Skip to Main Content

Writing the Dissertation - Guides for Success: The Literature Review

Overview of writing the literature review

Conducting a literature review enables you to demonstrate your understanding and knowledge of the existing work within your field of research. Doing so allows you to identify any underdeveloped areas or unexplored issues within a specific debate, dialogue or field of study. This, in turn, helps you to clearly and persuasively demonstrate how your own research will address one or more of these gaps.

Disciplinary differences

Please note: this guide is not specific to any one discipline. The literature review can vary depending on the nature of the research and the expectations of the school or department. Please adapt the following advice to meet the demands of your dissertation and the expectations of your school or department. Consult your supervisor for further guidance; you can also check out Writing Across Subjects guide.


Guide contents

As part of the Writing the Dissertation series, this guide covers the most common expectations for the literature review chapter, giving you the necessary knowledge, tips and guidance needed to impress your markers! The sections are organised as follows:

  • Getting Started - Defines the literature review and presents a table to help you plan.
  • Process - Explores choosing a topic, searching for sources and evaluating what you find.
  • Structure - Presents key principles to consider in terms of structure, with examples to illustrate the concepts.
  • Research gap - Clarifies what is meant by 'gap' and gives examples of common types of gaps.
  • What to Avoid - Covers a few frequent mistakes you'll want to...avoid!
  • FAQs - Answers to common questions about research gaps, literature availability and more.
  • Checklist - Includes a summary of key points and a self-evaluation checklist.

Training and tools

What is the literature review?

The literature review of a dissertation gives a clear, critical overview of a specific area of research. Our main Writing the Dissertation - Overview and Planning guide explains how you can refine your dissertation topic and begin your initial research; the next tab of this guide, 'Process', expands on those ideas. In summary, the process of conducting a literature review usually involves the following:

  • Conducting a series of strategic searches to identify the key texts within that topic.
  • Identifying the main argument in each source, the relevant themes and issues presented and how they relate to each other.
  • Critically evaluating your chosen sources and determining their strengths, weaknesses, relevance and value to your research along with their overall contribution to the broader research field.
  • Identifying any gaps or flaws in the literature which your research can address.

Literature review as both process and product

Writers should keep in mind that the phrase 'literature review' refers to two related, but distinct, things:

  • 'Literature review' refers, first, to the active process of discovering and assessing relevant literature.
  • 'Literature review' refers, second, to the written product that emerges from the above process.

This distinction is vital to note because every dissertation requires the writer to engage with and consider existing literature (i.e., to undertake the active process). Research doesn't exist in a void, and it's crucial to consider how our work builds from or develops existing foundations of thought or discovery. Thus, even if your discipline doesn't require you to include a chapter titled 'Literature Review' in your submitted dissertation, you should expect to engage with the process of reviewing literature.


Why is it important to be aware of existing literature?

  • You are expected to explain how your research fits in with other research in your field and, perhaps, within the wider academic community.
  • You will be expected to contribute something new, or slightly different, so you need to know what has already been done.
  • Assessing the existing literature on your topic helps you to identify any gaps or flaws within the research field. This, in turn, helps to stimulate new ideas, such as addressing any gaps in knowledge, or reinforcing an existing theory or argument through new and focused research.

Disciplinary differences

Not all literature reviews are the same. For example, in many subject areas, you are expected to include the literature review as its own chapter in your dissertation. However, in other subjects, the dissertation structure doesn't include a dedicated literature review chapter; any literature the writer has reviewed is instead incorporated in other relevant sections such as the introduction, methodology or discussion.

For this reason, there are a number of questions you should discuss with your supervisor before starting your literature review. These questions are also great to discuss with peers in your degree programme. These are outlined in the table below (see the Word document for a copy you can save and edit):

How long is the literature review expected to be? Is there a word limit?
Will the literature review be included in the final dissertation?
How many sources should be included? (This may be a rough number as opposed to an exact amount.)
What kinds of sources should you be looking at (e.g. books, published articles, data sets, market reports, governmental or NHS guidelines, creative works, etc.)?
Will you need library support/training to access any of the sources required?
How should the review be structured (e.g. should you include subheadings, is thematic/subtopic grouping or chronological grouping preferable)?
How critical should your engagement with the sources be? (Some disciplines feature literature reviews that are more expository or descriptive in nature.)
Are you required to keep a technical record of your search strategies?
Are there any other requirements specific to your discipline/research area?

Literature review: the process

Conducting a literature review requires you to stay organised and bring a systematic approach to your thinking and reading. Scroll to continue reading, or click a link below to jump immediately to that section:


Choosing a topic

The first step of any research project is to select an interesting topic. From here, the research phase for your literature review helps to narrow down your focus to a particular strand of research and to a specific research question. This process of narrowing and refining your research topic is particularly important because it helps you to maintain your focus and manage your material without becoming overwhelmed by sources and ideas.

Try to choose something that hasn’t been researched to death. This way, you stand a better chance of making a novel contribution to the research field.

Conversely, you should avoid undertaking an area of research where little to no work has been done. There are two reasons for this:

  • Firstly, there may be a good reason for the lack of research on a topic (e.g. is the research useful or worthwhile pursuing?).
  • Secondly, some research projects, particularly practice-based ones involving primary research, can be too ambitious in terms of their scope and the availability of resources. Aim to contribute to a topic, not invent one!

Searching for sources

Researching and writing a literature review is partly about demonstrating your independent research skills. Your supervisor may have some tips relating to your discipline and research topic, but you should be proactive in finding a range of relevant sources. There are various ways of tracking down the literature relevant to your project, as outlined below.

Make use of Library Search

One thing you don’t want to do is simply type your topic into Google and see what comes up. Instead, use Library Search to search the Library’s catalogue of books, media and articles.

Online training for 'Using databases' and 'Finding information' can be found here. You can also use the Library's subject pages to discover databases and resources specific to your academic discipline.

Engage with others working in your area

As well as making use of library resources, it can be helpful to discuss your work with students or academics working in similar areas. Think about attending relevant conferences and/or workshops which can help to stimulate ideas and allows you to keep track of the most current trends in your research field.

Look at the literature your sources reference

Finding relevant literature can, at times, be a long and slightly frustrating experience. However, one good source can often make all the difference. When you find a good source that is both relevant and valuable to your research, look at the material it cites throughout and follow up any sources that are useful. Also check if your source has been cited in any more recent publications.

Cartoon person with magnifying glass follows footstep patterns. Text reads 'Found a great source? Follow the trail!'

Think of the bibliography/references page of a good source as a series of breadcrumbs that you can follow to find even more great material.

Note: This is a shortcut to finding good sources, not a shortcut for using them. You should always locate the original source and read it to extract the information you want (rather than citing it secondhand, which is a poor research practice).

Evaluating sources

It is very important to be selective when choosing the final sources to include in your literature review. Below are some of the key questions to ask yourself:

  • Is it relevant to your research topic/research question?
    • If a source is tangentially interesting but hasn’t made any particular contribution to your topic, it probably shouldn’t be included in your literature review. You need to be able to demonstrate how it fits in with the other sources under consideration, and how it has helped shape the current state of the literature.
  • Is it suitable for your research project?
    • There might be a wealth of material available on your chosen subject, but you need to make sure that the sources you use are appropriate for your assignment. The safest approach to take is to use only academic work from respected publishers. However, on occasions, you might need to deviate from traditional academic literature in order to find the information you need. In many cases, the problem is not so much the sources you use, but how you use them. Where relevant, information from newspapers, websites and even blogs are often acceptable, but you should be careful how you use that information. Do not necessarily take any information as factual. Instead be critical and interpret the material in the context of your research. Consider who the writer is and how this might influence the authority and reliability of the information presented. Consult your supervisor for more specific guidance relating to your research.
  • Is the source of a high enough quality?
    • The mere fact that something has been published does not automatically guarantee its quality, even if it comes from a reputable publisher. You will need to critique the content of the source. Has the author been thorough and consistent in their methodology? Do they present their thesis coherently? Most importantly, have they made a genuine contribution to the topic?

Keeping track of your sources

Once you have selected a source to use in your literature review, it is useful to make notes on all of its key features, including where it comes from, what it says, and what its main strengths and weaknesses are. This way you can easily re-familiarise yourself with a source without having to re-read it. Keeping an annotated bibliography is one way to do this.

Alternately, below is a table you can copy and fill out for each source (see the Word document to save an editable copy for yourself). Software such as EndNote also allows you to keep an electronic record of references and your comments on them.

Field

Comment

Full reference

Author’s background and their other notable works

Intended audience

Brief summary of the text

Main argument

Strengths of the source

Weaknesses/limitations of the source

Useful quotes (and page numbers)

Writing your literature review

As we explored in the 'Getting Started' tab, the literature review is both a process you follow and (in most cases) a written chapter you produce. Thus, having engaged the review process, you now need to do the writing itself. Please continue reading, or click a heading below to jump immediately to that section.


Guiding principles

The structure of the final piece will depend on the discipline within which you are working as well as the nature of your particular research project. However, here are a few general pieces of advice for writing a successful literature review:

  • Show the connections between your sources. Remember that your review should be more than merely a list of sources with brief descriptions under each one. You are constructing a narrative. Show clearly how each text has contributed to the current state of the literature, drawing connections between them.
  • Engage critically with your sources. This means not simply describing what they say. You should be evaluating their content: do they make sound arguments? Are there any flaws in the methodology? Are there any relevant themes or issues they have failed to address? You can also compare their relative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Signpost throughout to ensure your reader can follow your narrative. Keep relating the discussion back to your specific research topic.
  • Make a clear argument. Keep in mind that this is a chance to present your take on a topic. Your literature review showcases your own informed interpretation of a specific area of research. If you have followed the advice given in this guide you will have been careful and selective in choosing your sources. You are in control of how you present them to your reader.

There are several different ways to structure the literature review chapter of your dissertation. Two of the most common strategies are thematic structure and chronological structure (the two of which can also be combined). However you structure the literature review, this section of the dissertation normally culminates in identifying the research gap.


Thematic structure

Variations of this structure are followed in most literature reviews. In a thematic structure, you organise the literature into groupings by theme (i.e., subtopic or focus). You then arrange the groupings in the most logical order, starting with the broadest (or most general) and moving to the narrowest (or most specific).

The funnel or inverted pyramid

To plan a thematic structure structure, it helps to imagine your themes moving down a funnel or inverted pyramid from broad to narrow. Consider the example depicted below, which responds to this research question:

What role did the iron rivets play in the sinking of the Titanic?

The topic of maritime disasters is the broadest theme, so it sits at the broad top of the funnel. The writer can establish some context about maritime disasters, generally, before narrowing to the Titanic, specifically. Next, the writer can narrow the discussion of the Titanic to the ship's structural integrity, specifically. Finally, the writer can narrow the discussion of structural integrity to the iron rivets, specifically. And voila: there's the research gap!

Funnel divided into layers. Layer 1: Research on maritime disasters. Layer 2: Research on the Titanic. Layer 3: Research on structural integrity of Titanic. Layer 4: Role of iron rivets in Titanic sinking. Layer 5: My research.

Note: The top of the funnel is widest to represent that it contains the broadest, or most general, theme. However, the length and depth of your discussion will actually increase, not decrease, as you move farther down the funnel. This is because the literature most closely related to your research gap (i.e., near the bottom) warrants the most comprehensive attention in the literature review, whereas the broad themes at the top can be covered more quickly.

The broad-to-narrow structure is intuitive for readers. Thus, it is crucial to consider how your themes 'nest inside' one another, from the broad to the narrow. Picturing your themes as nesting dolls is another way to envision this literature review structure, as you can see in the image below.

Five nesting dolls labelled left to right: 1.1 Maritime disasters; 1.2 The Titanic; 1.3 Structural integrity; 1.4 Iron rivets; and 1.5 Research gap.

As with the funnel, remember that the first layer (or in this case, doll) is largest because it represents the broadest theme. In terms of word count and depth, the tinier dolls will warrant more attention because they are most closely related to the research gap or question(s).

The multi-funnel variation

The example above demonstrates a research project for which one major heading might suffice, in terms of outlining the literature review. However, the themes you identify for your dissertation might not relate to one another in such a linear fashion. If this is the case, you can adapt the funnel approach to match the number of major subheadings you will need.

In the three slides below, for example, a structure is depicted for a project that investigates this (fictional) dissertation research question: does gender influence the efficacy of teacher-led vs. family-led learning interventions for children with ADHD? Rather than nesting all the subtopics or themes in a direct line, the themes fall into three major headings.

The first major heading explores ADHD from clinical and diagnostic perspectives, narrowing ultimately to gender:

  • 1.1 ADHD intro
  • 1.2 ADHD definitions
  • 1.3 ADHD diagnostic criteria
  • 1.4 ADHD gender differences

The second major heading explores ADHD within the classroom environment, narrowing to intervention types:

  • 2.1 ADHD in educational contexts
  • 2.2 Learning interventions for ADHD
  • 2.2.1 Teacher-led interventions
  • 2.2.2 Family-led interventions

The final major heading articulates the research gap (gender differences in efficacy of teacher-led vs. family-led interventions for ADHD) by connecting the narrowest themes of the prior two sections.

Multi-funnel literature review structure by Academic Skills Service

To create a solid thematic structure in a literature review, the key is thinking carefully and critically about your groupings of literature and how they relate to one another. In some cases, your themes will fit in a single funnel. In other cases, it will make sense to group your broad-to-narrow themes under several major headings, and then arrange those major headings in the most logical order.


Chronological structure

Some literature reviews will follow a chronological structure. As the name suggests, a review structured chronologically will arrange sources according to their publication dates, from earliest to most recent.

This approach can work well when your priority is to demonstrate how the research field has evolved over time. For example, a chronological arrangement of articles about artificial intelligence (AI) would allow the writer to highlight how breakthroughs in AI have built upon one another in sequential order.

A chronological structure can also suit literature reviews that need to capture how perceptions or understandings have developed across a period of time (including to the present day). For example, if your dissertation involves the public perception of marijuana in the UK, it could make sense to arrange that discussion chronologically to demonstrate key turning points and changes of majority thought.

The chronological structure can work well in some situations, such as those described above. That being said, a purely chronological structure should be considered with caution. Organising sources according to date alone runs the risk of creating a fragmented reading experience. It can be more difficult in a chronological structure to properly synthesize the literature. For these reasons, the chronological approach is often blended into a thematic structure, as you will read more about, below.


Combined structures

The structures of literature reviews can vary drastically, and for any given dissertation there will be many valid ways to arrange the literature.

For example, many literature reviews will combine the thematic and chronological approaches in different ways. A writer might match their major headings to themes or subtopics, but then arrange literature chronologically within the major themes identified. Another writer might base their major headings on chronology, but then assign thematic subheadings to each of those major headings.

When considering your options, try to imagine your reader or audience. What 'flow' will allow them to best follow the discussion you are crafting? When you are reading articles, what structural approaches do you appreciate in terms of ease and clarity?


Identifying the gap

The bulk of your literature review will explore relevant points of development and scholarly thought in your research field: in other words, 'Here is what has been done so far, thus here is where the conversation now stands'. In that way, you position your project within a wider academic discussion.

Having established that context, the literature review generally culminates in an articulation of what remains to be done: the research gap your project addresses. See the next tab for further explanation and examples.

Demystifying the research gap

The term research gap is intimidating for many students, who might mistakenly believe that every single element of their research needs to be brand new and fully innovative. This isn't the case!

The gap in many projects will be rather niche or specific. You might be helping to update or re-test knowledge rather than starting from scratch. Perhaps you have repeated a study but changed one variable. Maybe you are considering a much discussed research question, but with a lesser used methodological approach.

To demonstrate the wide variety of gaps a project could address, consider the examples below. The categories used and examples included are by no means comprehensive, but they should be helpful if you are struggling to articulate the gap your literature review has identified.

***Please note that the content of the example statements has been invented for the sake of demonstration. The example statements should not be taken as expressions of factual information.


Gaps related to population or geography

Many dissertation research questions involve the study of a specific population. Those populations can be defined by nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, political beliefs, religion, health status, or other factors. Other research questions target a specific geography (e.g. a country, territory, city, or similar). Perhaps your broader research question has been pursued by many prior scholars, but few (or no) scholars have studied the question in relation to your focal population or locale: if so, that's a gap.

  • Example 1: As established above, the correlations between [socioeconomic status] and sustainable fashion purchases have been widely researched. However, few studies have investigated the potential relationship between [sexual identity] and attitudes toward sustainable fashion. Therefore...
  • Example 2: Whilst the existing literature has established a clear link between [political beliefs] and perceptions of socialized healthcare, the influence of [religious belief] is less understood, particularly in regards to [Religion ABC].
  • Example 3: Available evidence confirms that the widespread adoption of Technology XYZ in [North America] has improved manufacturing efficiency and reduced costs in the automotive sector. Using predictive AI models, the present research seeks to explore whether deployment of Technology XYZ could benefit the automotive sector of [Europe] in similar ways.

Gaps related to theoretical framework

The original contribution might involve examining something through a new lens. Theoretical framework refers, most simply, to the theory or theories a writer will use to make sense of and shape (i.e., frame) their discussion. Perhaps your topic has been analysed in great detail through certain theoretical lenses, but you intend to frame your analysis using a theory that fewer scholars have applied to the topic: if so, that's a gap.

  • Example 1: Existing discussions of the ongoing revolution in Country XYZ frame the unrest in terms of [theory A] and [theory B]. The present research will instead analyse the situation using [theory C], allowing greater insight into...
  • Example 2: In the first section of this literature review, I examined the [postmodern], [Marxist], and [pragmatist] analyses that dominate academic discussion of The World According to Garp. By revisiting this modern classic through the lens of [queer theory], I intend to...

Gaps related to methodological approach

The research gap might be defined by differences of methodology (see our Writing the Methodology guide for more). Perhaps your dissertation poses a central question that other scholars have researched, but they have applied different methods to find the answer(s): if so, that's a gap.

  • Example 1: Previous studies have relied largely upon the [qualitative analysis of interview transcripts] to measure the marketing efficacy of body-positive advertising campaigns. It is problematic that little quantitative data underpins present findings in this area. Therefore, I will address this research gap by [using algorithm XYZ to quantify and analyse social-media interactions] to determine whether...
  • Example 2: Via [quantitative and mixed-methods studies], previous literature has explored how demographic differences influence the probability of a successful match on Dating App XYZ. By instead [conducting a content analysis of pre-match text interactions] on Dating App XYZ, I will...

Scarcity as a gap

Absolutes such as never and always rarely apply in academia, but here is an exception: in academia, a single study or analysis is never enough. Thus, the gap you address needn't be a literal void in the discussion. The gap could instead have to do with replicability or depth/scope. In these cases, you are adding value and contributing to the academic process by testing emerging knowledge or expanding underdeveloped discussions.

  • Example: Initial research points to the efficacy of Learning Strategy ABC in helping children with dyslexia build their reading confidence. However, as detailed earlier in this review, only four published studies have tested the intervention, and two of those studies were conducted in a laboratory. To expand our growing understanding of how Learning Strategy ABC functions in classroom environments, I will...

Elapsed time as a gap

Academia values up-to-date knowledge and findings, so another valid type of gap relates to elapsed time. Many factors that can influence or shape research findings are ever evolving: technology, popular culture, and political climates, to name just a few. Due to such changes, it's important for scholars in most fields to continually update findings. Perhaps your dissertation adds value by contributing to this process.

For example, imagine if a scholar today were to rely on a handbook of marketing principles published in 1998. As good as that research might have been in 1998, technology (namely, the internet) has advanced drastically since then. The handbook's discussion of online marketing strategies will be laughably outdated when compared to more recent literature.

  • Example: A wide array of literature has explored the ways in which perceptions of gender influence professional recruitment practices in the UK. The bulk of said literature, however, was published prior to the #MeToo movement and resultant shifts in discourse around gender, power imbalances and professional advancement. Therefore...

What to avoid

This portion of the guide will cover some common missteps you should try to avoid in writing your literature review. Scroll to continue reading, or click a heading below to jump immediately to that section.


Writing up before you have read up

Trying to write your literature review before you have conducted adequate research is a recipe for panic and frustration. The literature review, more than any other chapter in your dissertation, depends upon your critical understanding of a range of relevant literature. If you have only dipped your toe into the pool of literature (rather than diving in!), you will naturally struggle to develop this section of the writing. Focus on developing your relevant bases of knowledge before you commit too much time to drafting.

Tip: If you sit down to start writing your literature review and feel like you have no idea what to say, this is probably a sign that you need to slow down and conduct more research/reading. If, on the other hand, you sit down and feel like you have no idea where to begin (i.e., you have so much to say), this suggests you have done enough research to start, but may need to slow down and develop a mind map or outline to help you plan.

Believing you need to read everything

As established above, a literature review does require a significant amount of reading. However, you aren't expected to review everything ever written about your topic. Instead, aim to develop a more strategic approach to your research. A strategic approach to research looks different from one project to the next, but here are some questions to help you prioritise:

  • How relevant is date to your project and/or in your discipline?
    • If your field values up-to-date research and discoveries, carefully consider the 'how' and 'what' before investing time reading older sources: how will the source function in your dissertation, and what will it add to your writing?
  • Does topic/concept XYZ require background or in-depth knowledge?
    • Try to break your research question(s) down into component parts. Then, map out where your literature review will need to provide extensive detail and where it can instead present quicker background. Allocate your research time and effort accordingly. 

Omitting dissenting views or findings

While reviewing the literature, you might discover authors who disagree with your central argument or whose own findings contradict your hypothesis. Don't omit those sources: embrace them! Remember, the literature review aims to explore the academic dialogue around your topic: disagreements or conflicting findings are often part of that dialogue, and including them in your writing will create a sense of rich, critical engagement. In fact, highlighting any disagreements amongst scholars is a great way to emphasise the relevance of, and need for, your own research.


Miscalculating the scope

As shown in the funnel structure (see 'Structure' tab for more), a literature review often starts broadly and then narrows the dialogue as it progresses, ultimately bringing the reader to the dissertation's specific research topic (e.g. the funnel's narrowest point).

Within that structure, it's common for writers to miscalculate the scope required. They might open the literature review far too broadly, dedicating disproportionate space to developing background information or general theory; alternately, they might rush into the narrowest part of the discussion, failing to develop any sense of surrounding context or background, first.

It takes trial and error to determine the appropriate scope for your literature review. To help with this...

  • Imagine your literature review subtopics cascading down a stairwell, as in the illustration below.
  • Place the broadest concepts on the highest steps, then narrow down to the most specific concepts on the lowest steps: the scope 'zooms in' as you move down the stairwell.
  • Now, consider which step is the most logical starting place for your readers. Do they need to start all the way at the top, or should you 'zoom in'?

Stairwell sloping down with topics written on steps, top to bottom: Feminism; feminist theories; feminist literary theory (FLT); FLT and horror; FLT and Stephen King; FLT and the Stand.

The illustration above shows a stairwell diagram of a dissertation that aims to analyse Stephen King's horror novel The Stand through the lens of a specific feminist literary theory.

  • If the literature review began on one of the bottom two steps, this would feel rushed and inadequate. The writer needs to explore and define the relevant theoretical lens before they discuss how it has been applied by other scholars.
  • If the literature review began on the very top step, this would feel comically broad in terms of scope: in this writing context, the reader doesn't require a detailed account of the entire history of feminism!

The third step, therefore, represents a promising starting point: not too narrow, not too broad.


The 'islands' structure

Above all else, a literature review needs to synthesize a range of sources in a logical fashion. In this context, to synthesize means to bring together, connect, weave, and/or relate. A common mistake writers make is failing to conduct such synthesis, and instead discussing each source in isolation. This leads to a disconnected structure, with each source treated like its own little 'island'. The island approach works for very few projects.

Some writers end up with this island structure because they confuse the nature of the literature review with the nature of an annotated bibliography. The latter is a tool you can use to analyse and keep track of individual sources, and most annotated bibliographies will indeed be arranged in a source-by-source structure. That's fine for pre-writing and notetaking, but to structure the literature review, you need to think about connections and overlaps between sources rather than considering them as stand-alone works.

If you are struggling to forge connections between your sources, break down the process into tiny steps:

  1. Pick one specific subtopic within your research.
    • e.g. Air pollution from wood-burning stoves in homes.
  2. Find one idea, fact or claim about that subtopic in a source. Write one sentence.
    • e.g. Bryant and Dao (2022) found that X% of small particle pollution in the United Kingdom can be attributed to the use of wood-burning stoves.
  3. Now, find one different source containing a closely related idea, fact or claim. Does the second source support the first? Build upon it? Contradict it? Add one sentence to the one you have written.
    • e.g. A study by Williams (2023) reinforced those findings, indicating that small particle pollution has...
  4. Repeat step three. One more source, one more sentence.
    • e.g. However, Landers (2023) cautions that factor ABC and factor XYZ may contribute equally to poor air quality, suggesting that further research...

The above exercise is not meant to suggest that you can only write one sentence per source: you can write more than that, of course! The exercise is simply designed to help you start synthesizing the literature rather than giving each source the island treatment.


Q: I still don't get it - what's the point of a literature review?

A: Let's boil it down to three key points...

  • The literature review provides a platform for you, as a scholar, to demonstrate your understanding of how your research area has evolved. By engaging with seminal texts or the most up-to-date findings in your field, you can situate your own research within the relevant academic context(s) or conversation(s).
  • The literature review allows you to identify the research gap your project addresses: in other words, what you will add to discussions in your academic field.
  • Finally, the literature review justifies the reason for your research. By exploring existing literature, you can highlight the relevance and purpose of your own research.

Q: What if I don't have a gap?

A: It's normal to struggle with identifying a research gap. This can be particularly true if you are working in a highly saturated research area, broadly speaking: for example, if you are studying the links between nutrition and diabetes, or if you are studying Shakespeare.

Library catalog keyword search for 'diabetes' and 'nutrition', showing about 101,000 results.

The 'What to Avoid' tab explained that miscalculating the scope is a common mistake in literature reviews. If you are struggling to identify your gap, scope might be the culprit, particularly if you are working in a saturated field. Remember that the gap is the narrowest part of the funnel, the smallest nesting doll, the lowest step: this means your contribution in that giant academic conversation will need to be quite 'zoomed in':

This is not a valid gap → Analysing Shakespeare's sonnets.

This might be a valid gap → Conducting an ecocritical analysis of the visual motifs of Shakespeare's final five procreation sonnets (e.g. sonnets number thirteen to seventeen).

In the above example, the revised attempt to articulate a gap 'zooms in' by identifying a particular theoretical lens (e.g. ecocriticism), a specific convention to analyse (e.g. use of visual motifs), and a narrower object (e.g. five sonnets rather than all 150+). The field of Shakespeare studies might be crowded, but there is nonetheless room to make an original contribution.

Conversely, it might be difficult to identify the gap if you are working not in a saturated field, but in a brand new or niche research area. How can you situate your work within a relevant academic conversation if it seems like the 'conversation' is just you talking to yourself?

Library catalog keyword search for 'hippogriffs' and 'anatomy' showing only 2 search results.

In these cases, rather than 'zooming in', you might find it helpful to 'zoom out'. If your topic is niche, think creatively about who will be interested in your results. Who would benefit from understanding your findings? Who could potentially apply them or build upon them? Thinking of this in interdisciplinary terms is helpful for some projects.

Tip: Venn diagrams and mind maps are great ways to explore how  your research connects to, and diverges from, the existing literature.


Q: How many references should I use in my literature review?

A: This question is risky to answer because the variations between individual projects and disciplines make it impossible to provide a universal answer. The fact is that one dissertation might have 50 more references than another, yet the two projects could be equally rigorous and successful in fulfilling their research aims.

With that warning in mind, let's consider a 'standard' dissertation of around 10K words. In that context, referencing 30 to 40 sources in your literature review tends to work well. Again, this is not a universally accurate rule, but a ballpark figure for you to contemplate. If the 30 to 40 estimate seems frighteningly high to you, do remember that many sources will be used sparingly rather than being mulled over at length. Consider this example:

In British GP practices, pharmaceutical treatment is most often prescribed for Health Condition XYZ (Carlos, 2019; Jones, 2020; Li, 2022). Lifestyle modifications, such as physical exercise or meditation practices, have only recently...

When writing critically, it's important to validate findings across studies rather than trusting only one source. Therefore, this writer has cited three recent studies that agree about the claim being made. The writer will delve into other sources at more length, but here, it makes sense to cite the literature and move quickly along.

As you search the databases and start following the relevant trails of 'research bread crumbs', you will be surprised how quickly your reference list grows.

Tip: When you find one good source, use database features to check which other articles have cited that source. Also check that source's own references page. You will likely find relevant literature that can help you flesh out key concepts using multiple sources rather than just one.

Q: What if there isn't enough relevant literature on my topic?

A: Think creatively about the literature you are using and engaging with. A good start is panning out to consider your topic more broadly: you might not identify articles that discuss your exact topic, but what can you discover if you shift your focus up one level?

Imagine, for example, that Norah is researching how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to provide dance instruction. She discovers that no one has written about this topic. Rather than panicking, she breaks down her research question into its component parts to consider what research might exist.

  • First, dance instruction: literature on how dance has traditionally been taught (i.e., not with AI) is still relevant because it will provide background and context. To appreciate the challenges or opportunities that transition to AI instruction might bring, we need to understand the status quo. Norah might also search for articles that analyse how other technological shifts have affected dance instruction: for example, how YouTube popularized at-home dance study, or how live video services like Zoom enabled real-time interaction between dance pupils and teachers despite physical distance.
  • Next, artificial intelligence used for instruction: Norah can seek out research on, and examples of, the application of AI for instructive purposes. Even if those purposes don't involve dance, such literature can contribute to illustrating the broader context around Norah's project.
  • The more creatively Norah thinks, the more options she will discover...
    • Could it be relevant to discuss the technologies used to track an actor's real-life movements and convert them into the motions of a video game character? Perhaps there are parallels!
    • Could it be relevant to explore research on applications of AI in creative writing and visual art? Could be relevant since dance is also a creative field!

In summary, don't panic if you can't find research on your exact question or topic. Think through the broader context and parallel ideas, and you will soon find what you need.


Q: What if my discipline doesn't require a literature review chapter?

A: This is a great question. Whilst many disciplines dictate that your dissertation should include a chapter called Literature Review, not all subjects follow this convention. Those subjects will still expect you to incorporate a range of external literature, but you will nest the sources under different headings.

For example, some disciplines dictate an introductory chapter that is longer than average, and you essentially nest a miniature literature review inside the introduction, itself. Although the writing is more condensed and falls under a subheading of the introduction, the techniques and principles of writing a literature review (for example, moving from the broad to the narrow) will still prove relevant.

Some disciplines include chapters with names like Background, History, Theoretical Framework, etc. The exact functions of such chapters differ, but they have this in common: reviewing literature. You can't provide a critical background or history without synthesizing external sources. To illustrate your theoretical framework, you need to synthesize a range of literature that defines the theory or theories you intend to use.

Therefore, as stated earlier in this guide, you should be prepared to review and synthesize a range of literature regardless of your discipline. You can tailor the purpose of that synthesis to the structure and demands of writing in your subject area.


Q: Does my literature review need to include every source I plan to use in my discussion chapter?

A: The short answer is 'no' - there are some situations in which it is okay to use a source in your discussion chapter that you didn't integrate into your literature review chapter.

Imagine, for example, that your study produced a surprising result: a finding that you didn't anticipate. To make sense of that result, you might need to conduct additional research. That new research will help you explain the unexpected result in your discussion chapter.

More often, however, your discussion will draw on, or return to, sources from your literature review. After all, the literature review is where you paint a detailed picture of the conversation surrounding your research topic. Thus, it makes sense for you to relate your own work to that conversation in the discussion.

Note: Remember that you can edit your literature review after writing your discussion chapter, if needed. It's common when writing a dissertation to 'bounce between' sections as the work progresses, editing one chapter as a result of developments in a different chapter.

Summary

The literature review provides you an opportunity to engage with a rich range of published work and, perhaps for the first time, critically consider how your own research fits within and responds to your academic community. This can be a very invigorating process!

At the same time, it's likely that you will be juggling more academic sources than you have ever used in a single writing project. Additionally, you will need to think strategically about the focus and scope of your work: figuring out the best structure for your literature review might require several rounds of re-drafting and significant edits.

If you are usually a 'dive in without a plan and just get drafting' kind of writer, be prepared to modify your approach if you start to feel overwhelmed. Mind mapping, organising your ideas on a marker board, or creating a bullet-pointed reverse outline can help if you start to feel lost.

Alternately, if you are usually a 'create a strict, detailed outline and stick to it at all costs' kind of writer, keep in mind that long-form writing often calls for writers to modify their plans for content and structure as their work progresses and evolves. It can help such writers to schedule periodic 'audits' of their outlines, with the aim being to assess what is still working and what else needs to be added, deleted or modified.


Checklist

Here’s a final checklist for writing your literature review. Remember that not all of these points will be relevant for your literature review, so make sure you cover whatever’s appropriate for your dissertation. The asterisk (*) indicates any content that might not be relevant for your dissertation. You can save your own copy of the checklist to edit using the Word document, below.

Aspect of Literature Review Yes/Unsure/No
I have searched for and critically evaluated a wide range of literature related to my topic.  
I have verified that my sources are of an appropriate standard and nature for my discipline.  
I have considered both the factual or topical themes and the theoretical framework(s) relevant to my research question.*  
I have synthesized sources throughout my review rather than discussing sources as isolated 'islands'. If I do focus on a source in isolation, I have done so for strategic and intentional reasons.  

I have structured my literature review in a manner that moves from the broad to the narrow.

 
I have used heading and subheading hierarchies and formatting that align with the expectations of my school or style guide.  
I have used my literature review to provide meaningful context, ultimately identifying the research gap(s) to which my own work responds.

Spring Dissertation Festival - Book Now