Composing a Literature Review or Review of Scholarship

What is a literature review?

Before a biologist reports on her laboratory experiment or an economist offers his analysis of current fiscal conditions, each provides the background for his/her work. That background often takes the form of a "literature review," a summary and appraisal of all related scientific reports and economic analyses previously published. Such careful review of relevant "secondary sources" establishes the context for—the on-going conversation about— the biologist’s or economist’s own original conclusions drawn from "primary sources," i.e., the artifacts examined and data collected in lab or field. Written in essay style, this literature review describes, classifies, and evaluates the sources of information published on a given topic.

What is the value of a literature review?

A literature review provides your reader with a comprehensive survey of the professional publications available on your topic. It demonstrates that you have not only thoroughly researched your topic but also carefully examined and critically evaluated the range of relevant sources.

Where are literature reviews used?

Though once most common in the sciences and social sciences, literature reviews—under a variety of names—are now required in almost all academic fields and many professional arenas. For example:

  • undergraduate theses in business, literature, and science
  • graduate theses in sciences, social sciences & humanities
  • government & privately funded grant proposals
  • law and legal precedent reviews
  • corporate market assessments & feasibility studies
  • etc.

What is the "literature" in a literature review?

The "literature" is the collection of all books, journal and newspaper articles, websites, government documents, etc. you found to be relevant to your research topic.

How is a literature review different from an annotated bibliography?

A literature review is written in the style of an expository essay; it comprises an introduction, body and conclusion, and it is organized around a controlling idea or thesis. An annotated bibliography is simply an alphabetized list of sources accompanied by comments. Moreover, while a single source appears just once in an annotated bibliography, it may be referred to numerous times in a literature review, depending upon its importance in the field or relationship to other sources. Finally, a literature review includes its own intext citations and bibliography or works cited list.

How is a literature review different from a traditional research paper?

A literature review may stand alone and be assigned or published as a discrete entity. Or it may constitute one section of a larger research paper or one chapter—usually the first—of a thesis. Whereas the main body of a research paper focuses on the subject of your research, the literature review focuses on your sources. Put another way, in the research paper you use expert sources to support the discussion of your thesis; in a literature review, you discuss the sources themselves.

How is a literature review structured?

Like any expository essay, a literature review should have an introduction, body, and conclusion.

The introduction should contain your research question, an explanation of its significance, and any other background information setting the context of your research.

The body paragraphs contain your summative, comparative, and evaluative comments on the sources you've found. These comments may pertain to

  • historical background & early research findings
  • recent developments
  • areas of controversy among experts
  • areas of agreement
  • dominant views or leading authorities
  • varying approaches to or perspectives on the subject
  • qualitative comparisons and evaluations
  • etc.

The conclusion summarizes major issues in the literature; it also establishes where your own research fits in and what directions you see for future research.

How is a literature review organized?

While covering the range of matters listed above, a literature review—like any expository essay—should still have a single organizing principle. Often the sort of thesis statement driving an argument paper is replaced by the research question, followed by a preview of the logical order the search for its answer will follow. Some common organizing principles are these:

Chronological — "The rise in terrorist attacks over the last decade makes the question of what motivates terrorist groups especially urgent. A review of the literature of the past fifty years shows research on the motivation behind terrorist acts shifting focus from the psychological to the political and now the religious."

Thematic — "In order to understand terrorism, we must first understand the mind of the individual terrorist. While a review of the literature suggests some concensus among researchers regarding the psychological state of most terrorists immediately preceding the commission of a terrorist act, there appears to be little agreement regarding the psychological profile of potential terrorists."

Methodological — "In the effort to understand the motivations behind political extremism, researchers have taken various approaches. Some have surveyed vast libraries of historical literature; others have sifted through stores of church and government data; still others have used the ethnographer's tools of first-hand interview and observation."

Qualitative — "Acts of terrorism in the name of God have inspired a whole field of inquiry into the mind of the religious fanatic. This very concept of religious fanaticism suggests bias, and, while a few serious researchers in the area manage to maintain objectivity, a review of the literature reveals bias in many studies, especially those quoted most often in the popular media."

Note: A literature review is about the existing literature on your subject and provides background for your own research findings or commentary. However, it is NOT primarily about you or your relationship to the literature. Therefore, a literature review should NOT be organized as a narrative of your own research process. A literature review that says essentially "First I found this source, then I found this one ...." is NOT acceptable.

Sample literature reviews (professional)

Note: These professional samples represent various disciplines and therefore various citation styles. Only Reece's and D'Angelo's reviews follow Modern Language Association (MLA) guidelines for in-text citation. All, however, demonstrate possible ways to structure and organize a literature review.

Sample literature reviews (student)

Note: All student samples conform to MLA citation quidelines.

Other information on the literature review




                 In a Nutshell

A literature review tells who else has researched your topic and what they say about it.

Its purpose is to inform readers about the range and quality of research existing on your topic, and to point the way to future research.

It is not meant to argue your opinion about the topic itself.