The Importance of Literature Reviews

Date:  Wed, 15-May-2013
Section: Thesis and Dissertation Writing
1 - Introduction

In this article we will talk about the importance of literature reviews as a way of summarsing the state of the art of a field. We will examine ways of constructing literature reviews and we will see in the links provided examples of literature reviews.

2 - Definition of literature review

A critical summary and an assessment of the current state of knowledge or current state of the art in a particular field.

The ability to carry out a literature review is an important skill for any student. It will provide you with a context in which to place your assignments regardless of the module you are studying. Practically any assignment in any module you take will involve reading what other people have written on the subject of your assignment, gathering information to refute or support specific arguments, and writing about yourfindings. For small scale projects, (like module assignments), you will not be expected to provide a definitive account of the state of research in your selected topic. You will be required to provide evidence that you have read a certain amount of relevant literature in the topic, that you have understood that literature, and that you can summarize the material you have read in a coherent way. The literature review is precisely that summary.

In order to do a literature review you will need to spend time reading the literature relevant to the topic you are researching. Understanding the literature in your research topic will prevent you from repeating previous errors, or redoing work which has already been done. It will also give you insights into aspects of your topic which might be worthy of exploration and future research.

3 - Purpose of a Literature Review

There are several purposes to writing a literature review.

To provide the reader with an up to date account and discussion of the research findings in a particular topic. This might sound pretty esoteric but you will find that in writing a literature review you will learn about the ways other people have constructed their own research projects. Seeing what others have done might help you understand your own assignment. You might be able to see the methods that other more experienced researchers have used and you might decide to follow on their footsteps and copy their methodological approach.

You might also be able to detect conflicting points of view expressed by different authors. These conflicting points of view might be the indicators of diverging theories within the same topic. You need to be aware of these conflicting theories as well as of the arguments supporting these theories in order for you to assess their value and make up your own mind on the topic. Being aware of the theories will help you later in your life as a student when you will have to design a larger research project like your dissertation.

You might also be able to discuss relevant research carried out in the same topic. It is important to be able to discuss relevant research because very often it is very difficult (as students and as researchers) to keep abreast of everything that is published every year in a topic. The job of the writer of the literature review is to summarize and discuss the major documents published in that topic over a stated period of time. The discussion will take into account the methods and the results or findings of the most relevant research. The reviewer will assess whether the methodology is appropriate and whether the results seem valid. The reviewer therefore evaluates the quality of the research as opposed to merely listing documents.

The reviewer may also discuss material published in other fields which are related to the main topic. This process is very important since very often research in the social sciences is multidisciplinary, i.e. knowledge gets generated from many disciplines and needs to be integrated. For example in order to be able to research and write a literature review on a question like ‘Why do teenagers smoke? ‘ The reviewer might need to read material from journals in psychology, medicine, and sociology.

4 - Mechanics of Writing a Literature Review

You need to read. You need to read because it will give you ideas, and because it might improve your writing style. You need to develop some basic reading strategies. You need to decide:

• where to read
• what to read
• whom to read
• how to find what you need to read

Your University or College library might be your first port of call in deciding where to read, but as you progress in your course you might need to read in other libraries. You might also chose to photocopy material from these libraries and read it at home. The advantage of using photocopies is that you can underline the material and make notes.

The question of what to read is more tricky. Books, journals, reports, popular media, computer-based material, internal reports, letters, conference proceedings etc. You will probably need to read all these when you are constructing a literature review.

When you try to determine whom to read you need to be aware that anyone can be mistaken in their interpretations or their opinions. It is therefore important that you can be able to ascertain how authoritative is the person that you are reading. You should also be able to ascertain their motivation in writing. This might help you determine if the person has a biased perspective on an issue. You should be guided on what to read (at least as a starting point ) by your module coordinator(s) and seminar tutors however, that is only initial guidance, after that you should be capable of finding your own material.

Once you have set-up your basic reading strategies, you will need to be able to understand what you read. This is slightly more complicated than it seems because you will need to be able to develop tricks to scan a lot of documents very fast, and decide if a particular document is good enough to merit careful reading. It takes practice to be able to look at a document in the library and determine if it is good enough for you to spend serious time reading it. Have a look at the table of contents and index of the book. Look at the introduction and concluding chapter . Scan some of the topics from the index and determine if the material is adequate. These hints will give you a superficial knowledge about the content of a document, however you will not be able to write a literature review based on superficial knowledge. You will have to read enough to know enough about what has been written and summarize it in an intelligent fashion. In other words, you need to know enough to be able to be critical about it. Once you select a document for serious reading, you will need to summarize and criticize it.

I am including here some material from the session on abstracting to refresh your memory since you will need to make a large number of abstracts before you are able to construct a literature review.

5 - Definition of an Abstract

An abstract is a summary of the main nts of the document.

Purpose of the Abstract. To provide enough description of the content of the document to enable the reader to decide whether the document is worth reading in its entirety.

Mechanics of writing an abstract. You might decide that you will want to make your abstracts on index cards. This is fine, however there are also possibilities of making abstracts in your word processor, or within a bibliographic database. These are more convenient that index cards as you can keep the information stored in electronic form and therefore ‘cut and paste it’ in many documents. I recommend you keep your abstracts in electronic form.

Usually your summary will include :

the title of the document
the authors
the publisher
the place of publication
the pages and year of publication.

This type of information is called bibliographic details. They are always preceding the abstract. The abstract proper will contain a description of the purpose of the research, the methods used and a short description of the major findings.

6 - Study Aides: What do I need to remember from this session?

• Purpose of a literature review
• Benefits of reading literature reviews in my own studies
• Mechanics of construction of a literature review
• Mechanics of Abstracting


Bell, J. Reviewing the Literature.

Problem Formulation in Applied Social Research at:

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