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Literature Review

This guide is designed to help graduate and undergraduate students in the process of conducting and writing a literature review for any discipline.

What is a literature review?

A Literature Review surveys scholarly source materials that are relevant to a person's research thesis/problem and/or a particular issue or theory. It also provides a critical analysis that summarizes and synthesizes the source materials while also demonstrating how a person's research pertains to or fits within the larger discipline of study.

Literature Reviews vary from discipline to discipline as well as across assignments, but generally a good literature review is designed to help you answer two questions:

  • What do we know about this particular issue, theory or subject?
  • What do we not know about this particular issue, theory or subject?

Good literature reviews also:

  • Evaluate the context of scholarly material for its contribution to the understanding of the research thesis being studied.
  • Explain the relationships between each of the works under deliberation identifying gaps in previous research and the need for additional research.
  • Address conflicts found in contradictory research previously conducted and define new ways to interpret research.

Literature Reviews vs. Annotated Bibliographies

Differences in Purpose:

Literature Review: To provide a case for continuing research into a particular subject or idea by giving an overview of source materials you have discovered on a subject or idea and to demonstrate how your research will fit into the the larger discipline of study by noting discipline knowledge gaps and contextualizing questions for the betterment of the discipline. Literature reviews also tend to have a stated or implied thesis.

Annotated Bibliography: An alphabetically arranged list of references that consists of citations and a brief summary and critique of each of the source materials. The element of critiquing appears to give literature reviews and annotated bibliographies their apparent similarities but in truth this is where they greatly differ. An annotated bibliography normally critiques the quality of the source material while literature reviews concentrate on the value of the source material in its ability to answer a particular question or support an argument.  

Differences in Format:

A literature review is a formally written prose document very similar to journal articles.  Many literature reviews are incorporated directly into scholarly source material as part of the formal research process. The literature review is typically a required component of dissertations and theses.

An annotated bibliography is a formal list of citations with annotations or short descriptions and critiques of particular source materials. Annotated bibliographies act as a precursor to a literature review as an organizational tool.

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Finding Scholarly Material: EBSCOhost and the Databases

In order to find scholarly materials to use in your literature review, learn to search the library's databases effectively. EBSCOhost is an excellent place to start, as you can search several - or all - of the EBSCO databases (like ERIC, Education Full Text, and Academic Search Premier) at one time.

Here are a few ways to find scholarly material with MBU Library resources: 

  • EBSCOhost
    Clicking on this link will open a "Choose Databases page" with many databases pre-selected.
  • Databases A-Z page 
    The library's database A-Z page gives you the option to search our databases by title, subject, or type. 
  • Subject/Research Guides 
    Search the various subject/research guides created by MBU Librarians pertaining to specific disciplines.
  • Journals A-Z
    The library's journals A-Z page where you can search all electronic journals included in our databases.

Inter-Library Loan

Interlibrary loan allows you to borrow or otherwise acquire materials not held by the Jung-Kellogg Learning Center or other MOBIUS libraries. If you are unable to locate the material you need, please contact Interlibrary Loan by filling out the Article Request Form.

1. Define your thesis/research question.

1. Define your thesis/research question

The first step is to choose a topic within the parameters set by a central research question. Always keep in mind the purpose of a literature review is to represent previously conducted research and its developments related to a specific research question.

  • Make sure your research question is manageable, not too broad or too narrow in scope.
  • Write down keywords (the most important concepts from your research question) as you will use these terms to search the literature on your topic.

2. Determine the Scope

Determine how comprehensive the review should be as this will vary depending on the nature of your research question. Remember that one purpose of a literature review is to see where your research question falls within a discipline's body of research.

  • Cast a wide search at first to find all topic related material.
  • Select the most relevant source material to your topic and purpose.

3. Decide where you will search for sources and start searching

Make a plan that details where you will search for source material for your literature review. 

Things to Do:

  • Make a comprehensive list of subject-specific library databases. Be sure to utilize Proquest Theses & Dissertations Open.
  • Make sure to check for books in the MBU Library Catalog and the MOBIUS Catalog.
  • Keep track of useful search terms and search strings to duplicate if necessary. 
  • Use formal reference lists to find other research studies and speak with your professor or a scholar to determine key pieces of literature.
  • Use a citation manager to help keep track of citations.

4. Review the Literature

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions. Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited?; if so, how has it been analyzed?

(From the University of West Florida)

Ways to Organize Your Literature Review

Chronologically by Events 
Writing your review chronologically by source publication date should only be followed if a clear path of built upon research that follows a clear chronological order of development can be identified. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Thematically (“conceptual categories”)
Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. The only difference here between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it will still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media
. Note however that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order, shifting between time periods within each section according to the point being made.

A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For example, a project on the Internet in American presidential politics might look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way 
which those documents are discussed.

(Adapted from "The Literature Review"  from Organizing Your Social Research Paper, University of Southern California)

Literature Review Tutorial

Literature Review: An Overview for Graduate Students (from North Carolina State University Libraries) 
This tutorial is an excellent resource demonstrating how to conduct a literature review. 

Books on Lit Reviews