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Literature Review

Don't be mistaken! A literature review is not the same as a book review, nor is it entirely based upon the subject of literature. In fact, it's all about reviewing academic work, and it can cover any subject. While this may sound complex, once it's broken down, the literature review can be an interesting, satisfying way to research a topic in depth. Let's define the term and explore what contributes to a successful literature review.

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Literature Review

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Don't be mistaken! A literature review is not the same as a book review, nor is it entirely based upon the subject of literature. In fact, it's all about reviewing academic work, and it can cover any subject. While this may sound complex, once it's broken down, the literature review can be an interesting, satisfying way to research a topic in depth. Let's define the term and explore what contributes to a successful literature review.

Literature review definition

A literature review is defined as:

A piece of academic writing overviewing the work already published on a selected topic. It is usually placed at the beginning of an essay.

This compilation of scholarly material helps the writer and reader better understand key concepts, controversies, and debates surrounding a chosen subject.

Types of literature review

Although there are many variations of the literature review, let's look at some key variations.

Literature review, a book shop with hundreds of full bookshelves and a blackboard that reads so many books so little time, StudySmarterFig. 1 – A shop chock-full of books.

Narrative literature review

A narrative (also known as traditional) literature review is the most common type of literature review and is a comprehensive yet often generalised analysis of academia on a topic. Conclusions are drawn from a selected range of literature to attempt to answer a particular question. They are prone to bias, as some researchers may pick articles that best suit their argument without considering alternatives.

Narrative reviews usually take place in under four weeks and tend to succeed when the topic of choice is specific and limited interpretations are available.

Scoping literature review

A scoping literature review aims to synthesise evidence existing across a wide field and assess the range of a topic.

This is the perfect choice when there are unclear research questions, and it is necessary to explore an extensive subject. A 'scoping' search can be employed to help determine which questions need to be asked and what the next steps are.

This review typically takes many months to complete and can be a good starting point for a more focused 'systematic review'.

Systematic literature review

A systematic literature review meticulously covers all bases. Unlike the scoping review, a clear question is set out from the very beginning, and there is an effort to locate every single piece of relevant academic information that could impact the answer. Each scholarly article is questioned to a high standard, and every aspect of the methodology is transparent and reproducible.

Systematic literature reviews are typically free from bias but take a significant amount of time to complete, even up to several years!

Components of a literature review

Let's look at some of the key components of a quality literature review.

Providing insight into the scope of your topic

By summarising your research aims and establishing your point of view, the literature review should help define your topic, both for you and your reader. It is important to help the reader understand how far the scope of your topic extends.

If your research centres on the theme of marriage in romance novels, are you covering all romance novels or narrowing it down to a specific period, author and/or movement?

Assessing content for strengths and weaknesses

One of the most critical components of a literature review is to gather relevant academic material whilst also considering the value of each argument encountered. Which works of literature are making a key contribution to the debate on the topic, and which works aren't?

In writing a literature review, it's crucial to review the literature that is being compiled, not just acknowledge it. The goal is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of different arguments and to begin to take a stance concerning key debates. In this way, a correctly completed literature review will allow a better understanding of further questions that need to be asked and the direction an overall argument will take.

For example, if the chosen topic was 'the distribution of power in Shakespeare's Macbeth (1623)', some academics would claim that Macbeth was in control of his fate, while others would argue that Lady Macbeth held all the power. The goal would be to assess the value of each argument, begin to comprehend the scope of the topic and understand what further questions could be asked to justify a chosen viewpoint.

Identifying academic gaps

Another important component of a literature review is to identify crucial gaps that haven't been covered on a topic. It is these gaps that regularly form the basis of research questions. For this reason, literature reviews are often one of the first tasks completed when beginning a new project.

A research question is an enquiry that an academic investigation seeks to answer.

Contextualising your study

Identifying unknown areas within a chosen topic helps put your work into context alongside existing scholarly material.

This means that readers can understand the importance of your essay and answer key questions: what gaps will it fill, how will it contribute to a debate, and how will it interact with other available academic material?

Literature review structure

Now that we understand everything about the literature review let's look at how to structure one.

Introduction

Your introduction should provide an overview of your topic and the reasons you are conducting your literature review. It should also help the reader to understand how you have organised your review and the scope of your investigation.

What have you included, what haven't you, and why is this the case?

Body

The body of your work should feature all of the academic literature that you have chosen to research. It should present this in an organised way. Two of the most common methods of organisation are chronological and thematic.

Chronological ordering means ordering your work by the date it was published, from the earliest literature to the most recent developments. This makes it easy to discuss how theories have developed over time in your chosen subject.

Thematic ordering means categorising your work into groups based on themes, allowing you to see common patterns between texts.

The body should assess the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of work and aim to tie the wider contexts into the specific areas of your research.

For example, comparing the presentation of marriage in Jane Austen's Emma (1815) to the presentation of marriage across all similar texts in Regency England.

Conclusion

A successful conclusion should summarise the most important patterns, discussions and debates that have arisen from your research.

It is important to come to offer an evaluation of the overall state of the topic, including any gaps in the existing body of work. This will allow you to propose areas where further research is necessary.

Literature review dissertation

Creating a literature review is a crucial aspect of any university dissertation. It shows your tutor that you have an advanced understanding of the relevant material surrounding your area of research. It also helps you narrow down your argument, leading to a more concise, focused essay.

As time is limited during the dissertation process, you will need to be selective of the academia you review. Therefore, it's crucial to choose a balanced selection of materials. Try and find a wide selection of books, articles and academic journals that propose different theories to avoid bias.

Literature Review - Key takeaways

  • A literature review is a piece of writing that reviews the existing body of work already available on a topic.
  • It is important to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of academia reviewed.
  • The literature review allows you to find gaps in your chosen subject and narrow down your research questions.
  • Three of the main types of literature review are narrative/traditional, scoping, and systematic.
  • A literature view is written like a traditional essay, broken up into an introduction, body, and conclusion.

Frequently Asked Questions about Literature Review

A literature review is a piece of academic writing that overviews the work that has already been published on a selected topic.

To write a literature review, pick a wide range of material related to your topic, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and document the key controversies and debates surrounding your chosen subject.

As time is limited when writing a dissertation, it's important to select sources proposing a wide range of theories and arguments to avoid bias.

A literature view can be written like a traditional essay, and split up into an introduction, body and conclusion.

The purpose of a literature review is to provide insight into the scope of your topic, assess the value of each piece of academic writing reviewed, and contextualise your study in relation to the existing body of work available on the subject.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Identify the correct type of literature review using the following bullet points - The most common type of literature review.A comprehensive, yet often generalised, analysis of academia on a topic.Conclusions are drawn from a selected range of literature to attempt to answer a particular question.

Identify the correct type of literature review using the following bullet points - A clear question is set out from the very beginning.Effort is made to locate every single piece of relevant academic information that could impact the answer. Each scholarly article is questioned to a high standard.Every aspect of the methodology is transparent and reproducible.  

Identify the correct type of literature review using the following bullet points - Aims to synthesize evidence existing across a wide field and assess the range of a topic. The research question is unclear.It takes many months to complete.

Next

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a piece of academic writing that overviews the work that has already been published on a selected topic.

Identify the correct type of literature review using the following bullet points - 

  1. The most common type of literature review.
  2. A comprehensive, yet often generalised, analysis of academia on a topic.
  3. Conclusions are drawn from a selected range of literature to attempt to answer a particular question.

Narrative literature review.

Identify the correct type of literature review using the following bullet points - 

  1. A clear question is set out from the very beginning.
  2. Effort is made to locate every single piece of relevant academic information that could impact the answer. 
  3. Each scholarly article is questioned to a high standard.
  4. Every aspect of the methodology is transparent and reproducible.  

Narrative literature review.

Identify the correct type of literature review using the following bullet points - 

  1. Aims to synthesize evidence existing across a wide field and assess the range of a topic. 
  2. The research question is unclear.
  3. It takes many months to complete.

Narrative literature review.

What are the differences between a systematic literature review and a scoping literature review?

A systematic literature review has a clear research question set out from the beginning and can take several years to complete. 


On the other hand, a scoping literature review does not have a clear research question, takes many months to complete and is often the starting point for a systematic literature review.

Which of the following is not a component of a literature review?

Scope of the topic.

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