How to prepare literature reviews Research Student Generic Skills Training Programme

How to prepare literature reviews
Research Student Generic Skills Training Programme
14 February 2012
Dr Paul Reilly
[email protected]
What is a literature review?
The Ingredients
The Search
The Review
Write down an answer to this
question (take 2 minutes)
• The thing that scares me the most about my
literature review is….
What is a Literature Review?
• Review research in your chosen area to clarify conceptual
issues and empirical context for your project
• If there is no previous published research look for empirical
work from related areas
• Use literature review to learn about research design for your
project – build on work of previous scholars
• Consider how your project will contribute to the literature in
your chosen subject area
• Your opportunity to persuade your reader (and examiner) that
your work is relevant and that it was worth doing!
Three stages at which a review of the
literature is needed
• an early review is needed to establish the context and
rationale for your study and to confirm your choice of
research focus/question;
• as the study period gets longer, you need to make sure that
you keep in touch with current, relevant research in your field,
which is published during the period of your research;
• as you prepare your final report or thesis, you need to relate
your findings to the findings of others, and to identify their
implications for theory, practice, and research.
A literature review should not be…
• A descriptive list of papers or summaries of research
• Organised around the sources with each described in great
• An argument for the importance of what you are researching
with no contextualisation of key issues
Instead, your literature review must be organised around ideas
with an assessment of previous studies (including their
strengths and weaknesses).
Merriam (1988) lit review as ‘an interpretation and
synthesis of published work’
• You need to be actively involved in interpreting the literature
that you are reviewing, and in explaining that interpretation
to the reader, rather than just listing what others have
• The term ‘synthesis’ refers to the bringing together of
material from different sources, and the creation of an
integrated whole.
Questions that your examiners ask that
your literature review can help you answer
• What research question(s) are you asking?
• Has anything similar been done in this area
• What is already known/understood about this
• How might your project challenge existing
beliefs or add to this understanding?
What is meant by critical writing?
• a clear and confident refusal to accept the conclusions of
other writers without evaluating the arguments and evidence
that they provide;
• a balanced presentation of reasons why the conclusions of
other writers may be accepted or may need to be treated with
• a clear presentation of your own evidence and argument,
leading to your conclusion;
• a recognition of the limitations in your own evidence,
argument, and conclusion.
Finding your academic voice involves:
healthy scepticism … but not cynicism;
confidence … but not ‘cockiness’ or arrogance;
judgement which is critical … but not dismissive;
opinions … without being opinionated;
careful evaluation of published work … not serial shooting at random
• being ‘fair’: assessing fairly the strengths and weaknesses of other
people’s ideas and writing … without prejudice;
• making judgements on the basis of considerable thought and all the
available evidence … as opposed to assertions without reason.”
Wellington J., Bathmaker A., Hunt C., McCulloch G. and Sikes P. (2005).
Succeeding with your doctorate. London: Sage.
How to get started: ask yourself
these questions
• What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that
my literature review helps to define?
• What type of literature review am I conducting?
• Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy?
quantitative research? qualitative research?
• What is the scope of my literature review? What types of
publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government
documents, popular media)?
• What time period am I interested in? What geographical
area? What social setting? What materials?
Sources for literature review
• Identify key primary sources (e.g. govt. documents,
newspaper articles) and secondary sources (e.g. books,
journal articles) relevant to your topic early on
• Use relevant search terms on library databases (e.g. Lexis
Nexis) to identify your sources (see Library tutorials for more
on this)
• Use resources that are not in the library e.g. Inter-library
loans, BFI Archive, blogs.
• Remember, there is no target for the number of references
you include, but you need to show the marker you have
covered the literature that is relevant to your project.
Finding relevant literature:
• Check references of references. it can be a good idea to check
through their reference lists to see the range of sources that
they referred to.
• Hand searching of journals will reveal ideas about focus,
research questions, methods, techniques, or interpretations
that had not occurred to you
• Use software packages such as RefWorks to collect and store
details of articles but also read abstracts to make sure they
are relevant
• If in doubt, consult your Subject Librarian!
Exercise to help you use the library
effectively for your literature review
• Identify 2 - 3 key terms relevant to your dissertation (e.g.
social media, Arab Spring) and use these to search the library
catalogues for relevant resources.
• Try to evaluate the relevance of the resources that you find in
the library catalogues by using the title and the abstracts.
• Identify a list of resources for your literature review including
books, journal articles (databases if relevant to your topic),
and other resources that are relevant.
• Identify any difficulties that you have doing this, and write it
in less than 50 words (These can be discussed with your
supervisor if you have any concerns).
Writing up your literature review:
• Write up your review part way through your reading in order
to identify gaps/weaknesses
• Keep the focus on your study and not the literature
• Make sure the structure leads the reader through the key
issues e.g. signposting
• Make sure that the literature review is framed by your
research questions
• Where possible, use original sources rather than other
people’s review of literature(s)
Structure of the Literature Review:
• There is not one ‘ideal’ structure for your literature
review so talk to your supervisor about this
• Consider whether you wish to organise your
literature review chronologically, thematically, by
development of ideas (or a combination of these)
• Make sure that you always explain your structure for
your reader and have a clear narrative
• Provide full details of all sources cited in the dissertation
• Should include published books or articles, book chapters,
technical reports, web sources, etc.
• List alphabetically by author name (name of first author in the
case of works with co-authors)
• Make sure you understand the university regulations on
• Consult your department guidelines for more on referencing
• Be systematic in your search for relevant
• Critique literature that is relevant to your
project and avoid being overly descriptive
• Use a structure that leads the reader through
the key points and is framed by your research
• Make sure you adhere to the university
regulations on presentation (including