Chapter 5: The Literature Review

5.2 What is involved in writing a literature review?

Research – to discover what has been written about the topic;

Critical Appraisal – to evaluate the literature, determine the relationship between the sources and ascertain what has been done already and what still needs to be done; and

Writing – to explain what you have found.

Generally speaking, it is helpful to think of the literature review as a funnel. One starts with a broad examination of the research related to the issue, working down to look at more specific aspects of the issue, which leads to the gap or the specific issue that your research will address.

How to undertake a literature review

The first step in undertaking a literature review is to conduct a library search of academic research that has been done on your topic. This can be done electronically, or if you are close to a library, you can go in and use their computers to find electronic and print holdings. You can also use Google Scholar for your search. In some cases, research conducted outside academia can serve as an important research source for your literature review. Indeed, such research can have important practical implications, as opposed to academic research which usually (although not always) tends toward theoretical applications.

However, it is important to understand who funded the research you review, in addition to the perspective and the purpose of the research. This is becoming an issue in Canada as universities and colleges increasingly turn to industry for research funding grants edmonton/transalta-coal-report-1.4752314.

As part of this first step there are a few more some things to be thinking about as you review the literature:

  • Who are the various researchers who have studied this topic? Who are the most prolific researchers/writers on this topic? Has a specific researcher or team of researchers been identified as pioneers or leaders in this field of study?
  • How have the various researchers defined key terms that are relevant to your topic? Have the definitions of any of the key terms evolved over time?
  • What are the different theories that have been examined and applied to this topic? How, if at all, have the various theories applied to this topic evolved over time?
  • What methodologies have been used to study this topic? Have the methodologies evolved over time?
  • In addition to thinking about these questions, you should be taking notes during this process. It can be helpful to keep these notes in an Excel file, e.g., your notes should include the following information:
  • If the article is empirical, write down the results of the research study in one or two sentences of your own words, e.g., “people who are between ages 18 – 35 are more likely to own a smart phone than those in an age range above or below.” It is also a good idea to take note of the methods, research design, number of participants, and details of the sample used in the study. Sometimes, you may even want to write down the names of the statistical procedures used to analyze the data or even some of the statistics, depending on your assignment.
  • If the article is a review of previous research, look for the main points. It may be helpful to read or skim the whole article, look away, and ask yourself what you felt was the main idea.
  • Write down any limitations or gaps you notice, anything that seems to contradict something you read elsewhere, or just anything that you think is important or interesting (Adjei, n.d.).

When reading through your sources, remember that you are looking for the “big picture,” not a collection of random, separate articles (an annotated bibliography). You are also not trying to prove a point (an essay). You are looking for common themes and patterns in the research as a whole. You are also looking to see how the various pieces of research are linked, if at all. As part of this process, you also want to identify research gaps or areas that require further research related your topic (Adjei, n.d.). In this regard, you cannot be expected to be an expert on your topic. A suggestion for finding gaps is to read the conclusion section of the academic journal articles and conference proceedings your search has uncovered. Researchers often identify gaps in the research in their conclusion. They may even suggest areas for future research. However, remember, if a researcher suggested a gap 10 years ago, it is likely that the gap has now been addressed. To find a gap, look at the most recent research your literature review has uncovered (within 2-3 years of the current date). At this point in your search of the literature, you may realize that your research question needs to change or adapt. This is a fairly common occurrence, since when you first develop a research question, you cannot be sure what the status of the research area is until you undertake your review of the literature related to this topic. Finally, it is worth mentioning that it is very likely you will not include all of the resources you have read in your literature review. If you are asked to include 20 resources in your literature review, e.g., expect to read approximately 30.

How to write a literature review

There are three parts to the literature review: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. In the following paragraphs we outline what to include in each of these sections. This section concludes with a variety of resources for you to check out.


The introduction must identify the topic by briefly discussing the significance of the topic, including a statement that outlines the conclusion to be drawn from the literature review.

If your literature review is part of a larger work, explain the importance of the review to your research question.

Defend the importance of the topic by giving a broad overview of the scope of the work you are reviewing. For example, if you are interested in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in paramedics, you might provide some statistics to prove how much work time is lost by those suffering from PTSD.

Clarify whether you are looking at the entire history of the field, or just a particular period of time.


Discuss and assess the research according to specific organizational principles (see examples below), rather than addressing each source separately. Most, if not all, paragraphs should discuss more than one source. Avoid addressing your sources alphabetically, since this does not assist in developing the themes or key issues central to your review.

Compare, contrast, and connect the various pieces of research. Much of the research you are reading should be connected, however you may notice various themes within the research (i.e. effects of PTSD on sick time, effects of PTSD on families of paramedics, effects of PTSD on overall paramedic wellness, etc.).  If you have undertaken a thorough review of the literature, you should start to see the bigger picture of how the research on this topic has evolved over time, who the main researchers are on this topic, and how the methods and theories related to this topic have changed (if at all) over time.

Summarize the works you are reviewing. Just as in any written assignment, use logical organization and clear transitions. Spend more time on the researchers and bodies of research that are considered most important in the field and/or that are most relevant.


Based upon your research, suggest where the research in the field will or should go next. If you are proposing your own research study, show how you will contribute to the field and fill in any gaps. The conclusion would also be a good place to defend the importance of the topic, now that you have demonstrated the current state of thinking in the field.

Other resources to help you write a literature review

In conclusion, there is a plethora of resources, both here and online, that provide information on how to write a literature review. For example, check out this series of very helpful YouTube videos prepared by a professor at the University of Maryland, in the U.S.A:

The Literature Review, Part 1:

The Literature Review, Part 2:

The Literature Review, Part 3:  [ link not working]

The Literature Review, Part 3:

Table 5.1 also provides some suggested organizational techniques, as well as instances when you might use these various techniques. The table also provides a writing sample to demonstrate the writing technique.

Table 5.1 Three ways to organize your literature review (adapted from Adjei, n.d.)

Organization technique Instances When to Use Examples
Thematically When explaining key themes or issues relevant to the topic. A literature review of 31 relevant articles published between January 2005 and March 2015 identified 10 variables relevant to user adoption of mobile technology: perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, income/ wealth, employment,  mobility requirement, education, social resources, etc. “User adoption variables” is the theme.
This is the most common way to organize literature reviews.=
Methodologically (also called a methodology review) When discussing interdisciplinary approaches to a topic or when discussing a number of studies with a different approach. In e-business adoption literature, various models have been used as a framework for analyzing the factors that need to be satisfied in order to guarantee business success. This review evaluates the different models used in this area with the intent of determining if standardized methodologies exist.
Chronologically When historical changes are central to explaining the topic. A literature review is presented on the evolution of post-traumatic stress disorder and its impact on firefighters from the late 1970s through to the present time. As part of this evolution you might discuss how the definition of PTSD has evolved over time, or how the methods used for studying this topic have evolved over time, or how treatment options have evolved over time, etc

And remember, most university and college libraries also have valuable information on literature reviews. Here is the link to one such website: Lit_Review.pdf


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