Writing a literature review
The overall purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate a knowledge of the existing body of research in a particular topic area. In other words, it retrospectively undertakes a critical analysis of the pros and cons of existing important studies and research and shows which issues require new or further study – how the body of knowledge could be improved. As such, it is a useful way of arguing for new research to be done - for example, as part of a proposal for a research project or dissertation or as a report on the state of existing research.
When do we write literature reviews?
A literature review could be set as an assignment at the beginning of a course in order to get students ‘up to speed’ with the existing research in a given field of study
A literature review often forms part of a dissertation or research project proposal, making an argument or producing justification for the new work that the researcher proposes to carry out.
A literature review is thus a report on the current state of research in a given area of study that comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the research (landmark studies or writings) within a given field and perhaps gives recommendations for possible future study
One last use for a literature review is that it can form the introductory section for a completed dissertation or project which gives the context into which the new research fits
A literature review should gradually develop and refine a research problem or question that requires further academic investigation. As such, it should be a critical review of the landmark studies demonstrating their strengths and shortcomings in relation to a specific area of study (we shall discuss the process of getting started and defining an area of investigation below).
Theatre critics, despite being called critics, will often say what is good about a play or stage musical as well as what is bad. Likewise, a good review will consider the pros and cons of its sources. Being critical does not mean that you have to be wholly negative. You should however, only be discussing aspects that are relevant to the developing research issue. Your research will have two aspects to it. Firstly, your reading will begin to illuminate some research problems (i.e. areas that need further research). Secondly, when you write up your review you will use these sources to build up an incremental argument for exactly why this research is to be undertaken.
Above all else, you should avoid merely describing the research that you are reviewing. A literature review is not an annotated list, something akin to a ‘furniture catalogue’. The literature review has a purpose – to define the nature of the research problem and to produce a justification or recommendation of fresh research which needs to be carried out to solve that problem.
Getting started and narrowing the topic
A literature review may well form part of a larger task such as producing a dissertation. More than likely, a lot of time will be spent on it and on the new research that stems from it. Dissertations or final year projects may take an entire year to be completed. Therefore the topic area needs to be an interesting one or your enthusiasm may eventually wane. Try to choose something that you are passionate about or want to add your ‘two penny worth’ to. If you think your work is important and you have something to say, it will sustain you.
First choose a broad(ish) area and then do some preliminary reading to narrow the topic down. ‘Diabetes’, for example, would be too broad and unfocused for a final research topic. A little reading might help you to find a more sharply defined research area such as ‘treatment compliance in diabetes sufferers’.
Where to look?
Before we think about where to look, let’s take a moment to think about what sorts of sources we want to review. Obviously, our sources should relate to our...
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