Thesis/Dissertation Writing Series: How to Write a Literature Review

Researching and creating a dissertation literature review

A student is sitting in a library with a stack of books; she is researching for her literature review.
Writing a literature review is challenging.
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Choosing a general thesis topic is relatively easy, but deciding on specific and realistic research questions requires considerable thought and enquiry. Appropriate and relevant research questions and the methods employed to answer them must be framed in the context of existing research. The dissertation literature review is one of the most demanding tasks in the thesis writing process. Remember that a thorough, refined literature review is the foundation of solid research.

The goals of a literature review

Let’s go over what a dissertation literature review should accomplish. It helps in:

  • refining the research problem
  • seeking new lines of inquiry
  • avoiding fruitless approaches
  • gaining methodological insights
  • identifying recommendations for further research
  • distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done
  • discovering important relevant variables
  • gaining a new perspective
  • rationalizing the significance of the problem
  • relating ideas and theory to applications
  • placing the research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments

Preparing to write a literature review

A useful first step when starting your dissertation literature review is to identify relevant "key words" to help navigate your way through the existing literature. When searching for information, remember to give preference to primary research.

Determining which literature is relevant to your research is challenging. The goal of a literature review is to gather a representative collection of the most pertinent material. It is important to accurately document how the material is collected so that others using the same procedure will be able to find the same information. The dissertation literature review is somewhat similar to a major term paper. In order to construct an effective review, you must maintain a coherent and logical progression of ideas. To that end, you might write the title, author(s), and date of each study you wish to include on small index cards. Then summarize the main results of the study in a single sentence. Use these cards to create "reference piles" corresponding to specific sections of the dissertation literature review.

The next stages of the dissertation literature review are: 1) data evaluation, during which you assess the information in the chosen articles; 2) data analysis and interpretation, during which you try to make sense of the extracted data; 3) presentation, during which you determine the most important information to include; and 4) formulating and justifying empirical research questions, during which you explain how your dissertation will make a meaningful contribution to knowledge in your field.

Organizing a literature review

There are a number of ways you can organize your dissertation literature review. The three most common are: 1) the historical format, in which the review is organized chronologically; 2) the conceptual format, in which the review is built around research propositions or theories; and 3) the methodological format, which is often used for meta-analyses.

Literature reviews can be quantitative or qualitative. A quantitative review documents the importance of the research problem at the beginning of the study, supports the theory or explanation used in the study, foreshadows the research questions, and explains the results of other studies. Two common types of quantitative literature reviews are narrative reviews and meta-analyses. A qualitative literature review documents the importance of the research problem at the beginning of the study, does not foreshadow the research questions, and is used to compare and contrast with other studies.

Avoid common mistakes when writing your literature review

No matter what type and format of dissertation literature review you choose, you must avoid some common mistakes researchers often make, such as:

  • not employing the best key words and not identifying the best sources
  • not relating your study findings to the findings of the literature review
  • relying on secondary rather than primary sources
  • blindly accepting other researchers’ findings rather than critically examining them

Editing your literature review

Writing a literature review is one of the most complicated and time-consuming components of the thesis writing process. You must start early and leave yourself ample time for revision. There is nothing worse than submitting a thesis literature review that is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. If you need a second pair of eyes, send your literature review to our dissertation and thesis editors for their critical revisions. Good luck!

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