If you are proposing a research topic that has a substantial amount of previously published work already in place, the prospect of delivering a good literature review can seem like a daunting task — so many books and articles with so many citations!
The Literature Review Serves a Specific Function
You may be tempted to save time by restricting your review to the last decade, but this can be a critical failure point. The purpose of writing a literature review is to establish your authority in your research. Without that established credibility, your research findings are dismissed as nothing but your opinions founded on some basic methodologies.
A poorly executed scientific literature review can destroy a research thesis in four easy steps:
- If you can’t demonstrate that you have done the background work, you have no credibility as a researcher to recommend future research.
- If you haven’t mapped out the depth and breadth of the currently available material, you have no way to develop a cogent structure for the material you want to present as the foundation for your work.
- In the absence of a comprehensive summary of the material, you have no way to justify the position of your proposed research — are you filling an identified gap, addressing identified weaknesses in someone else’s work, or perhaps extending an existing study to a broader or new population sample?
- If your literature review isn’t comprehensive, you lose context when attempting to critique any of the previously published material.
How to do a Literature Review
To write a good scientific literature review, you have to begin with a clear understanding of the role it plays in executing a substantive piece of academic research:
- Context – where does your research project fit into the overall body of knowledge?
- Identify the key concepts/variables that apply in this area of research
- Identify the relationships between those concepts/variables
- Establish the need for further research – inconsistencies, lacking evidence, opportunities for further development or alternative methodologies.
Demonstrate Command of the Material
It’s not about maximizing the quantity of material reviewed, nor should the objective be to read “everything” about your proposed topic – for some topics that would be a physical impossibility.
Focus on the relevance of the material to your proposed topic, and map out a logical framework for analyzing that material. Develop relationships that make sense within that framework and organize your review around ideas not tenuous links by researcher or subject or chronology.
Don’t Ever Try to Fake It
Only include the material that you actually read – cutting and pasting someone else’s bibliography will come back to bite you later – especially if you have to do an oral defense and someone asks for your thoughts on a specific article or study.
Remember that just having read a dissertation or conference paper doesn’t count – you must critique it – what worked, what didn’t, what would you do differently?
It’s All about Making Sense
Your reader should reach the end of your literature review with a sense of full comprehension as to how your proposed study fits together with the current body of published work:
- You’re attempting to fill an identified gap
- You’re proposing to address an identified shortcoming
- You’re revisiting an inconclusive research summary
- You’re challenging an established theory
- You’re developing a limited study in more detail.
If your reader can’t figure out what you’re doing in relation to what has come before you, your literature review has failed both as a stand-alone piece of academic work and as a building block for your overall study.