A literature review locates your original research – the kind you’d write up in a thesis, dissertation or long essay – within the existing academic literature.
What exactly is a literature review?
It is a critical account of the most salient and relevant material published on a topic. It analyses and evaluates the literature to highlight general themes and patterns, similarities and differences, consistencies and inconsistencies, and controversies.
It may seek to bring coherence to what at first appears to be a diverse array of materials. It may identify key people, organisations, movements, schools and texts relevant to your research. It may indicate gaps in past research and suggest scope for further enquiry.
In higher degree research associated with theology, the humanities and the social sciences, a literature review usually seeks to identify the essential theories, problems, arguments, debates and controversies in a field, highlighting the ways in which research has been done by others.
How is this different from an annotated bibliography?
While both aim to show who is writing what in your field of enquiry, an annotated bibliography is descriptive, a summary of the sources themselves; whereas a literature review is more focused on the relative merits of the ideas expressed in the documents and their mutual connections.
Your review should present your own perspective on the literature. Think of it as an important step in clarifying the state of current research and establishing your credibility as a scholar. It should be well structured, confidently leading your readers through the material, eliciting the main issues and gaps.
What can go wrong?
An inferior literature review is likely to feature one or more of the following:
- weak structure and lack of focus
- limited use of sources
- poor standard of referencing
- too descriptive, lacking evidence of critical evaluation
- overuse of internet resources
Do I need a literature review?
Not all research projects require a literature review. Some theses and dissertations lack a formal literature review, and the kinds of issues normally addressed in the review are discussed in the main text. On the other hand, your readers will come to your research with questions such as:
- What research question are you asking, and why are you asking it?
- Have others written on the topic?
- What is the current state of knowledge in the field?
- How familiar are you with the field?
- Is your research relevant to research theory and practice in your field?
- How will your research build on prior scholarship and enable generativity?
A good literature review answers these questions. Unless your research is wholly inductive, or you expect you work never to be read, you will probably need to write a literature review.
When should I conduct the review?
The review is usually done toward the start of your research project timeline, but you should expect your review of the literature to grow and change as you discover more resources and as your research argument develops.
It’s a cyclical process: your literature review will clarify your knowledge of the field and inform your understanding of relevant theory and methods; these in turn will help set the parameters of your review. As Peter Levin notes,
it is only when you are well advanced that you will be able to be properly critical of the books and articles that you are using. Writing a literature review when you aren’t yet on top of your material is one of the most mind-numbing, brain-deadening, sleep-inducing activities known to students.
For a long essay, the literature review may comprise a single paragraph supported by your footnotes and bibliography. This may be written prior to writing the main essay, and adjusted as required. For larger projects such as a thesis or dissertation, the process might look something like this:
- An early comprehensive review to establish the context and rationale of your subject, and to help focus your research question;
- As your writing develops and perhaps takes unforeseen turns, a further review of the literature may be necessary in order to support new information/ideas/paths, ensuring that you remain familiar with the current state of research in your field.
- As you prepare a final draft, you may need to review the field again in order to relate your conclusions to those of others and to identify the implications of your findings for theory, practice and/or future research.
Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, snorkeling, and reading a good book.
 Peter Levin, Excellent Dissertations! (Maidenhead, England: Open University Press, 2005), p. 32.