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What is an Literature Review?
Evaluate the Literature
Structure your Review
What is a Literature Review?
A literature review is a critical analysis of the existing literature on a particular topic. It is different from an essay, which aims to make an argument or answer a question by using existing literature as supporting evidence. The literature review is instead focused on the literature itself. It is more than simply summarising a variety of sources, you must also compare and evaluate the literature.
The literature review can serve one of two purposes.
1. It can be a stand-alone paper focused on identifying and evaluating all the research conducted on a topic. This is the kind of literature review you may be asked to complete as an assessment in one of your subjects at NTI. Your literature review should:
- Give an overview of the research that has already been conducted on a topic
- Identify key concepts, common themes and recurring patterns in existing literature
- Identify the strengths and weaknesses of past research
2. A literature review can also make up part of a larger project, such as a stepping stone towards a research proposal or thesis. In addition to the aims above, it should also:
- Identify any gaps in the existing research, or an area that has not yet been well-explored. Your own research can then fill this gap (this will also validate the research).
- Narrow down your research question so that the research you will soon conduct is clearer and more specific.
To successfully produce a literature review, you must read widely enough to identify the key arguments that exist in your chosen field.
What kind of ‘literature’?
As with all research at a university level, you will be expected to seek out academic sources for your research. This includes:
- Academic books
- Conference proceedings
- Government reports
- Statistical data
The prescribed and recommended readings assigned for your subject are a good place to start as they will often include cornerstone literature in the field. You should seek to read widely enough that you identify the prominent researchers and ideas in the field, as well as any current debates or conflicting interpretations. You are not expected to read everything available, but you should include a variety of sources. The word count of your assessment will indicate how much material you expected to cover.
It is also important that you don’t limit your sources to those that reinforce your own ideas, or support your position. You should include a variety of sources with opposing ideas, and evaluate them objectively, based on a number of criteria.
See: The Research Process for a guide on understanding your assessment and undertaking research.
Remember: Keep the publication details of all your sources. This will save you time later, you will already have your reference list!
Evaluate the Literature
A critical review requires more than simply a summary of your sources. You are required to judge each source for its credibility and reliability. You will first need to evaluate each individual source you read, and then evaluate the literature as a whole.
For each source you come across during your research, consider the following questions:
- What are the key points made by the author?
- Is the author an authority in the field? Consider whether the author is widely published in the field, particularly in scholarly journals, or whether they have been cited by other authors.
- Is the source reliable? Note whether the author outlines their research method, and whether the sources they have used are also reliable. Where did you find this source? Was it found in one of the library’s online databases, or did you find it by searching on Google? See our guide Finding Scholarly Sources to learn how you can identify reliable information online.
- Is the source objective or is there a bias? The author of your sources should be held to the same standards as you are in your own research. Consider whether the author has evaluated their own evidence fairly, or whether they have presented imbalanced evidence. Has any evidence been presented at all? Are they only presenting one side of an argument? You should also consider the purpose of a source: has it been written to persuade or to inform?
Once you have evaluated all your sources individually, you must then evaluate them in relation to one another. To evaluate the literature as a while, consider the following questions:
Tip: If a source doesn’t seem very useful, it could still be worth including in your review. It is appropriate to discuss sources that were not very useful or reliable – that is still an evaluation!
- Are there common themes or recurring ideas amongst the literature?
- Do the scholars in your chosen field reach similar or differing conclusions and interpretations?
- Have similar methods of research been used across the field, and can they address the different interpretations?
- Are there any gaps or unanswered questions across the literature?
Structure your Review
Although a literature review is a different piece of work than an essay, the structure is very similar in that they are also made up of an introduction, a body and a conclusion. This framework allows you to structure your information clearly, but each part has a slightly different purpose to the essay (See: Essay Structure), which reflects the aims of the literature review.
Your introduction should establish the purpose and topic of your review. Explain the scope of your research, what kinds of sources you have used, how they were selected and why you have omitted certain types of sources, if you have. Briefly introduce any trends or points of interest identified during the research process and how this will inform the structure of your review, but save any specific evidence or discussion for the body.
Like an essay, the body of your literature review is made up of a series of paragraphs outlining your research in a logical way. Rather than focusing on one source per paragraph, each paragraph should have a theme or key focus and discuss multiple sources. You may need to summarise the findings of some sources but remember a literature review is more than simply summarising. You must be critical of each source’s findings and the methodologies used. By comparing multiple sources in one paragraph, you can analyse how some sources are more reliable than others, and whether they contribute to the literature in any meaningful way.
As with essays, each paragraph should include a topic sentence to introduce the focus of the paragraph, followed by your analysis and supported by evidence from the literature. See: Paragraph Structure
When structuring your literature review, group sources by shared commonalities. You may want to categorise your research by:
- Sources that reach similar conclusions or interpretations
- Sources that use similar methodologies in their own research
- Which sources prove more or less reliable
- Chronological findings, such as grouping based on older sources versus current sources
- Other patterns you have identified during the research process
There is no one right way to categorise your sources, it will be different for every topic based on the area of study, types of sources and assessment question. The annotations and notes you have made during the research process will do part of this organisational work for you!
Return to the purpose of your literature review; remind the reader what field you have chosen to explore and what you hoped to learn by examining the existing literature. As with essays, do not introduce new evidence in your conclusion. This paragraph should be dedicated to wrapping up your review, and summarising any trends, key themes or existing gaps you have discovered. It may also be appropriate to identify pieces of literature that had a significant impact on the field, based on how other literature responded to or built upon it.
You may also identify any clear gaps in the existing literature and indicate whether further research is needed. This is particularly relevant if your review forms part of a larger piece of work, which you will follow with your own research.
Tip: Cite multiple sources within a single citation to summarise in a concise way. See the NTI Harvard Referencing Guide for help on citing multiple sources.
Tip: Categories your research with a mind map or headings to group sources by their commonalities. With headings, you can shuffle them around to find a logical order. This can serve as an outline for your literature review.
Once the first draft is completed remember that you will need to work on, at least, a second and third draft. Reread the Assessment details and ensure that your thesis statement or research question has addressed the purpose of this assessment.
Reread your essay, checking that it addresses your thesis statement, and that each paragraph works towards proving your thesis statement. Check that your thesis statement, introduction and conclusion align, and that your essay has not accidentally changed direction between the beginning and the end. You need to read through your paragraphs and ensure the argument is consistent all the way through.
Reread your essay, checking that your language, spelling, grammar and referencing formats are in line with an academic essay for submission at NTI.
Below is a list of questions that you should be asking yourself when revising drafts.
- Have I done everything the Assessment details have asked me to do?
- Does my thesis statement or research questions reflect this?
- Is my thesis statement in both the introduction and conclusion?
- Have I provided strong evidence from academic sources to support my argument?
- Have I evaluated the evidence and shown critical thinking within the body of each paragraph?
- Does each paragraph have the correct structure (topic sentence, supporting sentences, concluding sentence)? See: Paragraph Structure
- Does the order of my paragraphs create a logical flow to build my overall argument? Does each paragraph, and the evidence within them, contribute to arguing my thesis statement?
- Is most of the evidence paraphrased rather than directly quoted?
- Have I correctly formatted and referenced all quotes and ideas from other sources according to the correct referencing system? See: NTI Harvard Referencing Guide
- Is my essay within the required word limit (which generally does not include the Reference List)?
- Is my language academic and formal?
- If I have used acronyms, have I spelled written out the full words and then provided each the acronym in parentheses given the full name of an acronym on its first mention?
- On subsequent mentions, have I only written the acronym?
- Have I italicised Pali and Sanskrit words?
- Have I proofread my essay for Australian grammar, spelling and punctuation?
- Have I included a Reference List with an entry for each source that I cited in the essay?
Finally, when I have a Final Draft:
- Have I checked the similarity report, generated by turn-it-in, to ensure that I have not inadvertently plagiarised myself or someone else?
- Have I saved a copy of my essay?