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ENG 305W - Writing in Disciplinary Communities

Purpose of a Literature Review

The purpose of a literature review is to explore, compare and critically analyze what has been written in a specific subject area.  A literature review can stand as a piece of work in itself, or as a start when engaging in primary source research (see box below for further information).  A literature review is often a chapter in a thesis or dissertation and is also required for grant and research proposals.

A literature review contextualizes research by:

  • Examining the nature of the research topic/question and determining  the various methodologies used for investigation of the topic
  • Comprehensively identifying and evaluating previous work dealing with the topic  and identifying 'the gap' in the literature that new research is aiming to 'fill'            

An  effective literature review:

  • Describes  and synthesizes material from a range of sources rather than merely cataloguing information
  • Presents a clear focus of the topic in a logical and organized manner and in an academic writing style

 A literature review is based both on research and the writer's interpretation and analysis of this information. Through this process it is important to distinguish between the writer's interpretations and ideas and those which are found in the research; therefore, cite sources appropriately.

 It is beneficial to have difficulty finding literature on your exact topic because that means there is a justification for new research on the topic. The goal is to conduct research at the graduate level on topics that are unique or cutting-edge. A literature review can include dividing a new topic into related topics that will be synthesized to contextualize the new research.

Questions to Ask During the Literature Review Process

  • What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that helps to define the literature review?
  • What research methods are applicable to this research question? Theory? Qualitative? Quantitative?
  • How does the discipline and scope impact on the types of literature needed? For example: journals, books, government documents and media.
  • What are the important works in the field of this topic? How can these works be used to find additional literature? Have search strategies broadened and narrowed to ensure a thorough survey of the literature relevant to the topic?
  • Is the literature review both thorough and specific enough that is synthesizes the literature in support of the research topic?
  • Has the literature review contextualized this research and how it relates to the new research topic?

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include:

  • Original Documents: diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, newspaper articles published at the time of the event studied, autobiographies, official records, government records (like census data)
  • Journal Articles: reporting NEW research findings 
  • Creative Works: photographs, films, poetry, drama, novels, music, art 

Secondary Sources

A secondary source, such as a literature review, interprets and synthesizes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some examples of secondary sources include publications such as textbooks and magazine articles.