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Doing a Literature Review
All academic research to some extent consists of reading documents, reports, and journal articles that may have some bearing on the nature of your project.
A literature review is a critical summary of existing knowledge and research - related to your research topic - that can enable you to build a solid foundation for your research. The process is the same for a dissertation or a thesis literature review.
What to identify when doing a literature review?
- Unanswered questions
- Current knowledge
- Research strategies and methods
- Relevant theories and concepts
- Any other research that might be currently in progress
Note: Although the majority of the reading may come at the beginning of a project, it is also very useful to continue reading the literature throughout the research process.
Literature Review Purpose
The purpose of searching and reviewing the existing research and knowledge is to help you to find out what you want to know. A review of the literature provides you with the foundation that helps to relate the research questions to existing knowledge and to decide the approach, methodology and practices that you will take to answer the research questions.
Doing literature reviews help to increase your knowledge and your credibility in your research area and position your own work within this tradition of research. You can see how your research will extend what has gone before and how you can relate your research findings and conclusions to the existing research. In so doing you will be able to argue why you believe the research you are doing is important, and a worthwhile and valuable contribution.
Furthermore, when reading the work of others, you can identify and avoid the problems and pitfalls that others have made. There is no need to repeat previous errors or redo work that has already been done.
Even briefly searching the existing research for a thesis or a dissertation literature review will provide a snapshot of the state of knowledge and of the main questions in the area that are worth investigating.
I find the most enjoyable part of the literature review process to be the:
- Decide exactly what you need to know before you begin the search. Research questions provide focus that will guide your literature search
- Fully define the parameters of the research in order to find the most relevant published materials quickly
- Decide how much time you have for reading (and searching) and schedule the review activities into the time available
- Define precisely what you mean and use your research questions as a focus that will guide the search and review
The first step in planning a review of the literature is to decide exactly what you need to know before you begin the search and to answer the question: ‘What exactly am I looking for?’ By defining the area sufficiently clearly, you can narrow down your reading to a manageable amount and do not extend the range of reading way beyond what is necessary.
The second step is to decide how much time you have for reading (and searching) and schedule the review activities into the time available.
The third step is to define parameters. Why fully define the boundaries and limits of the research? So that you can find the most relevant published materials quickly and gather up-to-date, accurate and useful information that supports the area that you are investigating. For example:
Language - English only?
Subject area - Business? Entrepreneurs? Young female entrepreneurs 16-21 years?
Geographic area - Worldwide? USA? Canada?
Sector - Industrial? Non-Profit? University?
Publication period- 2005 to present day?
Literature type - Books? Journals? Conference proceedings? Newspaper articles? Theses? Business reports? Unpublished papers?
The fourth step is to select appropriate sources. It is likely that you won’t have much time. It is important therefore that you find the most relevant published materials quickly.
However, not all documents have the same relevance nor importance in the research process. Remember to always check your sources. Do not use information which you cannot source or substantiate. Whenever possible, use the original primary research reports, rather than the secondary (or more) interpretation of these results by others.
Some tips on finding relevant source material:
- Use the subject approach with selected terms to identify library class numbers
- Look through recent issues of relevant journals to identify up-to-date articles closely related to your research question
- Look at the books on the library shelf next to a relevant book you have identified
- When you find a relevant article or book, investigate the reference listed there
- Find an expert in the field who has completed a comprehensive list over time
The process of identifying relevant literature has been simplified by the development of computerized databases that are accessible through the library. When using computers for searching, remember that different systems can use different words to describe the same thing. Therefore you have to be both imaginative and precise in selecting alternatives words as search terms.
There are also online bibliographical databases accessible on the Internet. To make best use of online databases, work out some keywords that can be entered into the search engines to identify relevant references.
The Internet is a fast and effective way of gathering up to date information. In many cases the Internet offers high quality information which is not yet (or never will be) in printed form. As you probably know, not everything online is of the same standard and the quality of the materials is highly variable. Nevertheless, with discernment, the Internet can provide access to a vast range of literature and other resources with which to compare and contrast your ideas.
Search engines help to locate the most current items. As different engines search different areas of the Internet, it is best to use more than one tool. For example:
Remember to Bookmark or Add to Favorites the websites that you find on your Internet searches so that you can access them again directly and review them in more detail later. Use delicious.com to store your bookmarks and make them accessible from anywhere.
- Summarize the state of the existing research by paying attention to what, when, how, who, and where it was done
- Keep systematic and accurate notes of everything that you read from the very beginning and throughout the project will save you time and effort in the long run.
Key questions to ask:
- What research has been done? What were the results?
- When was it done? How
- Who was studied? Demographics: age etc?
- How was the research done? What methods used etc?
- Where was it done? Geographic base?
The importance of systematic and
accurate recording is vital. Being accurate from the
very beginning and throughout will save you time and effort. Especially when you want to locate and check details again. Often it can be more difficult than you think to find the information
again. If you have not already done so, you will soon find this from experience.
When you find a relevant resource, take accurate notes, and write down the full details of everything that you read including the authors, title, date and a brief summary of the content.
For a book, also make a note of the publisher and place of publication
- For a journal article, also write down the title of journal, volume, issue number, and page numbers
Tips for creating an effective system for recording:
- Use index cards or use one side of A4 paper as a way of keeping records and making notes
- Use Access database to store the literature details
- Keep a separate notebook
- Be consistent in the recording of information
- Write up as you go along
- Note the relevance of each item you read and why you think this. Note how each item contributes to your research questions
Bear in mind that it is not possible to read everything that might or might not be relevant. There will come a time when we have to stop reading and start doing the actual research!
Writing a Literature Review
- Start with a broad overview (big picture)
- Then focus on individual parts (specific details) that are significant to the research question
When writing literature reviews, there is no need to include everything that you have read. It is best to be selective once more and only include the most relevant. Remember the aim is to review the existing research and knowledge relating to your research focus and at the same time show how your research relates to the previous published research.
It is important to:
- Summarize – cover the main points succinctly
- Analyze – separate component parts to determine relationships
- Interpret – explain the meaning in understandable terms
When you write a literature review, put together a structure for the review by identifying possible categories, group certain categories together, comment on features that are interesting, and compare results of different research. Group source material together by putting the notes on the index cards or paper in order and write the review from that outline.
Finally, read research reports and journal articles in your field to see how other researchers have described and evaluated the literature, and to examine how they have ordered and classified their findings and the findings of others.
This video provides an excellent overview of literature reviews. Although it is aimed at Graduate Students, it is useful for anyone who wants to learn.
- Why is a review of the literature necessary?
So that you can develop an understanding of the previous research that relates to your research questions. With the review you can set your research focus in context and relate your findings to work that has already been undertaken.
- What is essential to do?
To evaluate the literature for its relevance to your research questions, to keep systematic and accurate records and notes of everything that you read, and to read the materials that are most closely related to the research question quickly in order to identify the key points.
- How to write a literature review?
Start with a broad overview and then focus on individual parts that are significant to the research questions.