Dissertations, theses and now literature reviews- university academic terms can be hard to keep up with and even harder to get your head around. You may even feel that these terms can be overcomplicated or maybe even pointless.
However, as these types of terms are used regularly in university study, it is important that you are aware of them if you are a university student or if you plan to be. To truly learn more about these terms, it’s best that they are broken down so that you can learn about them in details as you will with the term literature review in this article.
In short, a literature review is a section of an extended academic piece of writing, such as a dissertation or thesis. In this section, you write about the key point and main themes that you came across within your research for your project. Then you will need to evaluate the sources or ‘literature’ that you came across during your research. A literature review can vary in length depending on the nature and word count of your research project. Due to this, it may range from under 2000 words all the way up to about 10,000 or possibly even more.
Continue reading to learn more about what a literature review is and what is involved in one. In this article, you will learn more about the types of literature review, how long one is and how to write your own.
Table of Contents
What is a literature review?
Especially as it’s not seen in earlier forms of education, the term literature review can be pretty difficult to get your head around. Due to this, it can help to break down the words separately.
In general terms, a review can have multiple meanings. It can be a commentary or critique of media in order to give your own opinion.
Alternatively, a review may be an examination of a system or situation in order to see if it can be improved on. To learn more about these definitions, check out this page from Collins Dictionary.
In the term literature review, review is used to mean a mixture of these. Whereas as in this case, literature is used to refer to your academic sources.
A literature review is an academic piece of writing in which you summarise the main themes you have found within the sources you looked at in your research and give something of a commentary on this. You will then need to critically evaluate these sources, particularly in relation to your wider topic area. To learn more about what a literature review is, check out this guide by the University of Edinburgh.
What types of literature reviews are there?
There are several different types of literature review that you may choose for your research project. These different types are more about how the literature review is structured and what they focus primarily on rather than being separate things altogether.
Some of the main types of literature review are narrative, systematic (meta-analysis or meta-synthesis), scoping, argumentative, integrative, and theoretical. To learn about these in more detail check out the following list and refer to this article by Business Research Methodology.
- Narrative – The narrative type of literature review is the most traditional type. In this way, it is largely summed up by the general definition of a literature review. This type of literature review will need to have a very specific and focused research question.
- Meta- analysis systematic – A general systematic literature review will detail the timeframe of the sources selected. The meta-analysis approach focuses on analysing studies and sources, particularly detecting any patterns and relationship in these.
- Meta-synthesis systematic – While it is also a type of systematic literature review, the meta-synthesis type is based more on qualitative data, where sources and studies are instead interpreted and evaluated.
- Scoping – This type of literature review identifies the scope of the body of literature on your topic area. The difference between this and the systematic type is that it is for a more general research question.
- Argumentative – In this type, the sources are examined in a selective way in order to support or go against a specific argument or debate that already exists in the research area.
- Integrative – This type of literature review is used for secondary data, rather than a mixture of primary and secondary data.
- Theoretical – As the name suggests, this type of literature review focuses on the theories that already exist and exploring these individually and together. It also focuses on the development of new hypotheses to be tested.
How long is a literature review?
When you think about a review, such as a book or film review, you tend to think about a piece of writing that is quite short but in some depth. However, this isn’t quite the case for a literature review in a dissertation or thesis.
The exact length of your literature review will depend on what kind of project you are writing it for. For example, due to different word counts that universities set for dissertations and theses.
Despite this, for an undergraduate dissertation, the word count for a literature review will typically be about 2000 words or slightly less. For a master’s degree, this is slightly longer at between 2000 and 3000 words. Whereas for a PhD thesis, it is much longer at between 8000 and 10000 words.
To learn more about this, check out this guide by the University of Kent. Please remember that this information is based on one university’s guidelines, while it is likely similar for other universities, this may not be the case for all. To get more specific information, it is best to ask your department at the university you go to.
How to write a literature review
Knowing what a literature review is one thing but knowing how to write one is an entirely different story. Due to this, it’s important that you know how exactly you are supposed to write one in clear steps to avoid getting it a bit muddled. Using such steps can even save you time due to doing everything in a clear order.
Check out the following sections to learn what these steps are. The following information is based on this article by Scribbr. You can also look at this Think Student article to learn more about how to write the whole dissertation.
Step 1: Find sources for your literature review
Sources are absolutely essential to your literature review as it is literally what it’s all about. Due to this, it is essential that you do your research before starting the literature review and in this you will need to find a range of specific, quality sources that you can use.
Your sources will need to be relevant to your topic area and even more specifically to your project so that you can make the best use of them. In order to do this, you may want to note down everything you already know about your topic before researching. This can be about specific theories or even theorists that you are already aware of or just concepts and ideas.
From this you can create a list of key words related to your topic area. This can help to give you a starting point for your research, especially if looking up sources online.
When looking online to find sources, there are many websites that will help you to find these. These include but are not limited to JSTOR and Google Scholar.
Step 2: Summarise your sources for your literature review
As mentioned above, one of the main parts of your literature review is to summarise the main themes and key points that you have come across within your research. This is done to allow you to explain what you have understood about both your topic area and the specific sources that you have looked at within your research.
It can be useful to make notes on the main themes or key points as you go through the sources while in the research stage. This will mean that you already have a summarised version of the sources you have looked at which will only then need to be written up properly.
To get a clear and in-depth summary for your literature review, you will need to be looking for and identifying the main themes as already mentioned. You will need to also identify any trends or patterns, the key debates within your topic area and any particularly influential theories or studies that have been published.
Step 3: Analyse and evaluate your sources for your literature review
In order to make your literature review more than just a report, it is essential that you analyse and critically evaluate your sources. As these terms are similar, it can be difficult to know the difference and how to apply this to your actual writing.
In general terms, analysis is where something is studied or examined in detail to discover more about it. A more scientific definition is that it is where a substance is split into parts to be examined to find out what it is or contains. To learn more about these definitions, check out this page by Cambridge Dictionary.
In an academic sense, analysis is very similar as you have to study whatever it is you’re looking at, whether it is a source or your own results, to figure out more about them and their natures. While this is still quite important in a literature review, this is mainly so that you can fully evaluate the sources as you don’t particularly need the analysis on its own.
Evaluation is where you calculate or judge the quality, value, or importance of something. To learn more about this, check out this page by Cambridge Dictionary.
When applying this to the evaluation of sources, there are three main factors you will need to consider in order to come up with your judgement. These are the credibility of the sources, the relevance, and the quality of the arguments that they present.
In order to evaluate your sources based on these factors, you will need to look at the evidence that has been presented, any support for the arguments presented and consider their relation to your own research question. If you want to learn more about evaluating sources, check out this article by Scribbr.
Step 4: Link your literature review back to your project
Summarising, analysing, and evaluating sources is obviously an important part of your research project and the main bulk of the literature review section. This is especially as it allows you to create an overview of the topic area.
However, it is essential that you then bring it back to your own research project, whether that is a dissertation, thesis or whatever else. This is absolutely crucial as the aim of your project is not just to write about what others have researched but instead to look at your topic area with a new lens and to fill a gap in the research that already exists.
Within your literature review, you will need to identify this gap. This can be done by considering what is missing from the sources you have looked at, such as an angle that hasn’t previously been considered or due to the weaknesses that exist in the sources you have selected.
This should be done in an integrated way throughout the literature review. As a part of the evaluation, it can help to form the judgement you make about your sources and in the summary, it can help to form an overview of the sources and show their positioning as well as yours.
However, you will then need to take this further than evaluation by saying how your research project aims to fill this gap. This allows you to set up the rest of your written project and allows the readers to better understand where it’s going.