Literature reviews

Reviewing the literature is a process of comparing and contrasting the existing work in the field to show any gaps in the research that your research question may fill. Sometimes literature reviews are set as stand-alone assignments, and sometimes they are part of doing the research for a longer project or dissertation. Where the literature review goes in a final project write-up may vary depending on your subject and type of research, so always check with your department or supervisor.

Scroll down for our recommended strategies and resources. 

Purpose and position of a literature review

Literature reviews can vary depending on the purpose and subject. See the list below for some of the common forms a literature review may take:

  • A stand-alone assignment designed to help develop literature searching, researching, and analysis skills, often as preparation for doing longer projects later on.  
  •  A separate chapter at the start of a dissertation, usually in a report-style dissertation in the Sciences.
  •  A smaller introductory chapter at the start of a dissertation, but the whole dissertation is based on reviewing secondary literature so the findings and discussion are a more in-depth review of the literature.
  • A rigorous process within a scientific systematic review, often in Healthcare subjects. A systematic review has rigorous inclusion criteria to identify the results of a range of clinical trials and performs statistical meta-analysis on the collected data. See this video explaining the steps of a systematic review [video] (Centre for Evidence Synthesis in Health)
  • In Humanities subjects, there might not be a separate literature review chapter. Instead, discussion of the secondary literature is woven throughout each thematic chapter and is used to help interpret primary sources such as literary texts, artworks, or historical sources.

Where to begin?

It can be hard if you don’t have a clear idea of your research question or topic. However, it’s a circular process, as the more you read, the more you can narrow your focus. Start by listing or mind-mapping some related sub-topics and plan to do a short period of exploratory reading. This guide gives a good introductory overview:

Structure

A literature review is usually organised into themes relating to your overall topic. Always follow any guidance you’ve been given by your lecturer, but this page gives a useful outline literature review structure:

Not book summaries

A literature review isn’t just a set of summaries stitched together. Using sub-headings to group the literature by theme can make it easier to compare and contrast, as opposed to just describe. Don’t get confused with book reviews or annotated bibliographies.

Example

This is quite a long literature review example from a humanities subject, but it has comments to show what the writer is doing well.

Where’s the gap?

The main purpose of a literature review is to identify areas that haven’t yet been researched fully. These don’t have to be amazingly new areas, but could be a slightly different angle or context on some existing research. Look at this guide on writing gap statements:

Your own voice

If you find you’re just writing ‘Bloggs (2016) states…’, ‘Jin (2017) argues…’ your voice may be missing. You also need to comment on the research and form a judgement about what it shows about your topic. See this guide on how to develop your own voice - particularly useful for postgraduate students:

Links to the discussion

If your literature review is part of a report-style dissertation (often in science and social science subjects) see this guide on how it is connected to the discussion section:

Further resources

If you’d like to read more about how to undertake a literature review, see this resource and book list from Brookes Library: