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Writing a Literature Review

Overview of writing a literature review.

What is a literature review?

The literature review is a critical look at the existing research that is significant to the work that you are carrying out. This overview identifies prominent research trends in addition to assessing the overall strengths and weaknesses of the existing research.

Purpose of a Literature Review

  • To provide background information about a research topic.
  • To establish the importance of a topic.
  • To demonstrate familiarity with a topic/problem.
  • To “carve out a space” for further work and allow you to position yourself in a scholarly conversation.

Penn State University  

Structure of a Literature Review

Your review should follow the following structure:

  • Abstract
    • Write this last
    • A summary of your main thesis and the studies you examine in your review
  • Introduction
    • Introduce your topic
    • Outline what you will discuss throughout the review
    • Frame the paper with your thesis
    • Tell your audience why it is important that you reviewed the literature in your topic area
  • Body
    • Can take different forms depending on your topic
    • Break it up into sections if this is helpful (i.e. if you are studying three different methodologies, then you can break your body into three main sections)
    • Go through all of the literature in detail, in an organized fashion
  • Discussion/Conclusion
    • Restate your thesis
    • Wrap up your review by drawing everything together and making sure it is clear what conclusions you draw about your topic or field of study based on the research studies you read and analyzed.
  • References
    • Make sure your references are formatted correctly and all present
    • This paper is all about the references! Cite everything that you discuss. For tips on when and how to cite, visit the next page on the drop-down menu under "Writing in the Sciences!"

Adapted from the UCLA Undergraduate Science Journal

Information to Consider in Your Review: What to Write About

When doing research for your review, here is a list of questions to consider as you read through articles to potentially include:

  • What is the thesis or problem being addressed in this paper? 
  • What are the strengths and limitations of the study? Is there a better way to answer the research question?
  • How does the author approach the study - from a theoretical, experimental, interpretive, or clinical (etc.) standpoint? Did they choose the best approach?
  • Is the author using an assumed theoretical framework such as, for example, psychoanalytic or developmental? How does this affect the conclusions they draw? 
  • How does the author engage with other literature in the field? Is literature that both contradicts and supports his/her findings mentioned? 
  • Did the researchers choose appropriate methods of experimentation and data analysis for the research question? 
  • Do you think that the conclusions they draw based upon the data they present are valid and reasonable? Or are there gaps in the logic or assumptions being made?
  • Does this particular research study contribute to the knowledge base of the field around which you're centering your review? Is it worth including in your discussion, and does it fit your main thesis?

Adapted from the UCLA Undergraduate Science Journal

Further Readings

Useful Tools