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Writing a Literature Review

Welcome to the Writing a Literature Review research guide.

Literature Review Tutorial

Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students (by North Carolina State University Libraries).

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is not:

  • just a summary of sources
  • a grouping of broad, unrelated sources
  • a compilation of everything that has been written on a particular topic
  • literature criticism (think English) or a book review.

So, what is it then?

A literature review:

  • surveys all of the scholarship that has been written about a particular topic (your research question).
  • provides a description, summary, and evaluation of each scholarly work.
  • synthesizes and organizes the previous research by comparing and contrasting the findings or methodology of those previous writings.

"A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. Occasionally you will be asked to write one as a separate assignment, ..., but more often it is part of the introduction to an essay, research report, or thesis. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries."-- Written by Dena Taylor, Health Sciences Writing Centre and available at http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review (Accessed October 30, 2013).

A literature review is an integrated analysis-- not just a summary-- of scholarly writings that are related directly to your research question.  That is, it represents the literature that provides background information on your topic and shows a correspondence between those writings and your research question.

A literature review may be a stand alone work or the introduction to a larger research paper, depending on the assignment.  Rely heavily on the guidelines your instructor has given you.

Why is it important?

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.
  • Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies.

Where Can I Find a Lit Review?


The Literature Review portion of a scholarly article is usually close to the beginning. It often follows the introduction, or may be combined with the introduction. The writer may discuss his or her research question first, or may choose to explain it while surveying previous literature.

If you are lucky, there will be a section heading that includes "literature review".  If not, look for the section of the article with the most citations or footnotes.