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:
- 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.