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What is a Literature Review?

The Scholarly Conversation

A literature review provides an overview of previous research on a topic that critically evaluates, classifies, and compares what has already been published on a particular topic. It allows the author to synthesize and place into context the research and scholarly literature relevant to the topic. It helps map the different approaches to a given question and reveals patterns. It forms the foundation for the author’s subsequent research and justifies the significance of the new investigation.

A literature review can be a short introductory section of a research article or a report or policy paper that focuses on recent research. Or, in the case of dissertations, theses, and review articles, it can be an extensive review of all relevant research.

  • The format is usually a bibliographic essay; sources are briefly cited within the body of the essay, with full bibliographic citations at the end.
  • The introduction should define the topic and set the context for the literature review. It will include the author's perspective or point of view on the topic, how they have defined the scope of the topic (including what's not included), and how the review will be organized. It can point out overall trends, conflicts in methodology or conclusions, and gaps in the research.
  • In the body of the review, the author should organize the research into major topics and subtopics. These groupings may be by subject, (e.g., globalization of clothing manufacturing), type of research (e.g., case studies), methodology (e.g., qualitative), genre, chronology, or other common characteristics. Within these groups, the author can then discuss the merits of each article and analyze and compare the importance of each article to similar ones.
  • The conclusion will summarize the main findings, make clear how this review of the literature supports (or not) the research to follow, and may point the direction for further research.
  • The list of references will include full citations for all of the items mentioned in the literature review.

Key Questions for a Literature Review

A literature review should try to answer questions such as

  1. Who are the key researchers on this topic?
  2. What has been the focus of the research efforts so far and what is the current status?
  3. How have certain studies built on prior studies? Where are the connections? Are there new interpretations of the research?
  4. Have there been any controversies or debate about the research? Is there consensus? Are there any contradictions?
  5. Which areas have been identified as needing further research? Have any pathways been suggested?
  6. How will your topic uniquely contribute to this body of knowledge?
  7. Which methodologies have researchers used and which appear to be the most productive?
  8. What sources of information or data were identified that might be useful to you?
  9. How does your particular topic fit into the larger context of what has already been done?
  10. How has the research that has already been done help frame your current investigation?

Examples of Literature Reviews

Example of a literature review at the beginning of an article:
Forbes, C. C., Blanchard, C. M., Mummery, W. K., & Courneya, K. S. (2015, March). Prevalence and correlates of strength exercise among breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer survivors. Oncology Nursing Forum, 42(2), 118+. Retrieved from

Example of a comprehensive review of the literature:
Wilson, J. L. (2016). An exploration of bullying behaviours in nursing: a review of the literature. British Journal Of Nursing25(6), 303-306.

For additional examples, see:

Galvan, J., Galvan, M., & ProQuest. (2017). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences (Seventh ed.). [Electronic book]

Pan, M., & Lopez, M. (2008). Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Pub. [Q180.55.E9 P36 2008]

Evidence Matrix for Literature Reviews

The Evidence Matrix can help you organize your research before writing your lit review.  Use it to identify patterns and commonalities in the articles you have found--similarmethodologies?  common theoretical frameworks? It helps you make sure that all your major concepts covered. It also helps you see how your research fits into thecontext of the overall topic.