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Write a literature review: What is a literature review?

Reviewing the Literature with Literature Reviews...

Literature reviews

The literature review cycle - Image created by University of Sheffield

Literature Review Cycle Image


 What are literature reviews?

Literature reviews are literally reviews of the literature ( the academic writing e.g. academic books, journal articles etc. ) that have been published on a particular research topic.  They aim to identify what is already known on the topic at that time.  The steps involved in this research journey are

  • Selecting a research question 
  • Searching the literature that has been published in the area
  • Managing the literature search results
  • Synthesizing the research literature
  • Writing an assessment review
  • Rethinking, refining and reworking your review in an iterative process until you are satisfied

Why are you asked to do a literature review?

They are necessary for several reasons. They are an essential part of the research process.  They give an overview of a topic's theoretical background. Researchers use literature reviews to identify gaps in existing knowledge and to set the context for their research studies. Students can be asked to complete a literature review as part of their course to help them understand a topic more deeply. Writing a literature review can enable a student to demonstrate what they have learned about a topic and develop their own connecting ideas within that topic further.

A literature review shows that:

  •  You have an in-depth grasp of your topic
  • You understand where your own research fits into and adds to an existing body of knowledge


► Your literature searching abilities

► You can critical appraise information to judge its trustworthiness, value and relevance

► You have learnt from others

► Your research is a starting point for new ideas



Types of literature reviews

Integrated means that the literature review is not standalone but is embedded in another assignment, the most obvious being a thesis or a research project. It is similar to the standalone in most ways but the main difference is, rather than stating possible avenues for future research, you link the review to your original project and showcase how your work improves the knowledge base and where it fills the gaps. 

A systematic review is a literature review undertaken in a systematic, scientific way. This usually involves creating a research methodology of how searching is to be done in a systematic and repeatable way. The main idea behind it is to find as many relevant research articles as possible within the chosen selection criteria. The articles are then critically analysed and the results as a whole are analysed showcasing the effect of a variable overall, this is for quantitative reviews. In qualitative reviews, themes and results around a topic are showcased. This thorough analysis is then used to state in what ways the field can be improved and what are the next steps. Systematic reviews usually take a long time to conduct and are generally a project in themselves so unlikely to be part of a bigger project. Systematic reviews can be used both for qualitative and quantitative subjects  For a more in depth guide see the links below.

Integrative literature reviews are much like systematic reviews, the main difference being that while systematic reviews make conclusions about the literature itself, integrative reviews take conclusions from the reviewed literature in order to create new knowledge such as a new training program.  

To learn more see the links below. 

Writing the literature review Part 1

Useful videos

Writing the literature review Part 2