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Dissertation / Project Support: Literature Reviews

A guide for undergraduate and postgraduate dissertation students

What is the purpose of a literature review?

  • Find out what information already exists in your field of study
  • Identify gaps in the literature
  • Find others working in your field
  • Identify the key works in the field
  • Identify the main methodologies and research techniques used
  • Identify the main ideas, conclusions, theories. Establish similarities and differences
  • Provide a context for your own research
  • Show relationships between previous studies or theories

Structure of a literature review

Introduces your research question/topic. It should be a meaningful topic.
Provide enough background information to frame the topic.

An analysis of the literature usually according to a number of themes or topics.
What research has already been done? What is accepted and disputed?
Are there gaps in the research? What is the future research trend?
Don’t paraphrase, critically evaluate. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each source.

The conclusion is not the introduction.
Summarise the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasise their significance.
Connect it back to your primary research question.

Reference List
Remember it is normally a reference list not a bibliography of everything you have read.

What structure should the body be?

There are various ways in which the body of your literature review can be written. In most subjects this will be by theme (thematic) but there are others. Please check with your department to find out which is most suitable.

Thematic - grouping studies by subject or theme.
Conceptual - grouping studies by concept.
Methodological - grouping studies by method.
Chronological - ordering studies from the oldest to the most recent or more rarely in reverse order.
Combination - a mixture of these approaches.

Key stages

Key stages of a literature review normally include:

  • Identify and analyse your topic
  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

Critical Reading

Once you have found the key articles make sure you are doing critical, active reading. 

  • Think about what you expect from the article before reading it.
  • Skim the abstract, headings, conclusion.
  • Focus on the arguments presented rather than the facts.
  • Take notes as you read and start to organise your review around themes and ideas.
  • Consider using a table, matrix or concept map to identify how the different sources relate to each other.
  • Add summary points for each study that covers the main issues and conclusions.
  • Be as objective as possible.

Useful templates

What things make a 'good' literature review

A good literature review will normally do the following things:

  • Show the issues that have been dealt with in the past
  • Show the issues that are currently being addressed and those that need to be.
  • Show the correlations, ambiguities and knowledge gaps that exist.
  • Show the conflicts between competing research groups
  • Give an anlysis and commentary that makes it clear that you understand the issue.
  • Show that you are expressing your view on the issue.

What things make a 'poor' literature review

A poor literature review will often have the following mistakes.

  • Is simply a list of who did what and when.
  • Lacks analysis of the relevance and quality of the literature found.
  • Will show that you haven't understood the purpose of the review.
  • Won't have a logical thread running through the review.
  • Doesn't point out the gaps in the research that has been done.
  • Referencing errors.
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