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What's a literature review, anyways?
A literature review is a comprehensive examination of resources that are relevant to a research project. At the university level, most literature reviews cover scholarly resources, although some reviews may include popular and non-scholarly resources. Additionally, some literature reviews may include works in non-written media, like maps, videos, and so forth.
A literature review is NOT an annotated bibliography, although an annotated bibliography is often a precursor to a literature review. See the tab on annotated bibliographies for the differences between the two.
What's it for?
A good literature review will offer:
- A critical look at relevant literature or resources;
- A discussion of how the relevant literature or resources are related to your topic;
- An analysis of any gaps or unanswered questions in the relevant literature or resources, which your work will address and answer; and
- A rationale for doing your work in the first place -- i.e., it will answer the question: why is your work important?
A good literature review will clarify your thinking for you. Writing the literature review will help you organize your thoughts, broaden your knowledge in your topic area by requiring you to review relevant resources, and help you situate your own work within the larger context of your topic or subject.
What does a literature review do?
The most important aspects of your literature review are:
- to make clear to your readers that you are indeed familiar with the existing scholarship and research relevant to your topic. In other words, it establishes that you've done your homework.
- to demonstrate to your readers how your work builds upon earlier research and offers answers to unanswered questions. In other words, it explains how and why your work adds to intellectual endeavor in your field.
Because your literature review should do all of the above, it should:
- be organized around and related directly to your topic or research question;
- offer a clear and concise summary of the knowns and unknowns in your field;
- point out controversies and areas of uncertainty in the literature; and
- point out issues and questions needing additional research and answers.
Questions to ask yourself before beginning
A literature review isn't a task you have to complete before you get to the "real" research. It's the bedrock of the argument you intend to make, the questions or controversies your research will answer. So ask yourself:
- What are the gaps in the previous research and scholarship related to your project? What questions remain unanswered?
- What aspects of existing, previous research and scholarship do you intend to challenge?
- What sort of resources will I use to create my literature review? Books, e-books, journals, media (audio, video, etc.), government publications, grey literature (literature that hasn't yet been published, but is scholarly in nature)?
- How do I analyze the resources I'll use? How will I assess their strengths and weaknesses?
- Have I included resources that disprove any statements or hypotheses in my own research? Have I dismissed resources that include information that's contrary to my opinion or viewpoint?