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Literature Reviews

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a written overview of what has been said in reputable books, scholarly and scientific articles, edited conference proceedings, and other types of resources about a particular topic. Your reader should discover what ideas scholars and researchers have discussed, and the strengths and weaknesses of these ideas. Literature reviews are often a precursor to original research; they allow you to situate your own work meaningfully in the scholarship of that area in relation to those who came before you.

Literature reviews are more common in graduate studies (e.g., Masters or PhD studies) than in undergraduate work, but you might still be assigned one in an undergraduate program.

Literature reviews should:

  • summarize key ideas or important concepts or themes
  • provide critical analysis of major ideas or themes that are occurring
  • reveal what trends are occurring (i.e., what seem to be the ideas most researchers are paying attention to?)
  • show gaps or issues that are not being addressed

John Hill at the VIU Writing Centre wrote, "The goal is not simply to summarize these articles, but to analyze and synthesize them (break them apart and put the elements back together with each other in interesting and useful ways), allowing you to identify areas of conflict between scholars, areas of broad agreement, and any gaps or areas less studied."

How long should a literature review be?

For student assignments, the answer depends upon your assignment instructions, and how much literature there is on the topic. For professional papers, consult the submission guidelines of the journals you're considering. For example, the Journal of Business Ethics limits articles to 12,000 words.

The main piece of advice to follow when writing a literature review is to consult with your instructor or, if you're developing your thesis in a graduate program, your thesis advisor or supervisor.

What should my literature review look like?

One question often asked is this: Do I have to write the same amount of text or analysis for each item in my literature review?

The answer to this is: No.

Here are some tips to consider:

  • Rather than think of writing a set number of words or sentences for each source in your literature review, think about your literature review as organized around main ideas or key themes or main issues.
  • Part of a good literature review involves seeing connections or patterns amongst different articles, books, reports, and other information sources that deal with a particular issue.
  • Longer or more complex literature reviews are often organized into sections, and each section is set off by a heading.


"Economic Issues

   Current research in this area emphasizes the economic issues surrounding this particular phenomenon. Patterson (2003), St. Hubert (2001), and Kondrashova (2011) all consider microeconomic factors such as ..."

  • You might decide to organize your writing so that you have one or more paragraphs to talk about a particular idea, theme, or issue that appears in the literature.
  • Within each of these paragraphs, you make references to articles, books, reports, or other information sources. You will likely summarize a main point or main points from each information source.
  • In addition to summarizing information sources, make sure to draw connections amongst sources. This might be done to compare or contrast different points of view:
E.g., "Smith (2008) deals extensively with economic issues, while Brown (2010) and Zhang (2011; 2013) consider social issues such as .... De La Hoya (2009), however, approaches the issue from a completely different way, typically employing a linguistic perspective."
  • Notice how scholars are referred to by their last (family) name. This is common practice in many academic literature reviews.
  • Depending on your instructor or the specific instructions for your literature review, you may include more critical or analytical statements. The following example--which states that a particular researcher's views are important--is written here in a generic way to show how your opinion could possibly appear.
E.g.,"While Dalhberg (1999; 2001; 2002; 2014) is the leading researcher in this area, his perspectives are being challenged by Franklin (2006), Nero (2007), and Fontina (2011), who question the traditional framework and consider alternate points of view. Fontina's emerging views on the subject (2011; 2012) are particularly important, as her work has been praised outside North America, especially by major commentators such as Haddad (2013) and Okumura (2014). What makes Fontina's work particularly impressive are her ideas about ..."

[Note: Examples above are formatted in APA citation style. Sometimes multiple years are put in parentheses in order to cite mutiple articles or books by the same individual that deal with a similar issue, but have been published at different times.]

Guides on Citation Styles

Citing Your Sources: Check VIU Library's guide to information on using well known citation styles such as APA, MLA, and Chicago.

Other Resources on Literature Reviews

Here are other guides or resources you can check out for help on developing literature reviews:

University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill (Literature Reviews) : explains what literature reviews are and offer insights into the form and construction of literature reviews in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Concordia University Libraries (How to write a literature review): A very clear guide on the literature review process.

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