Why do you need to write a literature review?

A literature review outlines the latest knowledge including key findings, ideas and developments in relation to your research question of interest. It reports only secondary data, but not new or original research work.

Writing a literature review demonstrates that you have an in-depth understanding of your research question and are clear about where your research fits into the current knowledge in that particular topic.

Before you start writing the literature review, you should pay attention to the following:

1. Search for relevant papers

You need to decide on the focus of your review, guided by your research questions, and determine the scope of the review.

Here are some useful tips from our experienced editors:

  • Before searching for any papers, ask yourself how narrow or broad the focus will be.
  • Bear in mind that some journals may have word limits for the literature review. In some fields you may only be required to review the most relevant and recent papers, while in others a thorough historical overview of the topic is expected.
  • When you are undertaking your literature search, remember to pick keywords carefully to ensure you do not miss important and relevant papers, or include too many irrelevant or loosely-related papers.
  • Use the carefully selected keywords to search in different databases, especially those most relevant to your field. However, don’t ignore some general databases such as Google Scholar, EBSCO and JSTOR. They are never a bad place to start.
  • Check the reference lists of papers you find to identify any other papers that you might have missed in your database search.
  • Look out for any authors whose names reappear frequently as they are most likely to be the leaders in the field – it is worth doing separate searches just for papers by these authors.

2. Assess and select your papers

Not every paper you find will be relevant. Hence, you should have a proper protocol to evaluate whether your search results are useful for your literature review.

Check out this advice given by our professional academic editors.

  • Start by reading the key papers in the field to give you a good overview. Key papers refer to those that are repeatedly cited, introduce major theories or provide a review of the current status of the field.
  • It is a good idea to include some “classic” papers in the field, but you don’t need to provide too much detail about them as most readers will already be familiar with them.
  • As you read, you need to evaluate the research in terms of its relevance to your own study, its strengths and weaknesses, its theoretical approach or framework, its methodology, whether it supports or contradicts other studies and its overall contribution to the field.
  • Write notes to help organise your review. Your notes should be able to help you identify the key concepts, themes and ideas of the papers, and note the similarities, differences, patterns and relationships. You should also look out for theoretical developments, methodological trends and so on.
  • While you read the papers, pay attention to any gaps in the research and take note of topics that require further study.
  • Lastly, keep a thorough record of references to the papers along with any notes you make, even when you are paraphrasing. If you forget to include a source you used for something you later include in your paper, you might be at risk of plagiarism, or have to spend a lot of time tracking down the references.

These are all important preparations that will help you better organise the content of your literature review.

Author Profile

Dr Rachel Baron
Co-Chief Editor & Managing Editor (Social Sciences)
Rachel first joined us as a freelance editor in 2001, while completing her PhD. After spending a few years as a post-doctoral researcher and then lecturing in psychology, she returned to us in 2010 and focused her career on academic editing. She took on the role of Assistant Chief Editor in 2018, and became co-Chief-Editor in 2020. Unable to leave academia behind completely, she also teaches Psychology at an English-speaking university in Italy, where she is now based. With extensive experience in both academia and publishing, Rachel has an excellent overview of both the client and editor sides of the business.

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