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How to Do a Literature Review: Introduction

What Is a Literature Review?

A literature review looks at key published material (scholarly articles, books, pamphlets, etc.) on a particular issue, area of research, or theory and provides not only a summary of the source, but also a critical evaluation.  Each source is summarized, synthesized, and often evaluated.  More than a mere summary of the sources, it highlights what is and is not known, identifies controversy surrounding a topic, formulates questions that need further research, linking the known literature to how your research adds to the larger field of study.


A literature review can be part of a larger research project in which the researcher presents a proposal, plan of action, or primary research work (a survey, interviews); or, it can stand alone as an analysis of what the experts say on a given issue or area. 

For a quick overview, watch this excellent video: What is a Literature Review? by Steely Libraries NKU.

Types of Literature Reviews

Systematic reviews are literature reviews structured by an explicit purpose and a set of specific parameters regarding the sources reviewed.  They contain:

  • a specific problem for which the review is being performed
  • one or more research purposes/questions targeting that problem
  • the sources of research that will be reviewed
  • specifics on the search process
  • specific metrics for selecting sources
  • techniques used to evaluate the sources
  • techniques used to analyze and synthesize the findings in the sources

Meta-analyses: Systematic reviews which use a quantitative way of statistically summarizing and comparing the results of the studies reviewed.

Argumentative Review:  Literature reviews that support or oppose an argument, assumption, or problem established within the literature

Integrative Review: A review that synthesizes the literature such that new perspectives on the topic are introduced.

Historical Review: Looks at research throughout a time period, examining trends, evolution, developments--often pointing to future direction for research.

Methodological Review: Reviews the method of analyses used in studies--can highlight problems, ethical issues to be aware of in research to be conducted.

Theoretical Review: Looks at theories surrounding a concept/issue/phenomena establishing current thinking, degree of investigation regarding the theories, relationships between them, shortcomings, or emerging research problems unanswered by current theories.

Why Create a Literature Review?

A literature review:

  • provides an overview of established knowledge and ideas directly related to and organized around a specific research question
  • provides professionals with a guide to the literature
  • provides context and background for a research question
  • provides credibility for the author's knowledge of the field
  • helps to establish underpinnings behind the research are factual
  • helps identify previous areas of scholarship to prevent duplication of research

How Is a Literature Review Different from an Annotated Bibliography?

Literature reviews and annotated bibliographies are close cousins, but there are many differences between the two.

This short video gives an excellent account of what an annotated bibliography involves: What's an Annotated Bibliography, Brock University Library.

They have in common that they both focus primarily on published materials, usually scholarly, that present a range of perspectives on a specific topic.

They differ as follows:

Literature Review

Annotated Bibliography


An essay that uses in-text citation (in APA & MLA style)

A list of sources, each introduced by a full bibliographic citation, followed by a short descriptive and or reflective note


A literature review analyzes how the sources connect with one another, identifying areas of consensus and difference as well as gaps in the research.

Each annotation describes its source and explains how it illuminates the research question asked by the writer of the annotated bibliography.


Note: Both the literature review and the annotated bibliography are excellent tools for getting the most out of your research. For this reason, your professor may sometimes ask you to complete the literature review section of your Constructive Action (CA) project as an annotated bibliography.