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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.


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


Primary source materials are original research papers written by the experimenter (hint: look for purpose, method, and results in the abstract).  A literature review should look at primary source materials.

Secondary source materials generally summarize original research papers written by others.  Examples of secondary source materials are review articles, or a description of a treatment in a textbook.  Secondary source materials can lead to relevant primary source materials and provide an example of a literature review to examine.

Tertiary source materials systematically analyze or critically review scientific papers.  A meta-analysis is an example of a tertiary source material.

Systematic reviews are literature reviews structured by explicit and auditable protocol.  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 are systematic reviews which use a quantitative way of statistically summarizing and comparing the results of the studies reviewed.

Argumentative Review:  literature supports or opposes 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.