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Literature Reviews

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a written overview of what has been said in books, articles, reports, and other types of resources about a particular topic.

Literature reviews are more common in graduate studies (e.g., masters level or PhD studies) than in undergraduate work, but in many courses in bachelor's degree programs, you might be asked by an instructor to provide a report that serves as a literature review.

Literature reviews commonly do one or more of the following things:

  • summarize key ideas or important concepts or themes in the literature (i.e., books, articles, reports) on a particular topic
  • provide some sort of critical analysis of key ideas of the major ideas or themes that are occurring in the literature in a given area
  • reveal what trends may be occurring in the literature in a given area (i.e., what seem to be the ideas most researchers are paying attention to?)
  • show gaps or issues that are not being addressed by books, articles, or reports on a particular topic

Often, literature reviews are used to make a case for your particular study or research project. What commonly happens in literature reviews are the following:

  • stating what main ideas, concepts, or issues have been said in the literature
  • indicating where research may still need to be done
  • arguing or stating that your proposed study or research project aims to 'fill in gaps' or cover new ground

How long should a literature review be?

Unfortunately, there's no set answer for this question.

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.

Some instructors for some assignments prescribe a shorter length for a literature review section as part of a larger paper. It is possible that some literature review assignments are as short as a single page (double-spaced).

However, other instructors or other projects demand a much longer, more exhaustive searching of the literature. In graduate programs, literature reviews on the order of 10-50 pages are common.

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:

Libraries of Adelphi University (Conducting a Literature Review in Education and the Behavioral Sciences): Adelphi has produced a series of clear step-by-step instructional modules that guide you through the process of doing a literature review.

University of Calgary (Doing Literature Reviews): This guide is helpful in breaking down steps in writing literature reviews and provides strategies for searching for information. Much of the information in this VIU guide was adapted from this source.

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

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