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The literature review process

literature review process

Purpose and rationale

The Literature Review process starts with giving some thought to the purpose and rationale for the review. It can help to write out a working statement of purpose or intent which outlines what the literature review should achieve and/or the central question that it should answer. The literature review should stand alone – it should demonstrate to the reader the rationale for the thesis as a whole and outline the gap within or contribution to knowledge that it attempts to make.

The literature search

The Literature Search is the foundation of the literature review process. The quality of the information that is yielded through the search will impact on the quality of the thesis. This involves a systematic approach to searching all relevant paper and electronic resources. A strategy is needed to undertake a literature search, whether you are searching bibliographic databases, subject gateways, search engines or other internet resources. You need to consider the purpose and the scope of your search which will yield more effective results.

Finding literature

  • Books and Book Reviews
  • Journals in area
  • Library catalogue
  • Document supply
  • Guides to subject literature
  • References
  • Standard texts
  • General literature search
  • Bibliographical sources
  • Citation indexes
  • Websites - researchers and research groups
  • Archives
  • Databases

Useful questions to consider

  • What am I looking for?

Consider your topic and think carefully about the search words to use: what alternative vocabulary can be used in discussion? What specific cases or examples are you interested in? What more general terms might include my topic? Are there categories which must be excluded?

  • Group these keywords into concepts, themes or strands
  • What is the relationship between them? Use Boolean operators:

boolean operators

Collating, recording and managing information

The Speed Reading section covers information management in more detail. This part of the literature review process is crucial – again, the quality of the literature review depends on how accurately information has been collated, recorded and managed. This includes references, important quotes, bibliographical information and referencing details. Here, it is necessary to go back to basics and this means understanding how to categorise research material. A robust research question can help to narrow and focus the search for relevant literature and information (which is why the literature search using keywords is so important). It can also help to define, in one or two sentences, the overall approach to the topic. It is crucial to ensure that the framework of research is in place before even beginning to read the material that has been gathered. This means cultivating a robust system with which to take notes, collate bibliographical data and organise references.

Analysis and interpretation

Once you have read and reviewed most of the material you gained from your literature search you can start to analyse and interpret the information you have gathered. When beginning to analyse and interpret your information you might like to consider the following things: 

  1. What are the methods used and the theories tested?
  2. What are the main methodological approaches?
  3. What are the strengths / weaknesses?
  4. How are the arguments defined and interpreted?
  5. How do the author(s) use definitions and concepts?
  6. Identify points of agreement and difference
  7. Develop some diagrams on your topic (these can come out of mind maps based on each individual piece of literature that you might have created)
  8. Start to compare the literature - which studies show similar findings? Which studies have used similar concepts?
  9. Consider coming up with a chronological 'history' of the topic using your citation index
  10. Who are the author(s) and what kind of reputation do they have? 

**This list is not exhaustive and it is always worth coming up with your own questions for analysis and interpretation of the literature**

Structuring and writing your literature review

"Examiners appreciate work which is logically presented, focused, succinct, and in which signposts are used to help readers to understand the path they are taking through the work …One of the problems with work that is poorly presented is that the examiner tends to lose confidence in the candidate and can become suspicious that there are deeper problems of inadequate and rushed conceptualisation."

Johnson, 1997 p.345 in Mullins and Kiley 2002

There are various approaches to structuring and organising a literature review and it is worthwhile discussing these with your supervisor to find out the one most relevant or appropriate to your discipline.

  • How to know which material to include? 

By the time you have finished your literature search you will have collected a vast amount of information in hard copy and electronic format. It is recommended that you have a discussion with your supervisor as to how far you should go back in time. 

  • Appropriate structure / organisation 

The four most effective ways of structuring your literature review are:

  1. Chronologically
  2. Thematically
  3. Conceptually
  4. Problem-based awareness 

Before you begin to write think about an outline structure for your argument for which you should have a clear chain of reasoning.

The following method may be used as a general guide: 

  • Introduce your thesis topic or research question (why it is worth examining)
  • Narrow your research question down to the studies discussed
  • Briefly outline how your review chapter is organised
  • Describe studies in detail according to how you have decided to structure the thesis
  • Describe and evaluate the information you have collected
  • Compare and analyse studies
  • Discuss the impact and implication of the studies you have outlined and outline how you intend to build or expand upon them
  • When concluding make sure you demonstrate your intended contribution to the topic - by now your review should have identified the gaps in the literature and it is necessary to show how this gap should be filled