Literature reviews are, for many of us, a mystery. ‘A review of the literature’: it sounds simple, but what does it actually mean? What is a lit review for? Where do you start? How do you know if you’re doing it right? Here’s a short blog post to help you get to grips with your lit review… and understand why you need to write one in the first place!
What is a literature review?
A literature review (often called a lit review) is a detailed synopsis of all the existing research on a certain topic. It might be part of a larger piece of writing, or a piece of work in its own right. Some students write them as separate assessed pieces of coursework, but sometimes the first one you’ll ever do will be a chapter of your dissertation. Either way, its focus is the same, so don’t worry too much about this!
What is my lit review for?
Your lit review needs to contextualise the research situation for your reader: what research has already been done? Where are the gaps in it? This context is crucial to help your reader understand the concepts and authors you’ll mention later – but also so they can appreciate why your topic matters! Think of it as zooming out on the topic, to see what else is in the picture. Doing this will help you understand the details better, because you know what else is out there. The other thing a lit review does is to demonstrate to the reader how well you, the author, know the subject. It’s a bit like showing your credentials: I’ve read all this about the subject, so obviously I know what I’m talking about.
What should my lit review include?
Firstly, you need to define the scope of your literature review – is there a certain area or time period you’re looking at, and why have you chosen these parameters? Don’t zoom so far out that you end up losing the original topic. Make sure you keep asking yourself: will this information help my reader better understand the topic? Check that you’re not confusing things by including information that isn’t directly relevant.
Having set the scope, you should include the literature that has informed your research and influenced the approach you plan to take. Make sure it’s relevant, and up to date – if it’s outdated, show that you know this and have a good reason for including it. You need to identify the seminal literature in the field, because of its influences on the research that followed, as well as any other key works and authors. Don’t feel you have to deal with them one by one, in a linear fashion, though – you can group them together in line with their views.
You also need to talk about key debates within the area, because this will be relevant in understanding why your research matters. There may be an opportunity to show your own opinion here, but the key point is to review the existing literature – you’ll explain your methodology elsewhere, so don’t get side-tracked! Make sure you highlight any themes, trends and patterns in researchers’ methodologies, studies or findings. Often certain themes will be in vogue for a period, with lots of research done along similar lines, before those ideas are replaced by more fashionable ones; if your subject is prone to this, your lit review should highlight these trends. Lastly, you need to summarise what is already known within your field – and what isn’t. These gaps in the research will probably relate to your own choice of topic, and might be crucial in justifying your own work later on, so don’t forget to mention them!
What should I leave out?
Your lit review doesn’t need to cover everything! You don’t need to explain your own research here, so it’s not the place to talk about your methodology or findings. You can also be selective – you don’t need to list all the research ever focused on the wider area, just the studies or texts most relevant to your topic. Don’t just panic and put lots of irrelevant references in to make it look like you’ve read everything that’s ever been written in the field, either – your marker will be able to tell!
How do I prepare to write my lit review?
Well, obviously you can’t review literature you aren’t aware of, so good preparation is crucial! If you’ve been provided with a reading list, get started early, before your course-mates take all the books out of the library! If you have no idea where to start, ask for help from your tutor or supervisor first to make sure you’re on the right track. Guidance early in the process can save time in the long run by identifying the most relevant sources. After that, it’s time to look for research! If you’re not confident sourcing material, we have online resources to help with using SPSS; describing data; dealing with statistics; finding business information; using and searching databases; searching Special Collections; or even just knowing where to look! Bear in mind that not everything you find will be relevant, and older research may since have been discredited, so remain critical (conveniently, we have resources to help with that, too!).
What skills should I demonstrate?
The really tricky part about lit reviews, though, is that feeling that you don’t really know what your marker is looking for. Actually, there’s a quick solution to this one – find your mark scheme! It should be available through Blackboard or your course handbook, but check with a tutor if you can’t find it. As a general rule though, a good lit review should demonstrate evidence of: effective searching; appropriate choice of sources; awareness of wider field and context; awareness of key debates; critical thinking and evaluation of sources; evaluation of methodologies and research methods; appropriate style and referencing. This is not an exhaustive list, of course, so check your own mark scheme so you don’t get caught out!
When should I start, and how long should it take?
This is sort of a trick question, and the answer depends very much on you and your working style. Bear in mind, though, that actually writing your lit review requires a lot of background reading, so you need to factor in time for that. Also consider practical issues – if you might need to order books from other libraries, or wait for other students to return texts, plan well ahead. In a way, the better your research, the easier your lit review should be to write – but be careful not to convince yourself you need to read everything! It’s okay to dismiss sources as not relevant, or to only read the parts of publications that are relevant to your topic. After all, it doesn’t matter how much literature you read if you run out of time to review it!
Hopefully you feel like you understand why you’re writing a lit review now, but if you’re still feeling unsure, this blog post is based on an online resource you can view in full here. Or, why not come along to our workshop ‘Your literature review – getting started’ for some hands-on help? We also run drop-ins (online and face-to-face), so feel free to speak to an advisor, and don’t forget to check the main MLE workshops page to see the full list or calendar of what else is coming up! As always, you can tweet us or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got any questions!
By Kit from the Student Team