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Literature Review: What is a Literature Review?

How to write a literature review.

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.

The author of a literature review first determines a question about existing research. At a basic level, the author wants to know what has been written on a particular research topic. After formulating a question, the author sets out to find the relevant research. For a traditional literature review, it is not necessary that the author find everything written on a particular topic. Instead, the author will select a representative sample of articles, and write a literature review that explains and examines the scope of research that exists on this topic. 


Literature Reviews vary from discipline to discipline as well as across assignments, but generally a good literature review is designed to help you answer 2 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.
  • Identify gaps in previous research. 
  • Define new ways to interpret research within a discipline.
  • Address conflicts found in contradictory research previously conducted.
  • Identify the need for additional research.


Literature Review vs. Annotated Bibliography

Literature reviews and annotated bibliographies may appear similar in nature, but in fact, they vary greatly in two very important areas: purpose and format.

Differences in Purpose:

Literature Review: A literature review works to do two main things. The first is 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. The second is to demonstrate how your research will fit into the the larger discipline of study by noting discipline knowledge gaps and contextulizing questions for the betterment of the discipline. Literature reviews tend to have a stated or implied thesis as well.

Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography is basically an aphabetically 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:

Literature Review: 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.

Annotated Bibliography: 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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