Literature reviews

Writing literature reviews (or “reviews of literature” if you’re “not into the whole brevity thing”) is one of the more challenging academic tasks you’ll have to face as a grad student. If you’re writing a thesis or dissertation, for example, the lit review chapter (usually chapter 2) is often the hardest chapter to write, perhaps rivaled only by the “discussion” chapter. And even then, part of what makes the discussion section so hard to write is that you have to integrate your own findings (or data) with the main conclusions from your lit review (I should acknowledge that my claims here apply mainly to the sciences and social sciences, since humanities papers don’t always have such clearly-defined sections).

One problem that makes lit reviews difficult to write is simply students’ lack of preparation. In my experience, many professors teaching at the undergrad level assume that, if you go to grad school, you’ll be taught how to write lit reviews there. At the same time, many professors at the grad level assume that you were already taught how to write lit reviews at the undergrad level. Obviously, this gap creates confusion, especially for students.  

Another problem is that experts (like professors) often underestimate how difficult a task will be for a beginner (see, for example, this study, this study, and this study). So, even if your professors know that writing literature reviews is a new challenge for you, they might not be aware of just how difficult the process will be (or how much scaffolding you might need).

All of this is to say: if you’re having trouble with writing a literature review for a thesis, dissertation, seminar paper, or journal article, there’s nothing wrong with you. Writing literature reviews is difficult. Having trouble doesn’t mean that you’re stupid or incapable. You just need a little guidance. And that’s why you’re visiting this page.

This page offers some of the best advice, suggestions, and materials I have to offer regarding lit reviews.

Video: Lit Reviews “Crash Course” (16 min)

This video is a brief overview for people in a hurry. It goes over the basic idea of what a literature review is and gives an “orientation” to the most useful resources posted on this page. You can view the video by clicking here (opens in a new window). Note: The “ice cream” lit review document is supposed to be visible onscreen starting around 6:33 in the video, but for some reason it doesn’t appear. So I recommend downloading that document in the “Handouts” section below and following along.

Video: My Workshop on Lit Reviews (78 min)

First, you can view or download a recording of my workshop on literature reviews (from March 11, 2021) here or by clicking on the image below:

Note 1: The browser plays a 1-hour preview. For videos longer than 1 hour, download the file and watch it from your computer (Steps: 1. Click on the video to open the Dropbox video page. 2. Use the “download” button, usually located on the top left of the page).

Note 2: The video covers a whole range of topics, including what lit reviews are, how to find literature, how to read the literature, and so on. The part that discusses actually writing & structuring the lit review starts at approximately 52 minutes (52:48, to be exact).

Second, here are my PowerPoint slides from the workshop:

Handouts

1. Below is a slightly silly handout I put together to acquaint students with some basic ideas about structuring lit reviews. Note that this review is organized around a debate in the field.

2. Below is another silly handout. This one is based around themes that emerge from the literature.

3. Also, at my workshops I’ve often shared the following handout from the Azusa Pacific University Writing Center which includes a sample mini lit review:

While this mini lit review is much shorter than almost any lit review you’re likely to write in grad school, students often find it helpful to see, in highly abbreviated form, what a lit review is supposed to accomplish.

Sample Lit Reviews

There is no single, universal “right way” to write a literature review. What counts as a good lit review depends a lot on your discipline, your professor/advisor, or what specific journal you’re submitting to. So, the best way to familiarize yourself with what kind of lit review you’re expected to write is to look at examples from your field, your campus, or your intended journal.

One helpful approach is to browse theses or dissertations written by recently-graduated students in your discipline. If you’re a CSULB grad student, you can do so by logging onto your single sign-on. Click on the “University Library” button and, after the Library page loads, select the “Services” drop-down menu at the top of the page and scroll down to “Thesis and Dissertation.” Click on “Thesis and Dissertation.” When the Thesis Office page loads, click on the gray “Find a Thesis or Dissertation” on the bottom left side of the page (or try this direct link).

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL ) has a nice sample literature review with comments:

Note, however, that this is a somewhat short and basic literature review (possibly from an undergraduate paper). So, while it’s a good introductory model, the lit reviews you’ll have to write in grad school will likely be longer and more complex.

However, Purdue OWL also has some great general advice on writing literature reviews. I highly recommend the OWL’s tutorials.

Dr. Kimberly Rombach has posted an excellent “Example of a Lit Review” online. Below is a PDF version that includes some commentary by me on the first 10 pages.

The University of LaVerne has some great sample lit reviews (and tutorials) posted on the Literature Review Basics page maintained by librarian Liberty McCoy. What’s great about the samples here is that they’re all peer-reviewed articles and organized by discipline.

Oswego State University of New York has a similar page with some excellent resources and samples: EDU 516 – Critical Review of Literature – Example Literature Reviews.

When reading samples, you can maximize your learning by “reading like a writer,” as discussed by Mike Bunn. Pay attention to choices made by the authors of the samples, and think about what these choices accomplish and whether or not your paper could benefit from similar choices. Such choices can include:

–What kind (or how many) headers to include

–Uses of transitions and signal words to convey arguments clearly to readers

–How many authors are cited per section

–How many sources to include overall

–How much detail (and what kinds of detail) are discussed for each source mentioned

–How sources are “integrated” or “synthesized” together; how much the sources “talk to each other” (see further comments in “Synthesizing and Integrating Sources” below).

Some Must-Read Posts from “The Thesis Whisperer”

Dr. Inger Mewburn’s fabulous Thesis Whisperer site is brimming with useful materials for grad students. Below are some of her essential posts that discuss literature reviews:

5 ways to fail your PhD (note #4: “write a bad literature review”)

5 ways to tame the literature dragon

How to become a literature searching ninja (see “Literature Search Strategies” below for more information on conducting literature searches)

Helpful Videos

Indiana University of Pennsylvania has some excellent introductory videos, most of them presented by Dr. Gary Dean, on the academic research process. The full YouTube playlist is available here. The video on literature reviews, presented by Dr. Jeff Ritchey, is available here.

Developing a Research Question

A lot of the students I work with at CSULB start working on a preliminary literature review for their thesis or dissertation even before they’ve firmly narrowed down an exact research question. That is, they start the thesis-writing process by putting together a rough draft of the literature review based on a topic (rather than a question), or on a somewhat vague question (that they’ll “polish” later). This is perfectly fine. But the final draft of your literature review will likely have been re-written so that it addresses the scholarly conversation on a specific question or set of closely-related questions. In any case, if you’re having trouble with research questions, the following resources can help:

Eastern Michigan University: Developing a Good Research Question

George Mason University: How to Write a Research Question

The Thesis Whisperer: Mind the Gap and How to Choose a Thesis Topic that Actually Matters and The PhD Piñata: Groping for Research Questions

Literature Search Strategies

If you’re mostly having trouble finding sources, here are some good sites with helpful information:

CSULB: OneSearch at CSULB: Search Tips

CSULB: Research Tools

Mississippi College: Research 101: Building better searches…Boolean & more

Elmira College: How to Do Research: A Step-By-Step Guide: 2a. Search Strategies

Southern New Hampshire University: Finding Scholarly Sources

“Google-Fu” (useful for Google Scholar searches): The Beginners Guide to Google-Fu? and Improving Your Google-Fu: How To Find Anything You Want

Literature Reading Strategies

Below are some helpful resources on reading through the literature to be discussed (or not) in your review.

Beth Azar | APA: Sink or skim? Tackle that endless pile of books and journal articles with the help of these reading tips.

Miriam E. Sweeney: How to Read for Grad School I’ve also made Dr. Sweeney’s blogpost into a handout that I often share at live workshops:

Wendy Belcher: Solution to Writing Obstacle No. 26: “I have to read just one more book before I can write.”

Summarizing and Paraphrasing Sources

In addition to the problem of structuring the whole lit review, some students struggle with summarizing articles (which is a necessary part of most lit reviews). How does one distill a 20-page journal article, for instance, into a 1-2 paragraph summary?

In the humanities (e.g. literature, philosophy), you might simply summarize the main points of an author’s argument. For example, you might realize that the argument proceeds in major “steps” or “moves,” so you might summarize each major step/move in a sentence or two. For example:

In his paper on the ethics of bank robbing, R. Hood (1954) argues that it is ethically permissible to rob banks as long as the funds are re-distributed to the poor. He defends this claim on utilitarian grounds, noting that the total happiness of the society will increase by an amount far greater than the relatively minor decrease in happiness experienced by the banks’ shareholders. He considers, then refutes, objections to this position, including objections based on non-utilitarian approaches to ethics (egoism, Kantian deontology).

For the physical and social sciences (or any “empirical” area of study), on the other hand, research articles almost always include a standard list of specific elements (listed below), whether or not each of these elements has its own heading or subheading in the article. Most, if not all, of these elements should be paraphrased in your summary.

These elements are:

–Purpose: What was the purpose of the study? What were the researchers trying to accomplish or figure out? For example: “This study aimed to assess the prevalence of depression and its associated factors among medical students.”

–Research questions: What exact/specific question(s) did the researchers try to answer? For example: “What is the prevalence of depression among a random sample of medical students in Karnataka, India? In this sample, what associations exist between depression and the following social factors: alcohol use, drug addiction, family problems, family history of depression, and staying away from home?”

–Methods: What type of study was it (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods)? What did they do exactly? (specific tools or instruments used) Who were the participants/what was the sample? How were they selected? What were their demographics? (obviously, these questions will be different depending on whether the study was conducted on people, animals, or inanimate objects)? For example: “This study used quantitative methods. A stratified random sample of 400 students (54.3% males and 45.7% females) was assessed using the Beck Depression Inventory. Univariate analysis was conducted to test for associations between depression and the selected variables (social factors).”

–Findings/results: What did the researchers find out? Did they confirm or disconfirm (refute) any existing studies/findings? For example: “The overall prevalence of depression was found to be 71.25%. Among those with depression, a majority (80%) had mild and moderate depression. The study showed that 46.3% (132) of the depressed were females and 53.7% (153) were males. The prevalence of depression was found to be significantly greater among those with family problems and family history of depression.”

–Limitations & delimitations: To crudely oversimplify, limitations are potential weaknesses or blind spots of your study that are outside of your control (based on the fundamental limits of your particular method). For example: “One limitation of this study was that the Back Depression Inventory relies on self-reporting of symptoms, and self-report depends on the assumption that participants accurately report their thoughts and feelings.” Delimitations are potential weaknesses or blind spots that are inside your control. For example: “Because the researchers studied participants from only one region of India, the results may not be universalizable to other contexts.” For more on limitations and delimitations, see this helpful article from Dissertation Recipes.

–Significance: Why should we care about the findings? How are they important to the field? How does this study contribute to your argument? How will the findings of this study inform your research? For example: “The study showed that depression is highly prevalent among medical students in the area studied. The findings point to the importance of broad screening and psychiatric counseling of this vulnerable population.”

The examples above are based on this study:

Kumar, G. S., Animesh, J., & Hegde, S. (2012). Prevalence of depression and its associated factors using Beck Depression Inventory among students of a medical college in Karnataka. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 54(3), 223–226. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3512357/

A few notes of caution:

–By using this study as an example, I am not necessarily attesting to the quality of the research or the writing (I’m not a medical professional – who am I to judge?). I am simply using it because it was easy to locate, and it clearly and directly lists most of the elements discussed above.

–To save time, I indiscriminately plagiarized some of the exact wording used in the published  study. DO NOT DO THIS in your class papers. It is an unethical action for which your professors will not grade you kindly!

–The order of items in your summary does not have to follow the order that I’ve used above.

–As stated elsewhere on this page, not all summaries in a lit review will include all of the elements I’ve listed above. These are just given as examples. Remember that, in your actual lit review, you will only include detailed summaries of a small number of articles. You will not summarize most of the literature in great detail—most of the time you’ll be simply reporting major findings, along with synthesizing and integrating your sources.  

For more information on proper paraphrases and avoiding plagiarism, see my page on Avoiding Plagiarism. See also the following made-up example to give you some idea of what a completed summary might look like:

Bokanovsky and Seldin (2017) studied the psycho-social challenges facing gender and sexual minority (GSM) youth in urban schools. Their purpose was to look for correlations between depression and experiences of bullying among the target population. The sample included 100 young people from inner city schools in the Southwestern US who self-identified as belonging to a gender or sexual minority. The researchers used a mixed methods approach, administering the Beck Depression inventory (a quantitative tool) and a series of open-ended interview questions (qualitative) to all participants. They found that there was a strong correlation between bullying and experiences of depression, and that this correlation was especially pronounced among transgender participants. This study underscores the high risk of both bullying and depression among GSM youth, and points to the need for further study of this topic.

Further resources: Summarizing articles for a lit review is very similar to writing a writing a “precis” or an abstract (although these terms have specific meanings depending on the discipline and/or the professor who’s teaching you). So, the following resources might be helpful:

Dr. Ross Matsueda (UW): Writing a useful precis for a research article

Swales & Feak on Abstracts (note—in this handout, RP stands for “research paper”):

The full Swales and Feak text, Academic Writing for Graduate Students, 3rd ed., can be purchased here. It’s an excellent reference, and I use it frequently in my work with graduate students.

Synthesizing and Integrating Sources

Professors often complain that students write their literature reviews as a long string of summaries: “First, Author A (2015) states X. He used Y methods and had Z many participants. He found that…

Second, Author B (2019) states that… She used X methods to…. She concluded that…”

Generally speaking, this is NOT what professors want you to do. Instead, they want you to “synthesize” (or “integrate”) the literature, meaning that you organize your literature review around key ideas (or themes), and incorporate the authors/sources into this discussion. In other words, your discussion is idea-driven (or topic-driven) rather than paper-driven.

For example, a “synthesized” literature review might include sentences like this one: “There are many schools of thought on topic X. The principal schools of thought are Y, Z, and T… One of the principal contemporary defenders of the Y position is Author A (2015), who argues that…”

This is just an example, of course. There are many different ways to structure a literature review, including arranging it chronologically (e.g. showing the historical evolution of ideas on a topic), arranging it by key positions or schools of thought in a debate (like the example given a few lines above, and like the “ice cream” lit review handout available on this page), arranging it “top-down” (e.g. a major “umbrella” topic which is divided into several subtopics), or arranging it according to some theoretical framework that you’re applying to understand the topic. Finally, many lit reviews are simply organized around “themes” that emerge from the literature. In other words, you read several articles (i.e., literature) focused on a particular topic. Five of these articles all mentioned some key idea, or subtopic, that plays an important role in the main topic. This key idea could be a “theme” that you’ll talk about in your lit review. In addition, 12 of the articles mentioned another key idea. This could be another theme. Your literature review will start with something like: “This literature review examines studies on topic X. Three key themes emerge from this examination: (1) Theme a, (2) Theme b,” and so on. See the “Zombie” lit review handout above for a model of a theme-based literature review.

Your topic, research questions, and purpose will ultimately determine what the right organizational approach is. But the right approach is pretty much NEVER going to be: “just list a series of papers, in whatever order, and summarize them one by one.” Instead, you should choose an organizational approach that best suits your topic (and any arguments or claims you make about it).

Another way to synthesize is to get papers to “talk to each other.” For example, “Johnson (2011) finds that Y is the case. His study involved a sample size of… ” (here, you’re briefly summarizing the main findings, methods, etc. of Johnson, 2011). Now, you’re going to make the Johnson paper “talk to” another paper: “In contrast, Tanizaki (2015) conducts a similar study, but has strikingly different findings from Johnson….” (now, you elaborate on Tanizaki’s study and explain the differences from Johnson’s). Finally, the synthesis: “Taken together, these studies demonstrate the need for further research on Y. For example, it is unclear whether…”

With these points in mind, here are some useful materials on “synthesizing” information in your lit review:

The “ice cream” and “Zombie” lit review handouts (these can be downloaded above, in the section called “My Workshop on Lit Reviews”).

Harvard’s Graduate School of Education: The Literature Review: A Research Journey. The video is no longer available for non-Harvard students (damn you, paywall!). But the handouts, which ARE available, are still very helpful: 1. Question, 2. Search, 3. Manage, 4. Synthesize (our main interest in this section), 5. Write.

Purdue OWL: Synthesizing sources. Includes some helpful textual examples to show you what synthesis looks like in practice.

Frederiksen and Phelps (2020). Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students. An Open Access Textbook (available for free here) with lots of helpful info. The chapter on synthesis can be directly accessed here.

Many students find it helpful to make a “synthesis matrix” to record the main ideas of the articles that they’ve read. You can find helpful examples here and here, or download this sample handed out by some professors in our CSULB Education department:

Further Reading

Here are some of the best books available on writing literature reviews:

Wendy Belcher: Writing your journal article in 12 weeks. (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 2019).

John Swales & Christine Feak: Telling a research story: Writing a literature review. (University of Michigan Press, 2009).

Jose Galvan & Melisa Galvan. Writing literature reviews. (Routledge, 7th ed., 2017).

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