What is a Literature Review?

A literature review, something that I have heard about, but never had to do, is not nearly as terrifying as it seemed when I began researching it. A literature review is neither a book review, nor an annotated bibliography (though it does contain some similar aspects to the latter). A literature review should do more than an annotated bibliography; this simple definition found itself in more than one resource I read, but it does come across as a palatable way to think about literature reviews as I tried to grasp the ideas behind them.

A literature review deals with scholarly works about a certain topic. Within this video, made by NCSU Libraries, the works that will be used in a literature review are broken down to the major works about the topic as well as other works responding to those works or the topic. An easy way for me to think about this is to consider Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto and then look for other works (books, articles, theses, etc.) responding to their ideas.

A good place to find scholarly sources at Marshall University is the Library’s Databases, though you can also sometimes find scholarly sources by scouring Google or other search engines, as well as various academic databases (JSTOR, for example) though most of these do require some sort of paid membership.

An important idea to remember while researching is that you should be reading all relevant work relating to your topic. Anything that goes along with your topic should be examined and considered for use. The idea of relevant material should be thought to mean within reason; for example, if you are researching the parenting habits of sharks, you should not include information about how peacocks’ tails help with attracting mates unless it is somehow relevant to your discussion.

What do you do with the scholarly works once you have found them? You do summarize each source (quite similar to an annotated bibliography), but you also analytically examine and synthesize the sources with each other. You can do this by showing how the sources build off of each other, how one source might give an explanation for some hole in the logic of another source, or even by discussing how one source works against another source. There are many ways to synthesize your sources.

Another thing you do with a literature review is work your own ideas in. This can be done through showing how your sources connect, but also by exploring your own ideas within or about the sources. The extent that you can work with your own ideas does depend on the purpose behind the literature review. The video I linked above does a very good job discussing different kinds of literature reviews, ranging from ones meant to be used in a class to research a topic before a larger assignment to ones used in a thesis or dissertation.

As you move through your process, it is important to remember that the idea you start with might change. This is true of every type of writing, but being flexible and willing to change with your information is something that we do not always hear when we need to. You might have trouble finding sources relating to your initial focus, or you might even find a more interesting focus to work with. Keep your options open, and you might be able to write an even better literature review (or any type of paper) than you thought you could.

Some further helpful links include information such as:

Further Reading on Literature Reviews

A Literature Review Checklist

Importance of a Literature Review and a Breakdown of the Different Types

One Way to Write a Literature Review (Step-by-Step which includes its own Helpful Links)

A Breakdown of the Introduction, Body, and Conclusion of a Literature Review

Some Components to Consider when Writing a Literature Review

Two Examples of Literature Reviews



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