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Writing a Literature Review Dr. Chris McMillan ASK Academic Skills

Session Overview • What is a literature review? • What should a literature review accomplish? • How do I write and structure a literature review?

A literature review is… An critical evaluation of scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations etc) that are relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory. Its purpose is to: • Give an overview of the ‘big issues’ • Summarise and evaluate other people’s work related to your study. What gaps are there? • Show your research skills – it must be logical, systematic and accurate

A literature review is NOT… • An exhaustive bibliography

• A selection of quotes, summaries and abstracts – the sources must be discussed by you • A group of unconnected critical evaluations • A description of the topic area • A repetition of what each article reported

The funnel metaphor Research history


Your project/aims


What your lit review should do • Provide a clear and balanced account of the literature on a particular topic • Provide a rationale and a context for your project • Tell the story that leads to your project

A Variety of Necessary Skills A literature review requires different skills at each stage of the process. Search & Selection Skills

Analysis & Evaluation Skills Synthesis & Writing Skills

One way to write a great review‌

Read other literature reviews!

4 steps to a great review 1. Find relevant literature on your topic and follow trails of references 2. Identify key themes/ideas/stages in the approach to the topic – keep a notebook to keep adding to as you read 3. Cluster relevant points together, using subheadings (not too many) and signposting 4. Check you have provided sufficient context and justification for your research project

Organising your review Chronological • Show advances • Changes over time • Issues to be addressed Thematic • Key issues, themes, debates • Isolate key issues Methodological • Different methods – evaluate • Identify key method

Yes, but how do I actually do it? YOU need to control the information and how it is presented, and thus avoid the trap of merely summarising. How does one do this?


Good topic sentences In a literature review, specifically, a good topic sentence will… • Draw connections between multiple sources • Draw connections between published research and your research • Contextualise the research broadly in relation to multiple sources • In short, it will say something about what the sources do or contribute to the body of knowledge, rather than just what they’re about.

A good topic sentence is NOT • A statement about what an author or article says • A statistic with no indication of why that statistic matters to your work • A definition with no indication of why it matters to your work • A summary of what an article was about • A quotation that stands by itself with no interaction from you

Compare A weak paragraph might begin… Everette (1995) argues that civic journalism “urges local news media to take a more active role by encouraging greater public involvement with public problems and setting the public agenda” (p. 48).

But a stronger paragraph might begin… Critics of civic journalism point to the movement's lack of a clear definition. These “traditional” journalists, as they are often called, also have problems with the notion that journalists should operate more as advocates and cheerleaders and less like watchdogs.

Use language to take a stance • Para 1: Within the literature, there are two main arguments researchers tend to make… • Para 2: The first argument (1983) emphasises… however, this does not account for… • Para 3: The second argument (1997) builds on previous models by….. • Para 4: Both viewpoints are able to… However, this research will draw most upon the second because…..

Use language to take a stance Showing strong commitment

Showing agreement

Showing cautious agreement

Drawing on these sources, it is clear that…

The following issues demonstrate that…

Hancock hypothesises that…

In summary, it is beyond doubt that…

The examples given earlier show…

On a larger scale, these discussions suggest…

Hence, it does not come as Todd (1990) provides a a surprise that… useful approach to… Aptly, Smythe (2004) emphasised how… To date the strongest argument is made by…

This definition of sustainability is more comprehensive because…

Thus, these arguments imply…

Stuck for words?

Critical Writing: The Academic Interview • Weave your argument together by using sources to ‘interview’ each other • Research provides the characters in the story you are telling • Make sure that you ask the questions and direct the debate • The manner in which you arrange, reconstruct and critique positions defines your argument

What do you think, Smith?

Do you think Smith’s research methods are valid, Jones?

Williams, do these methods work across different contexts?


Globalisation has…


Furthermore,… Yet,…

In conclusion…

Adding on vs. Developing ‘Also…’ ‘Another study that…’ ‘Another example of…’ as opposed to… ‘This evidence suggests…’ ‘These examples indicate…’ ‘Similarly…’ ‘Though these studies are…’

Drive your reader around Globalisation‌



Linking Ideas: Paragraphs Statement/Topic sentence Evidence or Examples

Explanations and Reasoning

Evaluation/Transition: So what?

Statement/Topic sentence Evidence or Examples

Explanations and Reasoning Evaluation/Transition

Topic Sentence

Literature Review Checklist 1. 2. 3. 4.

5. 6. 7. 8.

Does your review show a clear understanding of the topic? Have all key landmark works been cited and most discussed? Is there a suitable structure and logical development to the review? Does the review state clear conclusions about previous research using appropriate evidence? Is the text written in a clear style, free of spelling and grammatical errors with complete references? Does the review show the variety of definitions and approaches to the topic area? Does the review reach sound recommendations using coherent argument that is based on evidence? Does the review show a gap in existing knowledge?

Activity Review the sample literature reviews. Identify points where they are critical and points where they are descriptive.

What is good about them? What would you do differently?

Summary • A literature review is not just a list of sources. It needs to summarise, synthesise and evaluate. • The review needs to be organised and structured appropriately. It is not just a collection of paragraphs! • The review must discuss different schools of thought and arguments and present a balanced picture of any debates. • It must ‘tell the story’ leading to your project and provide a rationale for it.

Further assistance Contact ASK at or see Check out the ASK u-link/Blackboard Learn section for interactive resources Watch our writing videos Come by our drop-ins, Mon-Fri, 12 – 2 pm and Tuesdays evenings 5-7 pm

Web resources Birmingham University (2010) Companion for Undergraduate Dissertations (Online)

University of Toronto (no date) The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It (Online) ASK Academic Skills

ASK Week – Autumn 2012


Find the slides (and much more) on Blackboard

Writing a Literature Review