Planning and carrying out a literature review

Site: QMplus - The Online Learning Environment of Queen Mary University of London
Module: RDF: Information Literacy Skills for Researchers
Book: Planning and carrying out a literature review
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Date: Tuesday, 16 April 2024, 6:53 PM

1. What is a literature review?

A literature review is not an exhaustive bibliography of everything ever written on, or around, your research topic.

An effective literature review is rather a summary of previous research on a particular topic which critically analyses the material included in the review and addresses a set of clearly articulated research questions. 

Test your knowledge below:

2. Purpose of a literature review

Your literature review will need to...

Pen on paper

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  • provide a clear set of objectives about the purpose of the review.
  • organise the literature included in the review into categories supporting a particular position, those against, and those developing an entirely new position.
  • give a concise explanation of the significant similarities and differences between the literature included in the review.
  • enable you to develop conclusions about which literature has the best considered arguments and which of those arguments make the most substantial contribution to the understanding and development of the area of research defined in the literature review.
  • provide a clear indication about where your research project will fit into the existing literature. It may fill in a gap in the literature, develop an earlier piece of research in a new context, or use an earlier work to develop lessons for practice.

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3. When to review the literature

You will probably have already undertaken a literature review for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, but the literature review for your PhD will need to be extended and exhaustive.

You may be asking yourself: at what stages is a review of the literature relevant to my research question needed? There are three points that you should keep in mind.

Magnifying glass

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1.  Once you have decided on a research area, you'll need to begin by reviewing any literature which is relevant to your study. Doing this will enable you to pinpoint the context and reasoning for your chosen topic, allowing you to narrow your preliminary thoughts down to a more focused research question.

 2.  As you progress with your research, you'll need to ensure that you are in touch with new and relevant research which might be published during your own research journey. For tips on how to keep up to date with the latest research, see the 'Practical Tips' section of this module.

3.  When you have reached the writing-up stage, you'll need to position your own research in relation to the work of others, highlighting its significance for theory, practice and research. This might involve a further review of the literature with a different focus from your initial review.


4. Stages of a literature review

Before you start your literature review, you should already have defined your research topic. Familiarise yourself with your topic's main themes, and be aware of your limits.  


There are four main steps you’ll need to take to complete your literature review:

1.  You will firstly need to find literature which is relevant to your research topic. Before starting your search, make sure that you have defined your subject. Your literature search should be led by the main themes and limits of your research. 

2.  Evaluating your results is the next step. You will need to make a decision as to whether the literature you have found makes a significant contribution to the understanding of your topic. The Prezi (You've finished your literature search... What next?) at the bottom of the page will guide you through the process of deciding what literature needs to be included in your literature review.

 3.  You will then need to analyse and interpret the literature you have decided to include in your review. Identify themes/ideas/theories/approaches that have emerged from reading the literature.

 4.  Once you are satisfied that you have reviewed enough literature relevant to your research topic, you can get down to writing. You will need to introduce and explain each theme (or theory/approach), provide evidence from the literature, comment critically on the literature and relate it to your own research.

Prezi: You've finished your literature search... What next? 

Whilst this process is usually followed by medical students undertaking a systematic review, the framework could easily be used by students from any discipline.   

The Teaching & Learning Support Team are always ready to assist:  Contact the T&LS Team  

5. Systematic reviews

Systematic reviews are prevalent in medicine and other science disciplines meaning that this section may not be relevant for all students.

Whilst many of the principles of carrying out a systematic review are similar to undertaking a literature review, the difference is that your literature review must be truly systematic - the clue is in the name!

The introduction to developing your search techniques will be useful for you, but the Prezi below will give you some tips on how you need to expand your search techniques in order to produce a successful systematic review.

The T&LS Team can assist if you have queries about systematic reviews:  Contact the T&LS Team