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How to...
write a literature review

To write a literature review it is important to look at the relationships between different views, draw out the key themes and structure appropriately. See our step by step guide for some useful tips.

 

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What is a literature review?

Essentially, it is a description of work that has already been published in a particular field or on a specific topic. There are two main types of literature review:

Research literature review – This doesn’t contain new research but looks at experiments already published and reports on their findings. It gives an overview of what has been said, who the key writers are, the prevailing theories and hypotheses, the questions being asked, and the methods and methodologies that have proved useful.

Systematic or evidence-based literature review – Especially popular in medicine, these reviews are designed to find the best form of intervention, or explore summaries and critiques leading to better future practice.

Why write a literature review?

For students, a literature review is often part of a thesis or dissertation, forming an early context-setting chapter. For academics, it is a necessary part of a research paper, setting the scene and showing how their own work contributes to the body of knowledge. 

This guide focuses on literature reviews that go on to be published as individual journal papers.  

Research literature reviews

The format can be purely descriptive, i.e. an annotated bibliography, or it might provide a critical assessment of the literature in a particular field, stating where the weaknesses and gaps are, contrasting the views of particular authors, or raising questions. 

Whichever format you choose, it’s crucial that the review doesn’t just list and paraphrase the content of the papers involved – it should also show evidence of evaluation, and explore relationships between the material so that key themes emerge.

Systematic or evidence-based literature reviews

These use explicit and transparent methods. They follow a standard protocol, or series of steps, often established in consultation with a panel.

All procedures are documented, i.e. there is a research audit trail of databases and search terms used, so that others can easily replicate the steps followed. The documented procedures might include:

  • The search parameters
  • Databases used
  • How papers were analysed
  • Criteria for inclusion in the final review

The systematic review was originally developed in the field of medicine, through the Cochrane Collaboration (Hemsley-Brown and Oplatka, 2006). While its origins lie in the field of evidence-based healthcare, it has also been adopted by some researchers. Because of its rigorous approach and transparent methodology, it helps to eliminate bias from the selection of literature. 

Creating a literature review - step by step guide

The following steps apply for all types of literature review.

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How to structure your journal submission

This guide explains the building blocks that are used to construct a journal article and why getting them right can boost your chances of publishing success. 

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Proofreading

In this guide we explain what you should look for at the proofing stage.

Tips on proofreading