P503 Introduction to Research
Literature Search and Review
What is a Literature Review?
A literature review summarizes, interprets, and evaluates existing literature” (or
published material) in order to establish current knowledge of a subject. It is not a
book review, but a survey of a particular subject. The purpose of a literature
review is to provide an overview of published research on a topic. In writing the
literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and
ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and
weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a
guiding concept (e.g., your research problem statement or question). It is not just
a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries.
A literature review must do these things:
1. be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question
you are developing
2. synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known
3. identify areas of controversy in the literature
4. formulate questions that need further research
How do I evaluate the resources I find?
Below is a 3-step process for reviewing any piece of literature:
Step 1: Decide whether the topic is relevant to your research problem. If it is,
determine whether it’s a research report or an opinion. (A research report will
contain terms such as study, analysis, survey, experiment, or results). Data, or
results, from a research report lend evidence to your research problem. Opinion
pieces can lend support to your rationale, as well, but the bulk of your literature
review will contain research reports.
Step 2: Make a cursory inspection of the report by considering its source of
publication, author(s), and general tone of its concluding paragraphs. Eliminate
studies that are not worth more thorough evaluation. For example, they may not
be tied closely enough to your research problem statement, or the research may
not appear to be entirely accurate.
Step 3: Study each of the articles thoroughly, using the checklist below:
Evaluating a Literature Source
Yes No Comments
Variables logical and
Population defined and
Findings labeled and
Conclusions stated and
Implications logical and
Now that I’ve gathered and evaluated resources, how do I write the review?
In general, a literature review is a piece of discursive prose, not a list describing
or summarizing one piece of literature after another. It’s usually a bad sign to see
every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher. Instead, organize the
literature review into sections that present themes or identify trends, including
relevant theory. You are not trying to list all the material published, but to
synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or
I. Writing the Introduction
A. Define or identify the general topic, issue, or area of concern, thus providing an
appropriate context for reviewing the literature.
B. Point out overall trends in what has been published about the topic; or conflicts in
theory, methodology, evidence, and conclusions; or gaps in research and
scholarship; or a single problem or new perspective of immediate interest.
C. Establish the writer’s reason (point of view) for reviewing the literature; explain
the criteria to be used in analyzing and comparing literature and the organization
of the review (sequence); and, when necessary, state why certain literature is or
is not included (scope).
D. Use of the first person voice is allowed, because the review is more personal
than a research paper on the topic. Example: I observed the negative political
advertising directed at less affluent voters during my volunteer work for a
senatorial election campaign.
II. Writing the Body
A. Group research studies and other types of literature (reviews, theoretical articles,
case studies, etc.) according to common denominators such as qualitative versus
quantitative approaches, conclusions of authors, specific purpose or objective,
B. Summarize individual studies or articles with as much or as little detail as each
merits according to its comparative importance in the literature, remembering that
space (length) denotes significance. Provide more than a brief citation of the
study and its research. Poor Example: A five-year study was conducted by
Wallace to compare immigration and educational levels (2001). Good Example:
Wallace (2001) concluded that educational levels of new immigrants to the
United States varied by continent and age. The importance of the study is in its
length and intensity. The study covered several years and major urban areas.
C. Provide the reader with strong “umbrella” sentences at beginnings of paragraphs,
“signposts” throughout, and brief “so what” summary sentences at intermediate
points in the review to aid in understanding comparisons and analyses.
D. The review should be presented in essay form and should not be a list of the
resources used in researching the topic. Example: “. . . as it appeared in Smith
(1997), ‘The use of in-house staff development training has been less successful
at the managerial level. “(p. 69). Jones (2000) states that all the literature on the
subject during the last decade emphasizes a need for new training methods for
upper level management. Hale and Greenleaf agree that few training programs
have proven effective over time (Hale & Greenleaf 1999; Ratliff 2000).
E. Feel free to express opinions about the quality of the literature being cited. That
is a part of the review process.
III. Writing the Conclusion
A. Summarize major contributions of significant studies and articles to the body of
knowledge under review, maintaining the focus established in the introduction.
B. Evaluate the current “state of the art” for the body of knowledge reviewed,
pointing out major methodological flaws or gaps in research, inconsistencies in
theory and findings, and areas or issues pertinent to future study.
C. Conclude by providing some insight into the relationship between the central
topic of the literature review and a larger area of study such as a discipline, a
scientific endeavor, or a profession.
Use the American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual. Plain and
simple. All writing you’ll do in the social sciences uses the APA Publication
Manual’s rules for style in both writing and citations. Learn it. Do it.