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Thesis Information: Reviewing Literature

What is a Literature Review?

A Literature Review is a thorough and methodical study of existing research information on a specific topic, presented in a well-ordered, scholarly manner.

It is an important part of your thesis, whether your thesis is by research or by publication, where you examine previous and current literature so that you can:

  • identify key information relevant to a topic
  • assess the status or quality of existing research
  • situate your research and point to the research gap that you identified
  • critically examine support  for alternative theories or arguments
  • evaluate research methods used in previous studies.

Different Types of Literature Reviews

Different disciplines will require different sorts of literature reviews. In Arts and Humanities studies, literature may be reviewed throughout the thesis as required by the topic. For Social Sciences and Sciences research, the literature review often consists of a separate chapter that informs the research design and methods. For some topics, there may be no literature review due to the 'cutting edge' nature of the research topic.

Traditional / Narrative review - a critical summary and synthesis of previously published literature about a particular topic involves systematically exploring related literature. Narrative reviews can be organised by chronology, theme, or methodology, and may highlight issues of debate and gaps in current research.

Systematic Review - "[a] high-level overview of primary research on a particular research question. It seeks to collate all evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria with the aim of minimising bias by using explicit systematic methods" - Cochrane Database. Commonly used within Health Sciences to compare and assess effectiveness of clinical interventions. Check Otago's guide on Systematic Reviews.

Scoping Review a "preliminary assessment of potential size and scope of available research literature.  Aims to identify nature and extent of research evidence (usually including ongoing research) (Grant & Booth, 2009)."

Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 26(2), 91-108.

The Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions is a very detailed, high level approach used when undertaking a Cochrane review - the highest level of evidence on which to base clinical treatment decisions.  

If you are simply wanting to apply a systematic approach to your literature review, you may want to choose one of the other options e.g. PRISMA,  which provides an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

e.g. Scoping Review a "preliminary assessment of potential size and scope of available research literature.  Aims to identify nature and extent of research evidence (usually including ongoing research) (Grant & Booth, 2009)."

Finding & Evaluating Literature, & Setting up Alerts

In order to write an excellent literature review, you will need to find all the relevant literature on your topic. This is an iterative process that might involve:

  • developing a rigorous search strategy, revising it as you expand your knowledge of the topic
  • using a range of search tools, including library subscription databases and research repositories - DON'T just use Google Scholar!
  • consulting a broad range of sources and formats - don't limit yourself only to electronic sources
  • documenting the results of your search, and keeping relevant references 
  • bulk exporting records from a database - check these steps first.
  • setting up alerts to keep up to date.

Your Subject Librarians can help you with all these steps.

Once you have found on topic literature, you will need to read it closely and critically evaluate both its rigour and its relevance to your work. Think about :

  • Authority - who is writing and publishing this work? Do they have the relevant expertise
  • Currency - how recent is the publication? How long was there between acceptance of the work and its publication?
  • Quality - what was measured and how were the data collected? Do the data justify the findings? Is adequate evidence offered for the arguments? Is other relevant research cited?
  • Purpose - what is the purpose of the research? Who is it written for
  • Context and Perspective - what is the theoretical framework of the author? What are the foundational assumptions they make?

Have you ever wondered how to keep track of new and upcoming research relevant to your topic, so that you are not horribly suprised by that article that pips you to your PhD post?

Well, Email Alerts are the most common and reliable way of having research notifications come to you, rather than the other way around:

Books about Literature Reviews

Books about Systematic Reviews

Reviewing Methods : Sage Research Methods





Reviewing Your Research Methods

Sage Research Methods enables you to search relevant books, book chapters, dictionary and encyclopedia entries, videos, or journal articles from over 175,000 pages concerning research methods. It also provides a visual Methods Map to help you find new methods or discover relationships between methods, and link to related content.