Introduction to Literature Reviews

Pick up nearly any book on research methods and you will find a description of a literature review.  At a basic level, the term implies a survey of factual or nonfiction books, articles, and other documents published on a particular subject.  Definitions may be similar across the disciplines, with new types and definitions continuing to emerge.

As a requirement of the Interdisciplinary Studies M.A./M.S. programs at Fredonia, graduate students have the option to follow the traditional research pattern of a thesis with 6 credit hours earned in INDS 60 and INDS 691, or employ more innovative forms and methods, but in each case a student is required to conduct research and demonstrate its value by presenting a documented literature review of the focused topic. This chapter provides an overview to help prepare you for this process.

Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Identify the purpose of the literature review in  the research process
  • Distinguish between different types of literature reviews

What is a Literature Review?

As a foundation for knowledge advancement in every discipline, it is an important element of any research project.  At the graduate or doctoral level, the literature review is an essential feature of thesis and dissertation, as well as grant proposal writing.  It is by this means, that a researcher demonstrates familiarity with a body of knowledge and thereby establishes credibility with a reader.  An advanced-level literature review shows how prior research is linked to a new project, summarizing and synthesizing what is known while identifying gaps in the knowledge base, facilitating theory development, closing areas where enough research already exists, and uncovering areas where more research is needed.

A graduate-level literature review is a compilation of the most significant previously published research on your topic. Unlike an annotated bibliography or a research paper you may have written as an undergraduate, your literature review will outline, evaluate and synthesize relevant research and relate those sources to your own thesis or research question. It is much more than a summary of all the related literature.

It is a type of writing that demonstrate the importance of your research by defining the main ideas and the relationship between them. A good literature review lays the foundation for the importance of your stated problem and research question.

Literature reviews:

  • define a concept
  • map the research terrain or scope
  • systemize relationships between concepts
  • identify gaps in the literature

The purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate that your research question is meaningful. Additionally, you may review the literature of different disciplines to find deeper meaning and understanding of your topic. It is especially important to consider other disciplines when you do not find much on your topic in one discipline. You will need to search the cognate literature before claiming there is “little previous research” on your topic.

Well-developed literature reviews involve numerous steps and activities. The literature review is an iterative process because you will do at least two of them: a preliminary search to learn what has been published in your area and whether there is sufficient support in the literature for moving ahead with your subject. After this first exploration, you will conduct a deeper dive into the literature to learn everything you can about the topic and its related issues.

Literature Review Tutorial

A video titled "Literature Reviews: An overview for graduate students." Video here: https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/tutorials/litreview/. Transcript available here: https://siskel.lib.ncsu.edu/RIS/instruction/litreview/litreview.txt
This video is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 by NCSU Libraries. Transcript.

Literature Review Basics

An effective literature review must:

  • Methodologically analyze and synthesize quality literature on a topic
  • Provide a firm foundation to a topic or research area
  • Provide a firm foundation for the selection of a research methodology
  • Demonstrate that the proposed research contributes something new to the overall body of knowledge of advances the research field’s knowledge base.

All literature reviews, whether they are qualitative, quantitative or both, will at some point:

  1. Introduce the topic and define its key terms
  2. Establish the importance of the topic
  3. Provide an overview of the amount of available literature and its types (for example: theoretical, statistical, speculative)
  4. Identify gaps in the literature
  5. Point out consistent finding across studies
  6. Arrive at a synthesis that organizes what is known about a topic
  7. Discusses possible implications and directions for future research

Types of Literature Reviews

There are many different types of literature reviews, however there are some shared characteristics or features.  Remember a comprehensive literature review is, at its most fundamental level, an original work based on an extensive critical examination and synthesis of the relevant literature on a topic. As a study of the research on a particular topic, it is arranged by key themes or findings, which may lead up to or link to the  research question.  In some cases, the research question will drive the type of literature review that is undertaken.

The following section includes brief descriptions of the terms used to describe different literature review types with examples of each.   The included citations are open access, Creative Commons licensed or copyright-restricted.

Types of Review

Conceptual

Guided by an understanding of basic issues rather than a research methodology. You are looking for key factors, concepts or variables and the presumed relationship between them. The goal of the conceptual literature review is to categorize and describe concepts relevant to your study or topic and outline a relationship between them. You will include relevant theory and empirical research.

Examples of a Conceptual Review:

Empirical

An empirical literature review collects, creates, arranges, and analyzes numeric data reflecting the frequency of themes, topics, authors and/or methods found in existing literature. Empirical literature reviews present their summaries in quantifiable terms using descriptive and inferential statistics.

Examples of an Empirical Review:

Exploratory

Unlike a synoptic literature review, the purpose here is to provide a broad approach to the topic area. The aim is breadth rather than depth and to get a general feel for the size of the topic area. A graduate student might do an exploratory review of the literature before beginning a synoptic, or more comprehensive one.

Examples of an Exploratory Review:

Magnified (8/365)
Magnified ” by jakebouma is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Focused

A type of literature review limited to a single aspect of previous research, such as methodology. A focused literature review generally will describe the implications of choosing a particular element of past research, such as methodology in terms of data collection, analysis and interpretation.

Examples of a Focused Review:

Integrative

Critiques past research and draws overall conclusions from the body of literature at a specified point in time. Reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way. Most integrative reviews are intended to address mature topics or emerging topics. May require the author to adopt a guiding theory, a set of competing models, or a point of view about a topic.

Examples of an Integrative Review:

Meta-analysis

A subset of a  systematic review, that takes findings from several studies on the same subject and analyzes them using standardized statistical procedures to pool together data. Integrates findings from a large body of quantitative findings to enhance understanding, draw conclusions, and detect patterns and relationships. Gather data from many different, independent studies that look at the same research question and assess similar outcome measures. Data is combined and re-analyzed, providing a greater statistical power than any single study alone. It’s important to note that not every systematic review includes a meta-analysis but a meta-analysis can’t exist without a systematic review of the literature.

Examples of a Meta-Analysis:

Narrative/Traditional

An overview of research on a particular topic that critiques and summarizes a body of literature. Typically broad in focus. Relevant past research is selected and synthesized into a coherent discussion. Methodologies, findings and limits of the existing body of knowledge are discussed in narrative form. Sometimes also referred to as a traditional literature review. Requires a sufficiently focused research question. The process may be subject to bias that supports the researcher’s own work.

Examples of a Narrative/Traditional Review:

Realist

A specific type of literature review that is theory-driven and interpretative and is intended to explain the outcomes of a complex intervention program(s).

Examples of a Realist Review:

Scoping

Tend to be non-systematic and focus on breadth of coverage conducted on a topic rather than depth. Utilize a wide range of materials; may not evaluate the quality of the studies as much as count the number. One means of understanding existing literature. Aims to identify nature and extent of research; preliminary assessment of size and scope of available research on topic. May include research in progress.

Examples of a Scoping Review:

Synoptic

Unlike an exploratory review, the purpose is to provide a concise but accurate overview of all material that appears to be relevant to a chosen topic. Both content and methodological material is included. The review should aim to be both descriptive and evaluative. Summarizes previous studies while also showing how the body of literature could be extended and improved in terms of content and method by identifying gaps.

Examples of a Synoptic Review:

Systematic Review

A rigorous review that follows a strict methodology designed with a presupposed selection of literature reviewed.  Undertaken to clarify the state of existing research, the evidence, and possible implications that can be drawn from that.  Using comprehensive and exhaustive searching of the published and unpublished literature, searching various databases, reports, and grey literature.  Transparent and reproducible in reporting details of time frame, search and methods to minimize bias.  Must include a team of at least 2-3 and includes the critical appraisal of the literature.  For more description of systematic reviews, including links to protocols, checklists, workflow processes, and structure see “A Young Researcher’s Guide to a Systematic Review“.

Examples of a Systematic Review:

Umbrella/Overview of Reviews

Compiles evidence from multiple systematic reviews into one document. Focuses on broad conditions or problems for which there are competing interventions and highlights reviews that address those interventions and their effects. Often used in recommendations for practice.

Examples of an Umbrella/Overview Review:

For a brief discussion see “Not all literature reviews are the same” (Thomson, 2013).

Figure 1.3 illustrates types of minimum activity needed to do a full systematic review of the literature. The types of minimum activity listed are: set the research question, identify where to search (online), write a list of keywords, construct search with Boolean logic, run the search, download the results for analysis, data analysis-quantitative, qualitative, or both?, and identify themes and conclusions. A full systematic review requires: a definition of the protocol such as study selection criteria and statistical methods, offline searches and contacting subject experts, refining and rerunning searches, applying inclusion and exclusion criteria, and extracting data for analysis.
Systemic Approaches to Desk-top Research

Why do a Literature Review?

The purpose of the literature review is the same regardless of the topic or research method. It tests your own research question against what is already known about the subject.

First – It’s part of the whole. Omission of a literature review chapter or section in a graduate-level project represents a serious void or absence of critical element in the research process.

The outcome of your review is expected to demonstrate that you:

  • can systematically explore the research in your topic area
  • can read and critically analyze the literature in your discipline and then use it appropriately to advance your own work
  • have sufficient knowledge in the topic to undertake further investigation

Second – It’s good for you!

  • You improve your skills as a researcher
  • You become familiar with the discourse of your discipline and learn how to be a scholar in your field
  • You learn through writing your ideas and finding your voice in your subject area
  • You define, redefine and clarify your research question for yourself in the process

Third – It’s good for your reader. Your reader expects you to have done the hard work of gathering, evaluating and synthesizes the literature.  When you do a literature review you:

  • Set the context for the topic and present its significance
  • Identify what’s important to know about your topic – including individual material, prior research, publications, organizations and authors.
  • Demonstrate relationships among prior research
  • Establish limitations of existing knowledge
  • Analyze trends in the topic’s treatment and gaps in the literature

Why do a literature review?

  • To locate gaps in the literature of your discipline
  • To avoid reinventing the wheel
  • To carry on where others have already been
  • To identify other people working in the same field
  • To increase your breadth of knowledge in your subject area
  • To find the seminal works in your field
  • To provide intellectual context for your own work
  • To acknowledge opposing viewpoints
  • To put your work in perspective
  • To demonstrate you can discover and retrieve previous work in the area

Common Literature Review Errors

Graduate-level literature reviews are more than a summary of the publications you find on a topic.  As you have seen in this brief introduction, literature reviews are a very specific type of research, analysis, and writing.  We will explore these topics more in the next chapters.  Some things to keep in mind as you begin your own research and writing are ways to avoid the most common errors seen in the first attempt at a literature review.  For a quick review of some of the pitfalls and challenges a new researcher faces when he/she begins work, see “Get Ready: Academic Writing, General Pitfalls and (oh yes) Getting Started!”.

As you begin your own graduate-level literature review, try to avoid these common mistakes:

  • Accepts another researcher’s finding as valid without evaluating methodology and data
  • Contrary findings and alternative interpretations are not considered or mentioned
  • Findings are not clearly related to one’s own study, or findings are too general
  • Insufficient time allowed to define best search strategies and writing
  • Isolated statistical results are simply reported rather than synthesizing the results
  • Problems with selecting and using most relevant keywords, subject headings and descriptors
  • Relies too heavily on secondary sources
  • Search methods are not recorded or reported for transparency
  • Summarizes rather than synthesizes articles

In conclusion, the purpose of a literature review is three-fold:

  1. to survey the current state of knowledge or evidence in the area of inquiry,
  2. to identify key authors, articles, theories, and findings in that area, and
  3. to identify gaps in knowledge in that research area.
Research” by Nick Youngson is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A literature review is commonly done today using computerized keyword searches in online databases, often working with a trained librarian or information expert. Keywords can be combined using the Boolean operators, “and”, “or” and sometimes “not”  to narrow down or expand the search results. Once a list of articles is generated from the keyword and subject heading search, the researcher must then manually browse through each title and abstract, to determine the suitability of that article before a full-text article is obtained for the research question.

 

Literature reviews should be reasonably complete, and not restricted to a few journals, a few years, or a specific methodology or research design. Reviewed articles may be summarized in the form of tables, and can be further structured using organizing frameworks such as a concept matrix.

A well-conducted literature review should indicate whether the initial research questions have already been addressed in the literature, whether there are newer or more interesting research questions available, and whether the original research questions should be modified or changed in light of findings of the literature review.

Attribution

This chapter is an adaptation of Introduction (from Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students) by Linda Frederiksen, and is used under a CC BY 4.0 license.

License

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Fredonia Graduate Studies Research Toolkit Copyright © 2022 by Christina Hilburger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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