusion that except for the amount of personal privacy available to residents, the physical environment of these institutions had minimal if any effect on their perceptions of control (autonomy). However, French (1998) and Haroon (2000) found that availability of private areas is not the only aspect of the physical environment that determines residents' autonomy. Haroon interviewed 115 residents from 32 different nursing homes known to have different levels of autonomy (2000). It was found that physical structures, such as standardized furniture, heating that could not be individually regulated, and no possession of a house key for residents limited their feelings of independence. Moreover, Hope (2002), who interviewed 225 residents from various nursing homes, substantiates the claim that characteristics of the institutional environment such as the extent of resources in the facility, as well as its location, are features which residents have indicated as being of great importance to their independence.

  • How to Integrate Critical Voice into Your Literature Review (Video)
  • Look at the topic sentences of each paragraph. If you were to read only these sentences, would you find that your paper presented a clear position, logically developed, from beginning to end? The topic sentences of each paragraph should indicate the main points of your literature review.
  • Make an outline of each section of the paper and decide whether you need to add information, to delete irrelevant information, or to re-structure sections.
  • Read your work out loud. That way you will be better able to identify where you need punctuation marks to signal pauses or divisions within sentences, where you have made grammatical errors, or where your sentences are unclear.
  • Since the purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate that the writer is familiar with the important professional literature on the chosen subject, check to make certain that you have covered all of the important, up-to-date, and pertinent texts. In the sciences and some of the social sciences it is important that your literature be quite recent; this is not so important in the humanities.
  • Make certain that all of the citations and references are correct and that you are referencing in the appropriate style for your discipline. If you are uncertain which style to use, ask your professor.
  • Check to make sure that you have not plagiarized either by failing to cite a source of information, or by using words quoted directly from a source. (Usually if you take three or more words directly from another source, you should put those words within quotation marks, and cite the page.)
  • Text should be written in a clear and concise academic style; it should not be descriptive in nature or use the language of everyday speech.
  • There should be no grammatical or spelling errors.
  • Sentences should flow smoothly and logically.
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  • How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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steps for writing a good literature review

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).


The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.


If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources


A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility


  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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Literature Reviews

Steps in the literature review process.

  • What is a literature review?
  • Define your research question
  • Determine inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • Choose databases and search
  • Review Results
  • Synthesize Results
  • Analyze Results
  • Librarian Support
  • You may need to some exploratory searching of the literature to get a sense of scope, to determine whether you need to narrow or broaden your focus
  • Identify databases that provide the most relevant sources, and identify relevant terms (controlled vocabularies) to add to your search strategy
  • Finalize your research question
  • Think about relevant dates, geographies (and languages), methods, and conflicting points of view
  • Conduct searches in the published literature via the identified databases
  • Check to see if this topic has been covered in other discipline's databases
  • Examine the citations of on-point articles for keywords, authors, and previous research (via references) and cited reference searching.
  • Save your search results in a citation management tool (such as Zotero, Mendeley or EndNote)
  • De-duplicate your search results
  • Make sure that you've found the seminal pieces -- they have been cited many times, and their work is considered foundational 
  • Check with your professor or a librarian to make sure your search has been comprehensive
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of individual sources and evaluate for bias, methodologies, and thoroughness
  • Group your results in to an organizational structure that will support why your research needs to be done, or that provides the answer to your research question  
  • Develop your conclusions
  • Are there gaps in the literature?
  • Where has significant research taken place, and who has done it?
  • Is there consensus or debate on this topic?
  • Which methodological approaches work best?
  • For example: Background, Current Practices, Critics and Proponents, Where/How this study will fit in 
  • Organize your citations and focus on your research question and pertinent studies
  • Compile your bibliography

Note: The first four steps are the best points at which to contact a librarian. Your librarian can help you determine the best databases to use for your topic, assess scope, and formulate a search strategy.

Videos Tutorials about Literature Reviews

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Literature Reviews

  • What is a Literature Review?
  • Six Steps to Writing a Literature Review
  • Finding Articles
  • Try A Citation Manager
  • Avoiding Plagiarism

Selecting a Research Topic 

The first step in the process involves exploring and selecting a topic. You may revise the topic/scope of your research as you learn more from the literature. Be sure to select a topic that you are willing to work with for a considerable amount of time.

When thinking about a topic, it is important to consider the following: 

Does the topic interest you?

Working on something that doesn’t excite you will make the process tedious. The research content should reflect your passion for research so it is essential to research in your area of interest rather than choosing a topic that interests someone else. While developing your research topic, broaden your thinking and creativity to determine what works best for you. Consider an area of high importance to your profession, or identify a gap in the research. It may take some time to narrow down on a topic and get started, but it’s worth the effort.

Is the Topic Relevant?

Be sure your subject meets the assignment/research requirements. When in doubt, review the guidelines and seek clarification from your professor. 

What is the Scope and Purpose?

Sometimes your chosen topic may be too broad. To find direction, try limiting the scope and purpose of the research by identifying the concepts you wish to explore. Once this is accomplished, you can fine-tune your topic by experimenting with keyword searches our  A-Z Databases  until you are satisfied with your retrieval results.

Are there Enough Resources to Support Your Research? 

If the topic is too narrow, you may not be able to provide the depth of results needed. When selecting a topic make sure you have adequate material to help with the research. Explore a variety of resources: journals, books, and online information. 

Adapted from

Why use keywords to search? 

  • Library databases work differently than Google. Library databases work best when you search for concepts and keywords.
  • For your research, you will want to brainstorm keywords related to your research question. These keywords can lead you to relevant sources that you can use to start your research project.
  • Identify those terms relevant to your research and add 2-3 in the search box. 

Now its time to decide whether or not to incorporate what you have found into your literature review.  E valuate  your resources to make sure they contain information that is authoritative, reliable, relevant and the most useful in supporting your research.

Remember to be:

  • Objective : keep an open mind
  • Unbiased : Consider all viewpoints, and include all sides of an argument,  even ones that don't support your own

Criteria for Evaluating Research Publications

Significance and Contribution to the Field

• What is the author’s aim?

• To what extent has this aim been achieved?

• What does this text add to the body of knowledge? (theory, data and/or practical application)

• What relationship does it bear to other works in the field?

• What is missing/not stated?

• Is this a problem?

Methodology or Approach (Formal, research-based texts)

• What approach was used for the research? (eg; quantitative or qualitative, analysis/review of theory or current practice, comparative, case study, personal reflection etc…)

• How objective/biased is the approach?

• Are the results valid and reliable?

• What analytical framework is used to discuss the results?

Argument and Use of Evidence

• Is there a clear problem, statement or hypothesis?

• What claims are made?

• Is the argument consistent?

• What kinds of evidence does the text rely on?

• How valid and reliable is the evidence?

• How effective is the evidence in supporting the argument?

• What conclusions are drawn?

• Are these conclusions justified?

Writing Style and Text Structure

• Does the writing style suit the intended audience? (eg; expert/non-expert, academic/non- academic)

• What is the organizing principle of the text?

  • Could it be better organized?

Prepared by Pam Mort, Lyn Hallion and Tracey Lee Downey, The Learning Centre © April 2005 The University of New South Wales. 

Analysis: the Starting Point for Further Analysis & Inquiry

After evaluating your retrieved sources you will be ready to explore both what has been  found  and what is  missing . Analysis involves breaking the study into parts,  understanding  each part, assessing the  strength  of evidence, and drawing  conclusions  about its relationship to your topic. 

Read through the information sources you have selected and try to analyze, understand and critique what you read.  Critically  review each source's methods, procedures, data validity/reliability, and other themes of interest.  Consider  how each source approaches your topic in addition to their collective points of  intersection  and  separation .  Offer an appraisal of past and current thinking, ideas, policies, and practices, identify gaps within the research, and place your current work and research within this wider discussion by considering how your research supports, contradicts, or departs from other scholars’ research and offer recommendations for future research.

Top 10 Tips for Analyzing the Research

  • Define key terms
  • Note key statistics 
  • Determine emphasis, strengths & weaknesses
  • Critique research methodologies used in the studies
  • Distinguish between author opinion and actual results
  • Identify major trends, patterns, categories, relationships, and inconsistencies
  • Recognize specific aspects in the study that relate to your topic
  • Disclose any gaps in the literature
  • Stay focused on your topic
  • Excluding landmark studies, use current, up-to-date sources

Prepared by the fine librarians at California State University Sacramento. 

Synthesis vs Summary

Your literature review should not simply be a summary of the articles, books, and other scholarly writings you find on your topic. It should synthesize the various ideas from your sources with your own observations to create a map of the scholarly conversation taking place about your research topics along with gaps or areas for further research.

steps for writing a good literature review

Bringing together your review results is called synthesis. Synthesis relies heavily on pattern recognition and relationships or similarities between different phenomena. Recognizing these patterns and relatedness helps you make  creative connections  between previously unrelated research and identify any gaps.

As you read, you'll encounter various ideas, disagreements, methods, and perspectives which can be hard to organize in a meaningful way.  A  synthesis matrix  also known as a Literature Review Matrix is an effective and efficient method to organize your literature by recording the main points of each source and documenting how sources relate to each other. If you know how to make an Excel spreadsheet, you can create your own synthesis matrix, or use one of the templates below. 

steps for writing a good literature review

Because a literature review is NOT a summary of these different sources, it can be very difficult to keep your research organized. It is especially difficult to organize the information in a way that makes the writing process simpler. One way that seems particularly helpful in organizing literature reviews is the synthesis matrix. Click on the link below for a short tutorial and synthesis matrix spreadsheet.

  • Literature Review and Synthesis
  • Lit Review Synthesis Matrix
  • Synthesis Matrix Example

A literature review must include a thesis statement, which is your perception of the information found in the literature. 

A literature review: 

  • Demonstrates your thorough  investigation  of and acquaintance with sources related to your topic
  • Is not a simple listing, but a  critical discussion
  • Must  compare  and  contrast  opinions
  • Must  relate  your study to previous studies
  • Must show  gaps  in research
  • Can  focus  on a research question or a thesis
  • Includes a  compilation  of the primary questions and subject areas involved
  • Identifies  sources

Organizing Your Literature Review

The structure of the review is divided into three main parts—an introduction, body, and the conclusion.

Image result for literature review format


Discuss what is already known about your topic and what readers need to know in order to understand your literature review. 

  • Scope, Method, Framework: ​ Explain your selection criteria and similarities between your sources. Be sure to mention any consistent methods, theoretical frameworks, or approaches.  
  • Research Question or Problem Statement:  State the problem you are addressing and why it is important. Try to write your research question as a statement. 
  • Thesis : Address the connections between your sources, current state of knowledge in the field, and consistent approaches to your topic. 
  • Format:  Describe your literature review’s organization and adhere to it throughout.   

​ Body 

The discussion of your research and its importance to the literature should be presented in a logical structure.

  • Chronological: Structure your discussion by the literature’s publication date moving from the oldest to the newest research. Discuss how your research relates to the literature and highlight any breakthroughs and any gaps in the research.
  • Historical: Similar to the chronological structure, the historical structure allows for a discussion of concepts or themes and how they have evolved over time.
  • Thematic: Identify and discuss the different themes present within the research. Make sure that you relate the themes to each other and to your research.
  • Methodological: This type of structure is used to discuss not so much what is found but how. For example, an methodological approach could provide an analysis of research approaches, data collection or and analysis techniques.

Provide a concise summary of your review and provide suggestions for future research.

Writing for Your Audience 

Writing within your discipline means learning:

  • the  specialized vocabulary  your discipline uses
  • the rhetorical conventions and  discourse  of your discipline
  • the research  methodologies  which are employed

Learn how to write in your discipline by  familiarizing  yourself with the journals and trade publications professionals, researchers, and scholars use. 

Use our Databases by Title  to access:

  • The best journals
  • The most widely circulated trade publications
  • The additional ways professionals and researchers communicate, such as conferences, newsletters, or symposiums.
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Graduate Research: Guide to the Literature Review

  • "Literature review" defined
  • Research Communication Graphic
  • Literature Review Steps
  • Evaluating information
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  • Reading a Scholarly Article
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  • Selecting a publisher

Introduction to Research Process: Literature Review Steps

When seeking information for a literature review or for any purpose, it helps to understand information-seeking as a process that you can follow. 5 Each of the six (6) steps has its own section in this web page with more detail. Do (and re-do) the following six steps:

1. Define your topic. The first step is defining your task -- choosing a topic and noting the questions you have about the topic. This will provide a focus that guides your strategy in step II and will provide potential words to use in searches in step III.

2. Develop a strategy. Strategy involves figuring out where the information might be and identifying the best tools for finding those types of sources. The strategy section identifies specific types of research databases to use for specific purposes.

3. Locate the information . In this step, you implement the strategy developed in II in order to actually locate specific articles, books, technical reports, etc.

4. Use and Evaluate the information. Having located relevant and useful material, in step IV you read and analyze the items to determine whether they have value for your project and credibility as sources.

5. Synthesize. In step V, you will make sense of what you've learned and demonstrate your knowledge. You will thoroughly understand, organize and integrate the information --become knowledgeable-- so that you are able to use your own words to support and explain your research project and its relationship to existing research by others.

6. Evaluate your work. At every step along the way, you should evaluate your work. However, this final step is a last check to make sure your work is complete and of high quality.

Continue below to begin working through the process.

5. Eisenberg, M. B., & Berkowitz, R. E. (1990). Information Problem-Solving: the Big Six Skills Approach to Library & Information Skills Instruction . Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

1. Define your topic.

I. Define your topic

A.  Many students have difficulty selecting a topic. You want to find a topic you find interesting and will enjoy learning more about.

B.   Students often select a topic that is too broad.  You may have a broad topic in mind initially and will need to narrow it.

1. To help narrow a broad topic :

a. Brainstorm.  

1). Try this technique for brainstorming to narrow your focus.   

a) Step 1.  Write down your broad topic.

b) Step 2. Write down a "specific kind" or "specific aspect" of the topic you identified in step 1.  

c) Step 3. Write down an aspect  --such as an attribute or behavior-- of the "specific kind" you identified in step 2.  

d) Step 4.  Continue to add  levels of specificity as needed to get to a focus that is manageable. However, you may want to begin researching the literature before narrowing further to give yourself the opportunity to explore what others are doing and how that might impact the direction that you take for your own research.                     

2) Three examples of using the narrowing technique. These examples start with very, very broad topics, so the topic at step 3 or 4 in these examples would be used for a preliminary search in the literature in order to identify a more specific focus.  Greater specificity than level 3 or 4 will ultimately be necessary for developing a specific research question. And we may discover in our preliminary research that we need to alter the direction that we originally were taking.

a) Example 1.      

             Step 1. information security

                      Step  2. protocols

                              Step 3.  handshake protocol

            Brainstorming has brought us to focus on the handshake protocol.

b) Example 2.  

            Step 1. information security

                     Step 2. single sign-on authentication

                              Step 3.  analyzing

                                       Step 4. methods

            Brainstorming has brought us to focus on methods for analyzing the security of single sign-on authentication

c) Example 3.  The diagram below is an example using the broad topic of "software" to show two potential ways to begin to narrow the topic. 

C. Once you have completed the brainstorming process and your topic is more focused, you can do preliminary research to help you identify a specific research question . 

1) Examine overview sources such as subject-specific encyclopedias and textbooks that are likely to break down your specific topic into sub-topics and to highlight core issues that could serve as possible research questions. [See section II. below on developing a strategy to learn how to find these encyclopedias]

2). Search the broad topic in a research database that includes scholarly journals and professional magazines (to find technical and scholarly articles) and scan recent article titles for ideas. [See section II. below on developing a strategy to learn how to find trade and scholarly journal articles]

D. Once you have identified a research question or questions, ask yourself what you need to know to answer the questions. For example,

1. What new knowledge do I need to gain?

2. What has already been answered by prior research of other scholars?

E.  Use the answers to the questions in C. to identify what words  to use to describe the topic when you are doing searches.

1. Identify key words

a.  For example , if you are investigating "security audits in banking", key terms to combine in your searches would be: security, audits, banking.

2.  Create a list of alternative ways of referring to a key word or phrase

a.For example , "information assurance" may be referred to in various ways such as: "information assurance," "information security," and "computer security."

b. Use these alternatives when doing searches.

3. As you are searching, pay attention to how others are writing about the topic and add new words or phrases to your searches if appropriate.

2. Develop a strategy.

II. Develop a strategy for finding the information. 

A. Start by considering what types of source might contain the information you need .  Do you need a dictionary for definitions? a directory for an address? the history of a concept or technique that might be in a book or specialized encyclopedia? today's tech news in an online tech magazine or newspaper?  current research in a journal article? background information that might be in a specialized encyclopedia? data or statistics from a specific organization or website?  Note that you will typically have online access to these source types.

B. This section provides a description of some of the common types of information needed for research.  

1. For technical and business analysis , look for articles in technical and trade magazines . These articles are written by information technology professionals to help other IT professionals do their jobs better. Content might include news on new developments in hardware or software, techniques, tools, and practical advice. Technical journals are also likely to have product ads relevant to information technology workers and to have job ads. Examples iof technical magazines include Network Computing and IEEE Spectrum .

2. To read original research studies , look for articles in scholarly journals and conference proceedings . They will provide articles written by  information technology professionals who are reporting original research; that is, research that has been done by the authors and is being reported for the first time. The audience for original research articles is other information technology scholars and professionals. Examples of scholarly journals include Journal of Applied Security Research , Journal of Management Information Systems , IEEE Transactions on Computers , and ACM Transactions on Information and System Security .

3. For original research being reported to funding agencies , look for technical reports on agency websites. Technical reports are researcher reports to funding agencies about progress on or completion of research funded by the agency.

4. For in-depth, comprehensive information on a topic , look for book-length volumes . All chapters in the book might be written by the same author(s) or might be a collection of separate papers written by different authors.

5. To learn about an unfamiliar topic , use textbooks ,  specialized encyclopedias and handbooks to get get overviews of topics, history/background, and key issues explained.

6. For instructions for hardware, software, networking, etc., look for manuals  that provide step-by-step instructions.

7. For technical details about inventions (devices, instruments, machines), look for patent documents .

C.   NOTE -  In order to search for and find original research studies,  it will help if you  understand  how information is produced, packaged  and  communicated  within your profession. This is explained in the tab  "Research Communication: Graphic."

3. Locate the information.

III. Locate the information

A. Use search tools designed to find the sources you want.  Types of sources were described in section II. above. 

Always feel free to Ask a librarian for assistance when you have questions about where and how locate the information you need.

B. Evaluate the search results (no matter where you find the information)

1. Evaluate the items you find using at least these 5 criteria:

a. accuracy -- is the information reliable and error free?

1) Is there an editor or someone who verifies/checks the information?

2) Is there adequate documentation: bibliography, footnotes, credits?

3) Are the conclusions justified by the information presented?

b. authority -- is the source of the information reputable?

1) How did you find the source of information: an index to edited/peer-reviewed material, in a bibliography from a published article, etc.?

2) What type of source is it: sensationalistic, popular, scholarly?

c. objectivity -- does the information show bias?

1) What is the purpose of the information: to inform, persuade, explain, sway opinion, advertise?

2) Does the source show political or cultural biases?

d. currency -- is the information current? does it cover the time period you need?

e. coverage -- does it provide the evidence or information you need?

2. Is the search producing the material you need? -- the right content? the right quality? right time period? right geographical location? etc. If not, are you using

a. the right sources?

b. the right tools to get to the sources?

c. are you using the right words to describe the topic?

3. Have you discovered additional terms that should be searched? If so, search those terms.

4. Have you discovered additional questions you need to answer? If so, return to section A above to begin to answer new questions.

4. Use and evaluate the information.

IV. Use the information.

A. Read, hear or view the source

1. Evaluate: Does the material answer your question(s)? -- right content? If not, return to B.

2. Evaluate: Is the material appropriate? -- right quality? If not, return to B.

B. Extract the information from the source : copy/download information, take notes, record citation, keep track of items using a citation manager.

1. Note taking (these steps will help you when you begin to write your thesis and/or document your project.):

a. Write the keywords you use in your searches to avoid duplicating previous searches if you return to search a research database again. Keeping track of keywords used will also save you time if your search is interrupted or you need return and do the search again for some other reason. It will help you remember which search terms worked successfully in which databases

b. Write the citations or record the information needed to cite each article/document you plan to read and use, or make sure that any saved a copy of the article includes all the information needed to cite it. Some article pdf files may not include all of the information needed to cite, and it's a waste of your valuable time to have to go back to search and find the items again in order to be able to cite them. Using citation management software such as EndNote will help keep track of citations and help create bibliographies for your research papers.

c. Write a summary of each article you read and/or why you want to use it.

5. Synthesize.

V. Synthesize.

A. Organize and integrate information from multiple sources

B. Present the information (create report, speech, etc. that communicates)

C. Cite material using the style required by your professor or by the venue (conference, publication, etc.). For help with citation styles, see  Guide to Citing Sources .  A link to the citing guide is also available in the "Get Help" section on the left side of the Library home page

6. Evaluate your work.

VI. Evaluate the paper, speech, or whatever you are using to communicate your research.

A. Is it effective?

B. Does it meet the requirements?

C. Ask another student or colleague to provide constructive criticism of your paper/project.

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Writing Research Papers

  • Writing a Literature Review

When writing a research paper on a specific topic, you will often need to include an overview of any prior research that has been conducted on that topic.  For example, if your research paper is describing an experiment on fear conditioning, then you will probably need to provide an overview of prior research on fear conditioning.  That overview is typically known as a literature review.  

Please note that a full-length literature review article may be suitable for fulfilling the requirements for the Psychology B.S. Degree Research Paper .  For further details, please check with your faculty advisor.

Different Types of Literature Reviews

Literature reviews come in many forms.  They can be part of a research paper, for example as part of the Introduction section.  They can be one chapter of a doctoral dissertation.  Literature reviews can also “stand alone” as separate articles by themselves.  For instance, some journals such as Annual Review of Psychology , Psychological Bulletin , and others typically publish full-length review articles.  Similarly, in courses at UCSD, you may be asked to write a research paper that is itself a literature review (such as, with an instructor’s permission, in fulfillment of the B.S. Degree Research Paper requirement). Alternatively, you may be expected to include a literature review as part of a larger research paper (such as part of an Honors Thesis). 

Literature reviews can be written using a variety of different styles.  These may differ in the way prior research is reviewed as well as the way in which the literature review is organized.  Examples of stylistic variations in literature reviews include: 

  • Summarization of prior work vs. critical evaluation. In some cases, prior research is simply described and summarized; in other cases, the writer compares, contrasts, and may even critique prior research (for example, discusses their strengths and weaknesses).
  • Chronological vs. categorical and other types of organization. In some cases, the literature review begins with the oldest research and advances until it concludes with the latest research.  In other cases, research is discussed by category (such as in groupings of closely related studies) without regard for chronological order.  In yet other cases, research is discussed in terms of opposing views (such as when different research studies or researchers disagree with one another).

Overall, all literature reviews, whether they are written as a part of a larger work or as separate articles unto themselves, have a common feature: they do not present new research; rather, they provide an overview of prior research on a specific topic . 

How to Write a Literature Review

When writing a literature review, it can be helpful to rely on the following steps.  Please note that these procedures are not necessarily only for writing a literature review that becomes part of a larger article; they can also be used for writing a full-length article that is itself a literature review (although such reviews are typically more detailed and exhaustive; for more information please refer to the Further Resources section of this page).

Steps for Writing a Literature Review

1. Identify and define the topic that you will be reviewing.

The topic, which is commonly a research question (or problem) of some kind, needs to be identified and defined as clearly as possible.  You need to have an idea of what you will be reviewing in order to effectively search for references and to write a coherent summary of the research on it.  At this stage it can be helpful to write down a description of the research question, area, or topic that you will be reviewing, as well as to identify any keywords that you will be using to search for relevant research.

2. Conduct a literature search.

Use a range of keywords to search databases such as PsycINFO and any others that may contain relevant articles.  You should focus on peer-reviewed, scholarly articles.  Published books may also be helpful, but keep in mind that peer-reviewed articles are widely considered to be the “gold standard” of scientific research.  Read through titles and abstracts, select and obtain articles (that is, download, copy, or print them out), and save your searches as needed.  For more information about this step, please see the Using Databases and Finding Scholarly References section of this website.

3. Read through the research that you have found and take notes.

Absorb as much information as you can.  Read through the articles and books that you have found, and as you do, take notes.  The notes should include anything that will be helpful in advancing your own thinking about the topic and in helping you write the literature review (such as key points, ideas, or even page numbers that index key information).  Some references may turn out to be more helpful than others; you may notice patterns or striking contrasts between different sources ; and some sources may refer to yet other sources of potential interest.  This is often the most time-consuming part of the review process.  However, it is also where you get to learn about the topic in great detail.  For more details about taking notes, please see the “Reading Sources and Taking Notes” section of the Finding Scholarly References page of this website.

4. Organize your notes and thoughts; create an outline.

At this stage, you are close to writing the review itself.  However, it is often helpful to first reflect on all the reading that you have done.  What patterns stand out?  Do the different sources converge on a consensus?  Or not?  What unresolved questions still remain?  You should look over your notes (it may also be helpful to reorganize them), and as you do, to think about how you will present this research in your literature review.  Are you going to summarize or critically evaluate?  Are you going to use a chronological or other type of organizational structure?  It can also be helpful to create an outline of how your literature review will be structured.

5. Write the literature review itself and edit and revise as needed.

The final stage involves writing.  When writing, keep in mind that literature reviews are generally characterized by a summary style in which prior research is described sufficiently to explain critical findings but does not include a high level of detail (if readers want to learn about all the specific details of a study, then they can look up the references that you cite and read the original articles themselves).  However, the degree of emphasis that is given to individual studies may vary (more or less detail may be warranted depending on how critical or unique a given study was).   After you have written a first draft, you should read it carefully and then edit and revise as needed.  You may need to repeat this process more than once.  It may be helpful to have another person read through your draft(s) and provide feedback.

6. Incorporate the literature review into your research paper draft.

After the literature review is complete, you should incorporate it into your research paper (if you are writing the review as one component of a larger paper).  Depending on the stage at which your paper is at, this may involve merging your literature review into a partially complete Introduction section, writing the rest of the paper around the literature review, or other processes.

Further Tips for Writing a Literature Review

Full-length literature reviews

  • Many full-length literature review articles use a three-part structure: Introduction (where the topic is identified and any trends or major problems in the literature are introduced), Body (where the studies that comprise the literature on that topic are discussed), and Discussion or Conclusion (where major patterns and points are discussed and the general state of what is known about the topic is summarized)

Literature reviews as part of a larger paper

  • An “express method” of writing a literature review for a research paper is as follows: first, write a one paragraph description of each article that you read. Second, choose how you will order all the paragraphs and combine them in one document.  Third, add transitions between the paragraphs, as well as an introductory and concluding paragraph. 1
  • A literature review that is part of a larger research paper typically does not have to be exhaustive. Rather, it should contain most or all of the significant studies about a research topic but not tangential or loosely related ones. 2   Generally, literature reviews should be sufficient for the reader to understand the major issues and key findings about a research topic.  You may however need to confer with your instructor or editor to determine how comprehensive you need to be.

Benefits of Literature Reviews

By summarizing prior research on a topic, literature reviews have multiple benefits.  These include:

  • Literature reviews help readers understand what is known about a topic without having to find and read through multiple sources.
  • Literature reviews help “set the stage” for later reading about new research on a given topic (such as if they are placed in the Introduction of a larger research paper). In other words, they provide helpful background and context.
  • Literature reviews can also help the writer learn about a given topic while in the process of preparing the review itself. In the act of research and writing the literature review, the writer gains expertise on the topic .

Downloadable Resources

  • How to Write APA Style Research Papers (a comprehensive guide) [ PDF ]
  • Tips for Writing APA Style Research Papers (a brief summary) [ PDF ]
  • Example APA Style Research Paper (for B.S. Degree – literature review) [ PDF ]

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

  • Writing Research Paper Videos
  • UCSD Library Psychology Research Guide: Literature Reviews

External Resources

  • Developing and Writing a Literature Review from N Carolina A&T State University
  • Example of a Short Literature Review from York College CUNY
  • How to Write a Review of Literature from UW-Madison
  • Writing a Literature Review from UC Santa Cruz  
  • Pautasso, M. (2013). Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review. PLoS Computational Biology, 9 (7), e1003149. doi : 1371/journal.pcbi.1003149

1 Ashton, W. Writing a short literature review . [PDF]     

2 carver, l. (2014).  writing the research paper [workshop]. , prepared by s. c. pan for ucsd psychology.

Back to top

  • Research Paper Structure
  • Formatting Research Papers
  • Using Databases and Finding References
  • What Types of References Are Appropriate?
  • Evaluating References and Taking Notes
  • Citing References
  • Writing Process and Revising
  • Improving Scientific Writing
  • Academic Integrity and Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Writing Research Papers Videos


How to write a Literature Review: Literature review process

  • Literature review process
  • Purpose of a literature review
  • Evaluating sources
  • Managing sources
  • Request a literature search
  • Selecting the approach to use
  • Quantitative vs qualitative method
  • Summary of different research methodologies
  • Research design vs research methodology
  • Diagram: importance of research
  • Attributes of a good research scholar

Step 1: Select a topic

  • Select a topic you can manage in the time frame you have to complete your project.
  • Establish your research questions and organize your literature into logical categories around the subject/ topic areas of your questions.  Your research questions must be specific enou gh to guide you to the relevant literature.
  • Make sure you understand the concept of ‘broader’ and ‘narrower’ terms.  The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the literature.

Step 2: Identify the most relevant sources on your topic

Use a variety of resources - locate books , journals , and documents that contain useful information and ideas on your topic. Internet sites , theses & dissertations , conference papers , ePrints and government or industry reports can also be included. Do not rely solely on electronic full-text material which is more easily available. Reference sources such as dictionaries can assist in defining terminology, and encyclopaedias may provide useful introductions to your topic by experts in the field and will list key references.

Step 3 : Search and refine

  • Unisa has a number of databases that provide full text access to articles, that allow you to refine your search to ‘peer reviewed’ journals.  These are scholarly journals which go through a rigorous process of quality assessment by several researchers or subject specialists in the academic community before they are accepted for publication. 
  • Use the And, Or, Not operators, Wildcards and Logical Brackets when searching in the databases.  For instance, you can use And to narrow your search while the operator OR expands your search.  Not, on the other hand, helps to exclude irrelevant information from your search results.  Please click here for more information on searching.

Literature review process - an overview

Step 3: search and refine.

  • Unisa has a number of  databases  that provide full text access to articles, that allow you to refine your search to ‘peer reviewed’ journals.  These are scholarly journals which go through a rigorous process of quality assessment by several researchers or subject specialists in the academic community before they are accepted for publication. 
  • Use the  And, Or, Not  operators,  Wildcards  and  Logical Brackets  when searching in the databases.  For instance, you can use  And  to narrow your search while  the  operator  OR  expands your search.   Not,  on the other hand,   helps to exclude   irrelevant information from your search results.  Please click  here  for more information on searching.

How do I write a literature review

See the chapter below for a helpful overview of the literature review process, especially the sections on how to analyse the literature you have gathered and how to write up your literature review:

Literature Reviews and Bibliographic Searches. 2006. In V. Desai, & R. Potter (Eds.),  Doing Development Research.  (pp. 209-222). London, England: SAGE Publications, Ltd. Available at:     (A student will be prompted at some stage for his/ her student number and myUnisa password. A staff member will be prompted at some stage for his/ her Unisa Network username and login password).

This book is available in the  Sage Research Methods Online  database.

Step 4: Read and analyse

Group the sources into the  themes  and  sub-themes  of your topic.  As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider what themes or issues connect your sources together.

  • Do they present one or different solutions?
  • Is there an aspect of the field that is missing?
  • How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory?
  • Do they reveal a trend in the field?
  • A raging debate?
  • Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.

Step 5: Write the literature review

You can organize the review in many ways; for example, you can center the review  historically  (how the topic has been dealt with over time); or center it on the  theoretical positions  surrounding your topic (those for a position vs. those against, for example); or you can focus on how each of your sources contributes to your understanding of your project.

Your literature review should include:

  • an  introduction  which explains how your review is organized.
  • a  body  which contains the  headings  and  subheadings  that provide a map to show the various perspectives of your argument. In other words the body contains the evaluation of the materials you want to include on your topic.
  • a  summary .

Some of the information on this page is indebted to the sources below:

Caldwell College Library

Monmouth University Library

University of Cape Town Libraries

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Literature Reviews: Getting Started: The 5 Steps

  • Introduction
  • Getting Started: The 5 Steps
  • Searching for Literature
  • Advanced Searching Tips This link opens in a new window
  • Organising Your Research
  • Writing the Literature Review
  • Example Reviews & Useful Books
  • Research Tools
  • Library 101 This link opens in a new window

These are the steps which you should follow to complete your literature review. 

lightbulb icon with the words "quick tip"

Evaluating sources

It is important to make sure that the sources you're using are good quality, academic-appropriate sources.  You need to read critically when searching for literature. 

Evaluate the sources for their credibility. How have they arrived at their conclusions? Are there any conflicting theories or findings? Is the publisher reputable? Reading at this critical level will help you decide whether a publication should or should not be included in your literature review.

Author credentials

Examine how the contributors are affiliated. Are the researchers connected to a university, a research lab or a pharmaceutical company? Are the authors considered credible in their field? Are they promoting special interests?

Relevance and scope

Make sure the publications you include in your literature review are relevant and within the scope of your topic, in terms of theoretical argument, research methodology, timeframe and currency.


How well is the study designed? Do you see any room for improvement? Do similar studies come to the same conclusion? Have the authors explored the topic from different points of view, or do they rely on a more one-sided argument?

Click HERE to see our help guide on evaluating information you find online. 

Feedback Poll

We would love feedback if this page was useful to you! If you have additional questions please reach out to us and we can try our best to help.

Step 1: Decide on your research question

The very first step in a literature review is deciding what it is you will be researching. Your research question defines the entirety of your final piece of work, including the literature review. It should focus on something from the research field that needs to be explored, where there are gaps in the information. This will ensure that your contribution is valuable and that you are providing readers with a different angle or perspective on an issue or problem.

Remember, a literature review is not a collection of vaguely related studies, but instead it represents background and research developments related to your specific research question - analysed, interpreted, and synthesised by you.  

For this reason it is important to hit on the right research question. 

Ask yourself: 

  • Is it too broad? Is it too narrow? For example, a research question like “why are social networking sites harmful?” is too broad; there will be too much information to write a concise literature review. Change it to “how are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on Twitter and Facebook?" and it is more specific. It gives you a niche within the research field to focus on and explore.
  • Has it been used as a research question by someone else before?
  • Have you discussed it with your lecturer? They can guide you if your question isn't quite right yet. 

Step 2: Decide how broad or narrow your scope will be

You need to decide how broadly or narrowly you are going to search for literature. This will depend on a few factors: what your research question or topic is, what your lecturer says, and how well written on the topic is. 

Remember, the goal is not to examine everything that's ever been written on  your topic. To avoid your search results being too numerous, you should narrow down your scope by thinking of the following factors:

  • How many years should your search cover?
  • How comprehensive should it be? Will it cover every facet of a topic or focus on one area?
  • Are there criteria by which you can narrow down the topic? For example, by age, by gender, by location, by methodology (e.g qualitative or quantitative research, case studies), by theoretical framework, etc.?

Here are some examples of topics and searches that are too braod, and more narrow approaches you could take: 

You can also narrow the scope of your search by utilising advanced search techniques, and using filters to eliminate irrelevant search results. You can find more information on both of these  HERE

Step 3: Decide where you will search

It is important to select the right databases in which to conduct your search. Rather than searching generally across all the library databases, some of which may not have anything to do with your topic, it would be more efficient to go to databases which are more closely aligned with your topic.

You can see IADT Library's list of databases  here . 

Ask your lecturer which databases they think you should search.

For information on how to use our databases, click HERE .

Step 4: Conduct your search

Searching for the literature is one of the steps which can take the most time. Take your time to be thorough and methodical. One of the best things you can do is keep track of your searches. The software we recommend to do this is Zotero . Zotero is a tool which allows you to save sources and citations, including taking notes about them as you read them, which will save you lots of time down the road when you come to analysing these sources. You can read all about Zotero here .

Tips to finding relevant literature
  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. An abstract is a comprehensive summary of what the article is about. This will save you time because you can quickly see if the article is relevant to you or not. 
  • Document the searches you conduct in each database so that you can duplicate them if you need to later (or avoid dead-end searches that you'd forgotten you'd already tried).
  • Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.  You can also use citation tracking to see who has used a piece of work in their own research and how they've built on this.
  • Note what key words are used by authors, usually in their abstracts and search for those. Sometimes having the right vocabulary for the topic can help you find many more sources you might have missed otherwise.
  • Ask your lecturer if you are missing any key works in the field.

What about searching Google? Googling your topic can bring up hundreds of thousands of hits, but rarely will the sources from a Google search be appropriate to use in an academic assignment like a literature review. For a literature review, the sources need to be academically authoritative - for example, academic books, journals, research reports, government publications. Using non-scholarly or non-authoritative sources in your literature review will likely result in a poor grade. 

Step 5: Review the literature

This step is the output that you will be graded on in the end. 

Here are some questions to help you analyse the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover or argue?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyse its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions. Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited?; if so, how has it been analysed by others?
  • Has your topic been written about very rarely? If so, why do you think that is? What  has  been written that's close to the topic?


  • Again, review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.

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Literature Review: Conducting & Writing

  • Steps for Conducting a Lit Review

1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.

2. decide on the scope of your review., 3. select the databases you will use to conduct your searches., 4. conduct your searches and find the literature. keep track of your searches, 5. review the literature..

  • Finding "The Literature"
  • Organizing/Writing
  • Chicago: Notes Bibliography
  • Sample Literature Reviews


Conducting a literature review is usually recursive, meaning that somewhere along the way, you'll find yourself repeating steps out-of-order.

That is actually a good sign.  

Reviewing the research should lead to more research questions and those questions will likely lead you to either revise your initial research question or go back and find more literature related to a more specific aspect of your research question.

Your literature review should be guided by a central research question.  Remember, it is not a collection of loosely related studies in a field but instead represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, interpreted and analyzed by you in a synthesized way.

  • Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow.  Is it manageable?
  • Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.
  • If you have the opportunity, discuss your topic with your professor.

How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover? 

Tip: This may depend on your assignment.  How many sources does the assignment require?

Make a list of the databases you will search.  Remember to include comprehensive databases such as WorldCat and Dissertations & Theses, if you need to.

Where to find databases:

  • Find Databases by Subject UWF Databases categorized by discipline
  • Find Databases via Research Guides Librarians create research guides for all of the disciplines on campus! Take advantage of their expertise and see what discipline-specific search strategies they recommend!
  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.
  • Write down the searches you conduct in each database so that you may duplicate them if you need to later (or avoid dead-end searches   that you'd forgotten you'd already tried).
  • Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.
  • Ask your professor or a scholar in the field if you are missing any key works in the field.
  • Use RefWorks to keep track of your research citations. See the RefWorks Tutorial if you need help.

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions. Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited?; if so, how has it been analyzed?


  • Again, review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.
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A complete guide on how to write a literature review

Deeptanshu D

Table of Contents

A literature review is much more than just another section in your research paper. It forms the very foundation of your research. It is a formal piece of writing where you analyze the existing theoretical framework, principles, and assumptions and use that as a base to shape your approach to the research question.

Curating and drafting a solid literature review section not only lends more credibility to your research paper but also makes your research tighter and better focused. But, writing literature reviews is a difficult task. It requires extensive reading, plus you have to consider market trends and technological and political changes, which tend to change in the blink of an eye.

Now streamline your literature review process with the help of SciSpace Copilot. With this AI research assistant, you can efficiently synthesize and analyze a vast amount of information, identify key themes and trends, and uncover gaps in the existing research. Get real-time explanations, summaries, and answers to your questions for the paper you're reviewing, making navigating and understanding the complex literature landscape easier.

Perform Literature reviews using SciSpace Copilot

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore everything from the definition of a literature review, its appropriate length, various types of literature reviews, and how to write one.

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a collation of survey, research, critical evaluation, and assessment of the existing literature in a preferred domain.

Eminent researcher and academic Arlene Fink, in her book Conducting Research Literature Reviews , defines it as the following:

“A literature review surveys books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated.

Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic, and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within a larger field of study.”

Simply put, a literature review can be defined as a critical discussion of relevant pre-existing research around your research question and carving out a definitive place for your study in the existing body of knowledge. Literature reviews can be presented in multiple ways: a section of an article, the whole research paper itself, or a chapter of your thesis.

A literature review paper

A literature review does function as a summary of sources, but it also allows you to analyze further, interpret, and examine the stated theories, methods, viewpoints, and, of course, the gaps in the existing content.

As an author, you can discuss and interpret the research question and its various aspects and debate your adopted methods to support the claim.

What is the purpose of a literature review?

A literature review is meant to help your readers understand the relevance of your research question and where it fits within the existing body of knowledge. As a researcher, you should use it to set the context, build your argument, and establish the need for your study.

What is the importance of a literature review?

The literature review is a critical part of research papers because it helps you:

  • Gain an in-depth understanding of your research question and the surrounding area
  • Convey that you have a thorough understanding of your research area and are up-to-date with the latest changes and advancements
  • Establish how your research is connected or builds on the existing body of knowledge and how it could contribute to further research
  • Elaborate on the validity and suitability of your theoretical framework and research methodology
  • Identify and highlight gaps and shortcomings in the existing body of knowledge and how things need to change
  • Convey to readers how your study is different or how it contributes to the research area

How long should a literature review be?

Ideally, the literature review should take up 15%-40% of the total length of your manuscript. So, if you have a 10,000-word research paper, the minimum word count could be 1500.

Your literature review format depends heavily on the kind of manuscript you are writing — an entire chapter in case of doctoral theses, a part of the introductory section in a research article, to a full-fledged review article that examines the previously published research on a topic.

Another determining factor is the type of research you are doing. The literature review section tends to be longer for secondary research projects than primary research projects.

What are the different types of literature reviews?

All literature reviews are not the same. There are a variety of possible approaches that you can take. It all depends on the type of research you are pursuing.

Here are the different types of literature reviews:

Argumentative review

It is called an argumentative review when you carefully present literature that only supports or counters a specific argument or premise to establish a viewpoint.

Integrative review

It is a type of literature review focused on building a comprehensive understanding of a topic by combining available theoretical frameworks and empirical evidence.

Methodological review

This approach delves into the ''how'' and the ''what" of the research question —  you cannot look at the outcome in isolation; you should also review the methodology used.

Systematic review

This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research and collect, report, and analyze data from the studies included in the review.

Meta-analysis review

Meta-analysis uses statistical methods to summarize the results of independent studies. By combining information from all relevant studies, meta-analysis can provide more precise estimates of the effects than those derived from the individual studies included within a review.

Historical review

Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, or phenomenon emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and identify future research's likely directions.

Theoretical Review

This form aims to examine the corpus of theory accumulated regarding an issue, concept, theory, and phenomenon. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories exist, the relationships between them, the degree the existing approaches have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested.

Scoping Review

The Scoping Review is often used at the beginning of an article, dissertation, or research proposal. It is conducted before the research to highlight gaps in the existing body of knowledge and explains why the project should be greenlit.

State-of-the-Art Review

The State-of-the-Art review is conducted periodically, focusing on the most recent research. It describes what is currently known, understood, or agreed upon regarding the research topic and highlights where there are still disagreements.

Can you use the first person in a literature review?

When writing literature reviews, you should avoid the usage of first-person pronouns. It means that instead of "I argue that" or "we argue that," the appropriate expression would be "this research paper argues that."

Do you need an abstract for a literature review?

Ideally, yes. It is always good to have a condensed summary that is self-contained and independent of the rest of your review. As for how to draft one, you can follow the same fundamental idea when preparing an abstract for a literature review. It should also include:

  • The research topic and your motivation behind selecting it
  • A one-sentence thesis statement
  • An explanation of the kinds of literature featured in the review
  • Summary of what you've learned
  • Conclusions you drew from the literature you reviewed
  • Potential implications and future scope for research

Abstract of a literature review

Is a literature review written in the past tense?

Yes, the literature review should ideally be written in the past tense. You should not use the present or future tense when writing one. The exceptions are when you have statements describing events that happened earlier than the literature you are reviewing or events that are currently occurring; then, you can use the past perfect or present perfect tenses.

How many sources for a literature review?

There are multiple approaches to deciding how many sources to include in a literature review section. The first approach would be to look level you are at as a researcher. For instance, a doctoral thesis might need 60+ sources. In contrast, you might only need to refer to 5-15 sources at the undergraduate level.

The second approach is based on the kind of literature review you are doing — whether it is merely a chapter of your paper or if it is a self-contained paper in itself. When it is just a chapter, sources should equal the total number of pages in your article's body. In the second scenario, you need at least three times as many sources as there are pages in your work.

Six quick tips on how to write a literature review

To know how to write a literature review, you must clearly understand its impact and role in establishing your work as substantive research material.

You need to follow the below-mentioned steps, to write a literature review:

  • Outline the purpose behind the literature review
  • Search relevant literature
  • Examine and assess the relevant resources
  • Discover connections by drawing deep insights from the resources
  • Structure planning
  • Write a good literature review

1. Outline and identify the purpose of  a literature review

As a first step on how to write a literature review, you must know what the research question or topic is and what shape you want your literature review to take. Ensure you understand the research topic inside out, or else seek clarifications. You must be able to the answer below questions before you start:

  • How many sources do I need to include?
  • What kind of sources should I analyze?
  • How much should I critically evaluate each source?
  • Should I summarize, synthesize or offer a critique of the sources?
  • Do I need to include any background information or definitions?

Additionally, you should know that the narrower your research topic is, the swifter it will be for you to restrict the number of sources to be analyzed.

2. Search relevant literature

Dig deeper into search engines to discover what has already been published around your chosen topic. Make sure you thoroughly go through appropriate reference sources like books, reports, journal articles, government docs, and web-based resources.

You must prepare a list of keywords and their different variations. You can start your search from any library’s catalog, provided you are an active member of that institution. The exact keywords can be extended to widen your research over other databases and academic search engines like:

  • Google Scholar
  • Microsoft Academic

Besides, it is not advisable to go through every resource word by word. Alternatively, what you can do is you can start by reading the abstract and then decide whether that source is relevant to your research or not.

Additionally, you must spend surplus time assessing the quality and relevance of resources. It would help if you tried preparing a list of citations to ensure that there lies no repetition of authors, publications, or articles in the literature review.

3. Examine and assess the sources

It is nearly impossible for you to go through every detail in the research article. So rather than trying to fetch every detail, you have to analyze and decide which research sources resemble closest and appear relevant to your chosen domain.

While analyzing the sources, you should look to find out answers to questions like:

  • What question or problem has the author been describing and debating?
  • What is the definition of critical aspects?
  • How well the theories, approach, and methodology have been explained?
  • Whether the research theory used some conventional or new innovative approach?
  • How relevant are the key findings of the work?
  • In what ways does it relate to other sources on the same topic?
  • What challenges does this research paper pose to the existing theory
  • What are the possible contributions or benefits it adds to the subject domain?

Be always mindful that you refer only to credible and authentic resources. It would be best if you always take references from different publications to validate your theory.

Always keep track of important information or data you can present in your literature review right from the beginning. It will help steer your path from any threats of plagiarism and also make it easier to curate an annotated bibliography or reference section.

4. Discover connections

At this stage, you must start deciding on the argument and structure of your literature review. To accomplish this, you must discover and identify the relations and connections between various resources while drafting your abstract.

A few aspects that you should be aware of while writing a literature review include:

  • Rise to prominence: Theories and methods that have gained reputation and supporters over time.
  • Constant scrutiny: Concepts or theories that repeatedly went under examination.
  • Contradictions and conflicts: Theories, both the supporting and the contradictory ones, for the research topic.
  • Knowledge gaps: What exactly does it fail to address, and how to bridge them with further research?
  • Influential resources: Significant research projects available that have been upheld as milestones or perhaps, something that can modify the current trends

Once you join the dots between various past research works, it will be easier for you to draw a conclusion and identify your contribution to the existing knowledge base.

5. Structure planning for a literature review

There exist different ways towards planning and executing the structure of a literature review. The format of a literature review varies and depends upon the length of the research.

Nevertheless, a good literature review can be structured according to the chronological, thematic, methodological, or theoretical framework approach.

a) Chronological

The chronological approach to building the structure of a literature review has been described as one of the most straightforward approaches. However, do not just make a list or summarize the reference resources. Instead, try to put in a brief discussion and analysis of the critical arguments, research, and trends that have shaped the current status of your subject domain. Additionally, you must provide an interpretation of these events in your curated version.

b) Thematic

The format of a literature review is structured in sections and sub-sections. Every part stays dedicated to presenting a different aspect of your chosen topic. Unlike the chronological approach, the primary focus here is on a topic or issue instead of the progression of certain events.

c) Methodological

You can present your structure in a form by showing a comparison between crucial findings, gatherings, and outcomes from different research methods. These portions may include drawing insights and analysis of:

  • Gatherings extracted from qualitative vs. quantitative methods.
  • Leveraging the empirical and theoretical methods to validate your key findings and results.
  • Classification of resources based upon the context of history, culture, and economy.

d) Theoretical

Literature reviews are often used to discuss and analyze vital concepts and theories. Adopting this approach, you can significantly put forth the relevance and critical findings of a particular theoretical method. Proceeding in the same way, you can also outline an entirely new research framework.

6. Write a good literature review

Like any other research paper, the literature review format must contain three sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. The goals and objectives of the research question determine what goes inside these three sections.

a) Introduction for a good literature review

Since it happens to be the first paragraph, you must include and define its purpose and critical aspects.

If you are writing the literature review for your thesis or dissertation, you should restate the research question. Likewise, you can even go towards presenting a summary of the whole context and highlighting the gaps existing within.

Besides, if you are writing the literature review as a separate assignment, you must choose to provide a piece of background information. Additionally, you must state its scope and objectives. However, in any case, do not skip mentioning results that you intend to draw from the literature.

b) Body of the literature review

To write a good literature review, the format and structure of the central body part play a pivotal role. Thus, you must use sections and subsections to divide the body for each methodological approach or theme aspect.

While writing the literature review, you can choose to adopt either or all of the following measures:

  • A general overview or summary must be provided, focusing on the critical points of each source and coherent sync among all the references.
  • It would be best to put your interpretations towards every source you opted to include. Paraphrasing others' work is something you should avoid altogether.
  • Justify and validate your results per your research.
  • Be specific about the strengths and weaknesses of specified sources.
  • Transitions and topic sentences can be advantageous while writing nicely oriented body paragraphs.

c) Conclusion of the literature review

The conclusion of your literature review must be focused on your key findings, their results, and an elaborated emphasis on the significance of all aspects.

Describing the research gaps and your contributions can be helpful in case you are writing for a dissertation or thesis. Moreover, you must specify the procedure and research methodology for developing the framework for your research topic.

Additionally, if the literature review is a standalone assignment for you, present the conclusion centered on the implications and suggestions for future references.

Lastly, you must ensure that your research paper does not miss any critical aspects and must not contain any grammatical or spelling mistakes. For this, you must proofread and edit it to perfection.

Sample literature reviews

1. Standalone

Standalone literature review

2. As a section of a research paper

Literature review as a chapter/section

How SciSpace Discover makes literature review a breeze?

SciSpace Discover is a one-stop solution to do an effective literature search and get barrier-free access to scientific knowledge. It is an excellent repository where you can find millions of only peer-reviewed articles and full-text PDF files. Here’s more on how you can use it:

Find the right information

SciSpace helps you find the right information with best-in-class filters and sort options

Find what you want quickly and easily with comprehensive search filters that let you narrow down papers according to PDF availability, year of publishing, document type, and affiliated institution. Moreover, you can sort the results based on the publishing date, citation count, and relevance.

Assess credibility of papers quickly

SciSpace helps you assess the credibility of research papers by showcasing citation count and H-index

When doing the literature review, it is critical to establish the quality of your sources. They form the foundation of your research. SciSpace Discover helps you assess the quality of a source by providing an overview of its references, citations, and performance metrics.

Get the complete picture in no time

SciSpace's personalized recommendation engine

SciSpace Discover’s personalized suggestion engine helps you stay on course and get the complete picture of the topic from one place. Every time you visit an article page, it provides you links to related papers. Besides that, it helps you understand what’s trending, who are the top authors, and who are the leading publishers on a topic.

Make referring sources super easy

Make referring papers super-easy

To ensure you don't lose track of your sources, you must start noting down your references when doing the literature review. SciSpace Discover makes this step effortless. Click the 'cite' button on an article page, and you will receive preloaded citation text in multiple styles — all you've to do is copy-paste it into your manuscript.

Final tips on how to write a literature review

A massive chunk of time and effort is required to write a good literature review. But, if you go about it systematically, you'll be able to save a ton of time and build a solid foundation for your research.

We hope this guide has helped you answer several key questions you have about writing literature reviews.

Would you like to explore SciSpace Discover and kick off your literature search right away? You can get started here .

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. what is a literature review.

A literature review is a critical assessment of the existing research on a given topic. It synthesizes the research on a topic by examining the results of related studies and identifying gaps, contradictions, or areas for improvement in the current knowledge base.

2. How to write a literature review?

• Outline the purpose behind the literature review

• Search relevant literature

• Examine and assess the relevant resources

• Discover connections by drawing deep insights from the resources

• Structure planning

• Write a good literature review

3. What is the purpose of a literature review?

The purpose of a literature review is to share information about a topic that has been written about by others. The review summarizes the work that has been done on the topic, identifies gaps in the literature, and relates how this work fits into a larger body of knowledge that includes previous research.

4. How long should a literature review be?

5. how to start a literature review.

• What questions do you want to answer?

• What sources do you need to answer these questions?

• What information do these sources contain?

• How can you use this information to answer your questions?

6. What to include in a literature review?

• A brief background of the problem or issue

• What has previously been done to address the problem or issue

• A description of what you will do in your project

• How this study will contribute to research on the subject

7. Why literature review is important?

The literature review is an important part of any research project because it allows the writer to look at previous studies on a topic and determine existing gaps in the literature, as well as what has already been done. It will also help them to choose the most appropriate method for their own study.

8. How to cite a literature review in APA format?

To cite a literature review in APA style, you need to provide the author's name, the title of the article, and the year of publication. For example: Patel, A. B., & Stokes, G. S. (2012). The relationship between personality and intelligence: A meta-analysis of longitudinal research. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(1), 16-21

9. What are the components of a literature review?

• A brief introduction to the topic, including its background and context. The introduction should also include a rationale for why the study is being conducted and what it will accomplish.

• A description of the methodologies used in the study. This can include information about data collection methods, sample size, and statistical analyses.

• A presentation of the findings in an organized format that helps readers follow along with the author's conclusions.

10. What are common errors in writing literature review?

• Not spending enough time to critically evaluate the relevance of resources, observations and conclusions.

• Totally relying on secondary data while ignoring primary data.

• Letting your personal bias seep into your interpretation of existing literature.

• No detailed explanation of the procedure to discover and identify an appropriate literature review.

11. What are the 5 C's of writing literature review?

• Cite - the sources you utilized and referenced in your research.

• Compare - existing arguments, hypotheses, methodologies, and conclusions found in the knowledge base.

• Contrast - the arguments, topics, methodologies, approaches, and disputes that may be found in the literature.

• Critique - the literature and describe the ideas and opinions you find more convincing and why.

• Connect - the various studies you reviewed in your research.

12. How many sources should a literature review have?

When it is just a chapter, sources should equal the total number of pages in your article's body. if it is a self-contained paper in itself, you need at least three times as many sources as there are pages in your work.

13. Can literature review have diagrams?

• To represent an abstract idea or concept

• To explain the steps of a process or procedure

• To help readers understand the relationships between different concepts

14. How old should sources be in a literature review?

Sources for a literature review should be as current as possible or not older than ten years. The only exception to this rule is if you are reviewing a historical topic and need to use older sources.

15. What are the types of literature review?

• Argumentative review

• Integrative review

• Methodological review

• Systematic review

• Meta-analysis review

• Historical review

• Theoretical review

• Scoping review

• State-of-the-Art review

16. Is a literature review mandatory?

Yes. Literature review is a mandatory part of any research project. It is a critical step in the process that allows you to establish the scope of your research, and provide a background for the rest of your work.

But before you go,

  • Six Online Tools for Easy Literature Review
  • Evaluating literature review: systematic vs. scoping reviews
  • Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review
  • Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples

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