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Literature reviews

Whether you're writing your dissertation, an annotated bibliography or a research proposal, this guide covers everything you need to know in order to struture and write an expert literature review.

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What is a literature review?

Literature reviews take on many forms at university: you could be asked to write a literature review as a stand-alone document or as part of a dissertation or thesis. You may also be asked to write an annotated bibliography or a critical review - both of these assignments are closely related to literature reviews, and follow many of the same conventions.

A literature review is an extended piece of writing that should collate, link and evaluate key sources related to a chosen topic or research question. Rather than simply summarising the existing research on your chosen topic, you should aim to show which papers can be clustered around a similar theme or topic - they may have a shared methodology, or have been carried out in the same context. You will be looking for strengths and weaknesses in the research, questioning the relevance and significance of the results in relation to your topic, and looking for any gaps or under researched areas. Your writing should make these thoughts and evaluations clear to the reader, so that they have a good understanding and overview of the body of research you have chosen to investigate.

Here is a short video that explains a literature review from the perspective of the reader:
 

Salter, J. [Dr. Jodie Salter]. (2016, March 14). Writing the Literature Review: A Banquet Hall Analogy [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE_Us8UjS6

 

Finding your sources

Using Library Search

The more you read around your subject, the more familiar you will become with the current literature, and you will start to build a map of the sources you already have, and the information you are missing. A clear search strategy can help fill these gaps in your knowledge, and your themes or topics of interest can be used as key search terms when looking for further resources. 
 

Top tips for searching the Library Gateway

  • Use Boolean terms to help the search engine recognise which words should be treated as a phrase. For example, if you search “costume design”, the search engine will know to treat “costume design” as a phrase, not two separate words.
     
  • You can then add AND and OR to add in additional terms and synonyms. For example, “costume design” AND “film” will only find articles or sources that include both of these terms together, helping you to narrow your search. To go wider, think about adding in synonyms using the OR function: “costume design” AND “film” or “cinema” or “movies”.
     
  • You can also use an asterisk (*) to search for a word stem to help widen your search. For example, if you search teach*, this will find articles that include the word teach, teacher, teachers, teaching and so on.
     
  • Decide at the start on what your inclusion and exclusion criteria will be. These might include limits on:
    - Date of publication
    - Language
    - Type/group of participants
    - Peer-reviewed journals
    - Keywords and synonyms
    - Type of study, ie. systematic review, case study etc.

     

Search strategies

Explore the following resources for more information on search strategy models:

  • PICO (Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) - Used primarily in Health Sciences but offers a clear step-by-step approach to literature searching that could be adapted for use in other subjects.
  • SPIDER - Developed from the PICK method, SPIDER searching is used mainly in qualitative research to identify a phenomenon or behaviour, rather than a specific intervention (more quantitative).
For more detailed information on searching the library databases in your subject area, visit the Hallam Library webpages: https://blogs.shu.ac.uk/libraryresearchsupport/literature/

Structuring your review

Finding the gap

A photograph showing the phrase 'Mind the Gap' painted on a railway platform.
 

You might have heard about finding the gap in your literature review - but what does this mean?

Looking for the gap in the literature means finding an aspect of your topic that hasn't been fully explored by researchers. This might be because you are researching a new technique or technology, or that your method or approach hasn't been used before in your field of study. You don't always need to find a gap, but it is a good way of demonstrating your literature searching skills and ability to compare a wide range of different sources. If you are able to find one, introduce the gap towards the end of the literature review, so that the reader can trace your path through the evidence first.

Top tip: Writing with subheadings
Use subheadings to structure your writing – more is better! Every time you find yourself moving onto a different theme or a new link you’ve found in the literature, add a subheading. Then, when you've finished writing your literature review, you can decide which subheadings are still helpful and which can be deleted.

 

Literature review structure: A three-tier model

Imagine you are explaining your dissertation topic to a friend for the first time. Even for someone on the same degree course, they would need some context on the topic before you introduced more detail and complex examples.

A literature review follows the same ‘funnel’ narrative, moving from general themes to more specific detail:

An upside down triangle, showing that a lite

Top tip: Sticky note shuffle
To check the flow of your literature review, write the topic or theme of each paragraph on a post-it note and line them up. Does the order make sense? Can you explain how to move from one post-it note to the next? If you jump between very different ideas, go back to your writing and make sure you explain the link in your paragraph, or think about moving the paragraphs around into a more logical order.

 

Critical writing

Paragraph structure

Each paragraph of your literature review should bring together or synthesise two or more pieces of reading (these could be articles, book chapters, reports, videos, policy documents etc.) 

Synthesis is the term we use in academic writing to describe the process of creating an opinion or argument based on a trend you find in the literature. If you are able to synthesis evidence, you are not only creating a robust argument (by avoiding relying too heavily on just one piece of writing) but you are also showing that you are a critical writer that can make conclusions based on a diverse range of evidence. Bingo!

As in other forms of academic writing, the paragraphs in your literature review should have four key sections:

Topic sentence: The key theme or trend that you have identified in the literature.
Introduce the evidence: Give more information on the specific way in which the studies in this paragraph link together. This provides extra context for the reader and allows you to give more descriptive informationif needed.
Evidence: Show the evidence for the link or trend you are proposing. Think of this as creating a body of evidence at the centre of your paragraph, and link sources together using signposting words.
Discussion: Your critical voice, offering one interpretation of the evidence. You could discuss the strengths or weaknesses of the studies, highlight their significance for your study, or think about a possible consequence of their agreement. Try to answer the question 'so what?

 

Compare the following paragraphs against this four-part structure - which version is more critical?
 

Paragraph A:

Paragraph B:

Researchers have studied dog communication at length. Some studies have focused on rapid eye movement in dogs, where researchers conducted observations of different groups of dogs some with a single person present, others in groups or with children in the room. Basset Griffon (2018) found that dogs communicated more through blinks and winks when they were alone than when humans were present, and this has been explored in another study by Markiesje (2016). Other studies have looked at dogs who are related but there was no real difference between dogs from the same family and others with no connection (Sennenhunde, 2015; Sealeyham 2011. Overall, communication in pets is a wide research topic and the literature is very diverse.

There is a developing body of evidence to suggest that dogs may be capable of advanced communication when their owners are not present. A recent study of rapid eye movement in unsupervised dogs (Basset Griffon, 2018) identified at least six repeated patterns of blinks and winks in 82% of the observed canine-to-canine interactions. Similarly, in a longitudinal study conducted in a rescue centre in the Netherlands (Markiesje, 2016), researchers indicated that the number of non-verbal communication cues between kennel mates increased in direct proportion to the amount of time they spent together. Studies into interactions between dog siblings have confirmed this correlation, although there was no significant difference between direct siblings and those dogs adopted into the same family, suggesting that an aptitude for communication may not be inherited (Sennenhunde, 2015; Sealeyham 2011). Future research might therefore develop this line of enquiry, and consider whether humans might mimic these same non-verbal cues to conduct rudimentary conversations with their pets.

Although both paragraphs use the TIED structure, we can see that the discussion in paragraph B is much more developed, and gives a specific suggestion about how future research could be conducted. We can also see that the evidence in paragraph B is clearly linked together, and that the conclusions or critical features of the papers are explained to the reader. Although drawing on the same evidence, paragraph A summarises and describes the research papers, rather than giving an evaluation or clear comparison of the different sources.

Focusing on the discussion sections (in bold), we can see that paragraph B is more critical, as it answers a key questions to keep in mind when writing critically: 'so what?' What conclusion or take home message do you want the reader to get from the evidence you have presented? ‘Therefore’, ‘Consequently’ and ‘As a result’ are all good terms to use here, as they prompt you to be clear and explicitly explain on interpretation of the source you have included.

Literature reviews, critiques and annotated bibliographies

Other types of literature review

Not all literature reviews form part of a dissertation. Use the tabs below for guidance on different assignment formats related to literature reviews:

You may be asked to write a literature review as one of your assignments, rather than as part of a dissertation. If this is the case, you’ve probably been given a general topic or title to help guide your literature search. For these assignments, try to rephrase your topic as a specific question – the idea here is that each paper you include in the literature review can then help you to answer a small part of this question.

For example, imagine that you have been asked to write a literature review on dogs. 

This is a wide topic area that would be impossible to cover in one assignment. Instead, setting a research question on a more focused aspect of the topic will help you to find relevant literature and demonstrate your analysis skills (by breaking the topic down, you are already showing that you are a critical thinker!) You can then select the articles that help to provide an answer to the question you have set. 

By introducing limits on setting, participants and intended outcomes for the literature review, it is possible to narrow the topic of 'dogs breeds' down to a more focused research question. Here are three possible titles for a literature review on this broad topic:

  • What are the emotional and behavioral impacts of therapy dogs for autistic children?
  • How might aptitude be tested and measured in puppies selected for guide dog training?
  • What are the key success factors for dogs as social media influencers on Instagram and Facebook?

Your initial reading will help you to identify trends or themes in the literature that might help to focus your search. You can then follow the standard structure for writing a literature review, using the funnel structure from this guide.

A critical review, or ‘critique’, involves breaking a journal article down into its key sections so that you can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each part. Making notes on each of the following headings is a useful way to kickstart your analysis of any article:

  • Research aim
  • Research approach (ie. quantitative)
  • Ethical issues
  • Sampling
  • Data collection method
  • Data analysis method
  • Findings
  • Generalisability/transferability

This list is not exhaustive and depending on your discipline, there may be other relevant categories to focus on in the article, such as theoretical models or implications for practice. The subheadings from the article will also provide an overview of the key sections to include in your review, and you may already have an idea from your wider reading of what sections often appear in articles in your field of study.

Breaking down the article in this way allows you to focus your critique and evaluation, highlighting significant or relevant aspects of the article to the reader. Your assessment criteria will help you to identify which elements of the article to include in your critique: for example, if you needed to include a reflection on how the article links to your professional practice, it would make sense to include your thoughts on the articles key findings and transferability in your critique.

For examples of sentence starters and academic language to use in your critical review, take a look at the following resources:

A comparative review - a critique or review that uses two or more journal articles - follows a very similar structure to a single paper review. In a critical review of multiple articles it is important to find the themes or categories that allow you to discuss and compare multiple articles in the same paragraph. This involves finding the key links and overlaps between the articles in your review:


Although it may not be possible to include all of your sources under every category (particularly if you are reviewing 3 or more papers), you should aim to discuss more than one in every paragraph. Bringing together your sources in this way is called synthesis and it is a key skill in critical writing.

Most importantly, remember to answer the "so what?" question in each paragraph, giving a possible consequence or conclusion based on the link you have found. For example, if you have noted that three of your articles are all limited by a small sample size, so what? What are the implications of this? Why might this have happened? How could future research tackle this problem? For more on this topic, see our guide to critical writing.

An annotated bibliography combines a correctly formatted list of references (APA) with a short paragraph that gives:

  • a short summary of the source, that picks out the key points of the article, such as context and setting, participants and conclusions;
  • a brief evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the article;
  • a sentence or two on the relevance of the source to your question or topic – what does it contribute to your knowledge of the subject, and in what ways might its relevance be limited?

Sources are not discussed together in the same paragraph, but the document itself will have a key theme or topic that ties the different sources together – almost like a module reading list:

Brym, R., Godbout, M., Hoffbauer, A., Menard, G. & Huiquan Zhang, T. (2014) Social media in the 2011 Egyptian uprising. The British Journal of Sociology, 65: 266-271. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-4446.12080

This article conducts a comparative analysis of quantitative data on social media usage and political engagement during the 2011 Egyptian uprising, using new bit.ly and Gallup survey results. The study generates a large amount of data on the key differences in social media usage between active demonstrators and sympathetic onlookers. Most significantly, the study explores the key drivers of participating in social unrest, such as a lack of confidence in the government, and how these are facilitated by social media. However, by only gathering quantitative data, the study is limited in its ability to provide an insight into how protestors narrate and explain their involvement in the protests in their own words. Overall, this article offers significant evidence to support a study of the importance of social media in contemporary political movements, and is particularly useful as one of few studies to focus on events outside of Europe and North America.

Be sure to check your assessment criteria for tips on how you should evaluate your sources: for example, you might be asked to include specific methodology types or to link your sources to professional practice.

Two key principles apply to every literature review, whether it is part of a dissertation or an individual assignment:

 1. A literature review is more than just a list of sources. The articles and evidence you include must be linked together around shared themes and characteristics, or highlight significant disagreements and contrast. Map your reading using keywords or themes that occur in multiple articles - these can be used as subheadings in your draft literature review.

2. While it is important to show that you are familiar with research in your field, you also need to show that you can evaluate and offer interpretations of the evidence you present to the reader. Remember to keep answering the 'so what?' question as you write. 

Top tips

Two key principles apply to every literature review, whether you are writing the review as part of a dissertation or an individual assignment:

1. A literature review is more than just a list of sources. The articles and evidence you include must be linked together around shared themes and characteristics, or highlight significant disagreements and contrast. Map your reading using keywords or themes that occur in multiple articles - these can be used as subheadings in your draft literature review.

2. While it is important to show that you are familiar with research in your field, you also need to show that you can evaluate and offer interpretations of the evidence you present to the reader. Remember to keep answering the 'so what?' question as you write.