When conducting a literature review for a thesis
or dissertation, many students will work tirelessly to compile and evaluate some or all of the published material on a particular topic or subject matter. Though not only compiled for dissertations, literature reviews are also seen within the introductions of other writings such as research papers and scientific reports
. For a thesis or dissertation, specifically, the literature review is a crucial component of the overall paper and may take students several months to a year to complete. Likewise, the literature review is extremely valuable to the student's overall development in his or her field and serves many purposes-some of which are described below.
Purposes of the thesis literature review
- To demonstrate a student's knowledge on a particular topic (to show that he/she is abreast to the various discussions or conversations related to it)
- To provide students with the opportunity to analyze and evaluate scholarly publications
- To prepare the reader for what is to come or to provide a context for the thesis
- To specifically outline any 'gaps' in the information on the topic and to communicate how the student's particular research will be of a benefit to the field
- To prepare the student for other roles and functions that he may find in his professional career
In addition to understanding the purpose of the literature review its also important to have a general idea of the structure and format of this section before initiating any specific research action.
What a literature review is not
Looking at what something is not
is a common means of explaining and defining what something actually is. The literature review should not be confused with its sister; the annotated bibliography
, or its very distant cousin; the summary. In short, your literature review should be tailored toward your specific thesis or dissertation and not be a 'one-size fits all' summary of the publications on your topic.
Instead it should be crafted to address your particular research question and demonstrate exactly where your research fits into the scheme of things. An overriding theme should also be present. This can sometimes be obtained by looking at specific trends in the literature or particular theories that occur over and over again; these can be used to categorize your literature to assist in making sense of all the many sources that have been reviewed.
Accurately satisfying these objectives can be difficult in some cases, considering that it's quite easy to simply summarize or evaluate a list of sources, as compared to actually connecting all of the sources in some way to lead to a final or concluding statement about them.
Crafting the literature review
The following are a few simple steps to take when preparing the literature review.
Step 1: Develop a research strategy
When attempting to accomplish a research paper
of this magnitude, a serious research strategy should be in place. This can be done by first identifying the goal of your literature review-that is what specifically you hope to accomplish (for example, if following Cooper's taxonomy your goals will be to either integrate, criticize, or identify central issues). Secondly you should identify the scope of your research. How much information to you plan to gather? Will you be collecting everything that was written in the past 50 years, or just the past 20?
Thirdly, its wise to compile a small list of keywords on your topic to ensure that you cover all the various angles and wording options available (i.e. you may want to identify synonyms of key terms or list alternative ways of saying the same thing, to improve your chances of finding all the articles you need). Lastly, you can also identify primary sources of information such as specific databases, reliable online sources, books, scholarly journals etc. Many libraries offer guides for a range of subjects which generally include subject-specific databases and resources.
Step 2: Take detailed notes
An obvious, but relevant point to mention is to thoroughly read through the information that you've gathered and take a considerable amount notes from each source. This must be mentioned as some students fall short by simply gathering resources without really benefitting from them.
Likewise, it's important to remember to clearly indicate the source of each note to avoid plagiarism and provide descriptions and criticism that are in your own words (rather than a simple paraphrase of the author). Also when you read, read to evaluate; consider the strengths of each argument, as well as any patterns, trends, or unifying elements that are present. If you organize as you read in this manner, hopefully your final stages of categorizing and synthesizing information will be much easier to accomplish.
Step 3: Settle on an organizational structure
As mentioned in the previous step, you may begin to identify an organizational structure as you read and notice particular patterns and trends in the literature on your topic. You may also choose an organizational structure based on the goal and purpose of your research question. Some basics ways of organizing information are; by order of importance, chronology, theory, or approach and method.
Once a solid organizational structured has been determined its safe to begin crafting your literature review. When piecing together various articles and titles on your topic remember to still provide a brief summary of the contents of the work even though summaries are not the focus of the review. This is still important as some information may need to be provided depending on the popularity of the title being examined. Obviously some famous authors or theorist in the field will be mentioned in the literature review; despite their position in the field, its still important to provide a line or two summarizing their work as a bridge to other works (or for readers that may be unfamiliar with the topic). Lastly, remember to evaluate all data in a manner that caters to and takes into consideration your overall objective in writing your dissertation
as well as the research question that you are pursuing.