Skip to Main Content

Search Strategy: What is a Literature Review?

What is a Literature Review?

What is a Literature Review?

Most articles focus on a specific, discrete study or experiment. A literature review differs in that its purpose is to create a fairly comprehensive overview of current research on a topic, rather than conducting original research. Once books, articles and other sources regarding the research topic are found, the reviewer evaluates these and groups and compares studies and papers to demonstrate the current overall state of research or thinking on the topic.

Article vs. Literature Review – What’s the Difference?

  • Articles focus only one specific study or experiment. i.e. “We measured ankle joint stress in women ages 20-29, running barefoot vs. shod and here are our results.” Or, “We examined representations of gender in advertisements aired during sports broadcasts versus network reality shows.”
  • Literature Reviews do not conduct an original experiment or study, but find numerous recent, relevant studies, and compare the results to give a broader picture of the issue. i.e. “The Smith (2007) study and the Williams (2008) study showed lower amounts of joint stress among female runners who ran shod versus barefoot under varying conditions. However, the Johnson study (2010) indicates that shod running’s efficacy may increase as the subject’s age increases.”

Why Write a Literature Review

  • A literature review places each study in context with the larger body of knowledge on a topic
  • It describes relationships between each work to the others that are found (Is the thinking on the topic consistent? Inconsistent? Are there new discoveries coming to the fore, or is this an established line of thought?)
  • They can identify gaps in the current research, and point to new areas for exploration.
  • They identify work already done to prevent duplicate efforts.
  • Has the potential to resolve conflict among seemingly contradictory studies by placing them in perspective with one another

Parts of a Literature Review

A good literature review should contain the following elements:

  • A statement of the subject or issue being reviewed, and the objective of the review itself
  • A grouping of works into categories – i.e. those in support, those in opposition, those inconclusive or offering a completely new theory, etc.
  • An evaluation of how each work is similar or different from the others
  • The reviewer’s conclusions on the patterns and implications of the relation between the sources found, and an opinion on why they are relevant

The Process

No research is done in a vacuum – every study begins with a question, and that question must be placed in context by citing prior findings. So, while database searches are useful for initially finding articles, a big part of literature reviews is often about “following the trail” from one study to previous studies. Once you find a recent, relevant research study on your topic, it is extremely likely it will cite other recent, relevant studies, as well as some of the “core” studies regarding the question.

  • As you read the Introduction to your research study, highlight the places where the authors say things like, “As Brown & Williams found in their 2006 study…” or “It has long been established that X affects Y (Smith & Miller, 1992).”
  • These can indicate the foundational knowledge and context for their own research.
  • Use your highlighted in-text citations to look up the full citation in the Bibliography at the end of the article.
  • Use the full citation to find the previous article by searching the Journal Title with the Journals tool on the library webpage to see if we have the article here at Fitchburg State.
  • Even if we don’t have the article here, we can get it for you through interlibrary loan (ILLIAD). Since a literature review is supposed to be comprehensive, we highly recommend you request articles using ILLIAD, otherwise there may be gaps in your research.

Tips and Clues You’re Close

  • “Core” studies, or the ones that are generally recognized as defining a field or topic, are often (though not always) some of the earliest in a bibliography. For instance, if nearly every article you find cites a study by Williamson & Richards from 1982, it is likely a core study for the field.
  • If in a bibliography you find a group of studies by the same author (or group of authors) it indicates that this topic is likely their research ‘niche’. Search for more papers by these authors.
  • You know you’re finding relevant research when you start to see some of the same citations in different papers. If multiple papers are citing the same prior research, it is likely considered important in the current field.
  • Search for articles titled something like “Topic X: A Review of the Literature” or “Topic X: A Systematic Review” – these are likely Literature Reviews themselves, and so will list many current studies in the bibliography. (Tip: use the term “review” in your search to find these.)