Writing Literature Reviews

Compiling and writing a literature can seem like a daunting task, especially when faced with a seemingly endless list of relevant readings —- but learning to conduct and compile good literature reviews is a critical part of the research process. On this page, we provide some guidelines for developing a good literature review and some additional resources for further study.

Overview

Generally, a reasonable literature review can be conducted with a series of straightforward steps.

  1. First, pick a topic. This can be as broad as you like — this is just a starting point. This can be anything from a topic you'd like to explore in the next few months, to the topic of your potential dissertation.
  2. Find a starting point. The hardest part of a literature review is finding good initial resources. Google Scholar or other publication indexing engines can turn up thousands of relevant results; you obviously can't read all of them, so you need to find an ideal starting point among them. Starting at random can leave you faced with jargon and concepts that you may not have an understanding of yet. A good place to start might be textbooks or review articles on the topic. These are often written for a broader audience than researchers entrenched in the field, and these can help you develop a quick, broad background knowledge base before getting into more technical details.
  3. Consider the history. Often, a very relevant part of your review is an insight into how the field or topic has developed over time. You don't need to write a comprehensive history of your subject, but it's extremely useful to have a broad understanding of the history and big names of the field. Note any conflicting ideas, disagreements, or controversy you encounter, as these are going to be very important.
  4. Find the "big papers". Now that you have an idea of how the field developed, find these papers that had big impacts. You've identified the big names in the field — how did they become big names? Sometimes these world-changing papers can be difficult to read, but as long as you can develop a rough understanding of the contribution, this will help you contextualize your own work tremendously.
  5. Motivate your contribution. This part may or may not be relevant to your review, depending on your purpose, but usually, this is the part we've all been building up for. What are you bringing to the field? You should have a general idea of what work you're expanding upon based on your review so far.

External Resources

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