What is a literature review?
A literature review is a summary of the published work in a field of study. This can be a section of a larger paper or article, or can be the focus of an entire paper. Literature reviews show that you have examined the breadth of knowledge and can justify your thesis or research questions. They are also valuable tools for other researchers who need to find a summary of that field of knowledge.
Unlike an annotated bibliography, which is a list of sources with short descriptions, a literature review synthesizes sources into a summary that has a thesis or statement of purpose—stated or implied—at its core.
How do I write a literature review?
Step 1: Define your research scope
- What is the specific research question that your literature review helps to define?
- Are there a maximum or minimum number of sources that your review should include?
Ask us if you have questions about refining your topic, search methods, writing tips, or citation management.
Step 2: Identify the literature
Start by searching broadly. Literature for your review will typically be acquired through scholarly books, journal articles, and/or dissertations. Develop an understanding of what is out there, what terms are accurate and helpful, etc., and keep track of all of it with citation management tools. If you need help figuring out key terms and where to search, ask us.
Use citation searching to track how scholars interact with, and build upon, previous research:
- Mine the references cited section of each relevant source for additional key sources
- Use Google Scholar or Scopus to find other sources that have cited a particular work
Step 3: Critically analyze the literature
Key to your literature review is a critical analysis of the literature collected around your topic. The analysis will explore relationships, major themes, and any critical gaps in the research expressed in the work. Read and summarize each source with an eye toward analyzing authority, currency, coverage, methodology, and relationship to other works. The University of Toronto's Writing Center provides a comprehensive list of questions you can use to analyze your sources.
Step 4: Categorize your resources
Divide the available resources that pertain to your research into categories reflecting their roles in addressing your research question. Possible ways to categorize resources include organization by:
- theoretical/philosophical approach
Regardless of the division, each category should be accompanied by thorough discussions and explanations of strengths and weaknesses, value to the overall survey, and comparisons with similar sources. You may have enough resources when:
- You've used multiple databases and other resources (web portals, repositories, etc.) to get a variety of perspectives on the research topic.
- The same citations are showing up in a variety of databases.
Undergraduate student resources
- Literature Review Handout (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
- Learn how to write a review of literature (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Graduate student and faculty resources
- Information Research Strategies (University of Arizona)
- Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students (NC State University)
- Oliver, P. (2012). Succeeding with Your Literature Review: A Handbook for Students [ebook]
- Machi, L. A. & McEvoy, B. T. (2016). The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success
Graustein, J. S. (2012). How to Write an Exceptional Thesis or Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Guide from Proposal to Successful Defense [ebook]
Thomas, R. M. & Brubaker, D. L. (2008). Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing