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Organizing and Creating Information

Participate in the scholarly conversation ethically and efficiently. Learn more about citation management and attribution in the production of new knowledge.

Overview

This guide is designed to:

  • Identify the sections and purpose of a literature review in academic writing
  • Review practical strategies and organizational methods for preparing a literature review

What Is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a summary and synthesis of scholarly research on a specific topic. It should answer questions such as:

  • What research has been done on the topic?
  • Who are the key researchers and experts in the field?
  • What are the common theories and methodologies?
  • Are there challenges, controversies, and contradictions?
  • Are there gaps in the research that your approach addresses?

The process of reviewing existing research allows you to fine-tune your research question and contextualize your own work. Preparing a literature review is a cyclical process. You may find that the research question you begin with evolves as you learn more about the topic.

Review the Literature

Once you have defined your research question, focus on learning what other scholars have written on the topic.

In order to do a thorough search of the literature on the topic, define the basic criteria:

 

One strategy is to review bibliographies for sources that relate to your interest. For more on this technique, look at the tutorial on finding articles when you have a citation.

Tip: Use a Synthesis Matrix

As you read sources, themes will emerge that will help you to organize the review. You can use a simple Synthesis Matrix to track your notes as you read. From this work, a concept map emerges that provides an overview of the literature and ways in which it connects. Working with Zotero to capture the citations, you build the structure for writing your literature review. 

 

Example of a Synthesis Matrix

Citation Concept/Theme Main Idea Notes 1 Notes 2 Gaps in the Research Quotation Page
               
               
 
Pacheco-Vega, R. (2016, June 17). Synthesizing different bodies of work in your literature review: The Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED) technique. http://www.raulpacheco.org/2016/06/synthesizing-different-bodies-of-work-in-your-literature-review-the-conceptual-synthesis-excel-dump-technique/

How do I know when I am done?

A key indicator for knowing when you are done is running into the same articles and materials. With no new information being uncovered, you are likely exhausting your current search and should modify search terms or search different catalogs or databases. It is also possible that you have reached a point when you can start writing the literature review.

Tip: Manage Your Citations

These citation management tools also create citations, footnotes, and bibliographies with just a few clicks:

Zotero Tutorial

Endnote Tutorial

Write the Literature Review

Your literature review should be focused on the topic defined in your research question. It should be written in a logical, structured way and maintain an objective perspective and use a formal voice.

 

Outline

Review the Summary Table you created for themes and connecting ideas. Use the following guidelines to prepare an outline of the main points you want to make. 

  • Synthesize previous research on the topic.
  • Aim to include both summary and synthesis.
  • Include literature that supports your research question as well as that which offers a different perspective.
  • Avoid relying on one author or publication too heavily.
  • Select an organizational structure, such as chronological, methodological, and thematic.

 

Structure

The three elements of a literature review are introduction, body, and conclusion.

Introduction

  • Define the topic of the literature review, including any terminology.
  • Introduce the central theme and organization of the literature review.
  • Summarize the state of research on the topic.
  • Frame the literature review with your research question.

Body

  • Focus on ways to have the body of literature tell its own story. Do not add your own interpretations at this point.
  • Look for patterns and find ways to tie the pieces together.
  • Summarize instead of quote.
  • Weave the points together rather than list summaries of each source.
  • Include the most important sources, not everything you have read.

Conclusion

  • Summarize the review of the literature.
  • Identify areas of further research on the topic.
  • Connect the review with your research.

Further Reading

DeCarlo, M. (2018). 4.1 What is a literature review? In Scientific Inquiry in Social Work. Open Social Work Education. https://scientificinquiryinsocialwork.pressbooks.com/chapter/4-1-what-is-a-literature-review/

Learning Objectives

This guide was designed to: 

  • Identify the sections and purpose of a literature review in academic writing 
  • Review practical strategies and organizational methods for preparing a literature review​

Attribution

Content on this page adapted from: 

Frederiksen, L. and Phelps, S. (2017). Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students. Licensed CC BY 4.0