February 11, 2019

How (and Why) to Write a Literature Review

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

The core of any academic paper involves a literature review (heretofore known as a “lit review”), where you write about previous studies that are related to your own research. (We call previous research and writing on a topic “the literature,” and a synopsis of the literature is a “literature review.”) This is often a challenging process for students writing lit reviews for the first time. In this post, I’ll break down the steps you should take to write an informative—and dare I say interesting—lit review.

First, let’s go over why lit reviews are important. Yes, they are important if you are being graded on writing one, but they are important components of research. Here’s why:

  1. Lit reviews demonstrate that you are familiar with other research on your topic

As I have written about before, it is important to read the research on any topic you are thinking of studying. Research should never be done in a vacuum and should always be informed by previous studies.

Maybe there are several similar studies that have been done on your topic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth studying again! The previous studies might have taken place a long time ago and you are wondering if the results will be similar. Or perhaps your study will be focused on a specific subset of the population that the previous studies did not.

  1. A lit review provides part of the rationale for why your study is important

The biggest question we should all ask before conducting research is “so what?” Why does this research matter? One shortcut to answering this question is to say, “Other people have studied this, so this is a subject worth studying” through your lit review. I know, this may sound like circular reasoning, but this is in part what we are doing with a lit review.

A lit review also situates your research within your discipline. This is a way of telling readers that your study is part of an ongoing conversation in the field, and thus is worthy of study.

Maybe when you read other people’s research you find some gaps—what didn’t the other researchers examine that your study will? How is your research question slightly different from those asked in other studies? Ideally, other people’s research will guide you in constructing your own study. You might even find that your research doesn’t fit within sociology after reading other sociological studies, and belongs more within the fields of psychology or education, for instance.

Bottom line: a lit review shows that you have done your homework on the topic you are planning to study and have learned from other people’s work, which will inform your own study.

Here are some dos and don’ts for writing literature reviews:

  1. DO communicate why your topic is important how it is related to previous studies

The first order of business in a lit review is to provide a rationale for your study. Use details from previous research to highlight why this topic matters, its importance in your field, and what some of the foundational research already discovered. Your task is to then explain why more research is needed on the topic.

  1. DO explain how your research will differ from previous research

Your study doesn’t need to be dramatically different from other people’s research to be worth doing. But you do need to explain why your study should be done at all, or at least why anyone should pay attention to your results.

Even if you are attempting to replicate a previous study, and thus your research probably won’t differ much from previous research, provide a rationale for how and why the project will provide a necessary update to a classic study.

  1. DON’T simply list summaries of previous studies

This is the biggest mistake students make. You need to be sure to explain to your reader why you are writing about a particular study as you discuss them in a lit review. How are the other studies related to your own research? How did they trigger your interest in the topic? How is your study specifically different?

You also want to make sure to discuss previous research thematically. Maybe there are a handful that explores one part of the issue you are hoping to study, and another group that addresses another. Talk about these studies together and cite them all parenthetically at the end of the sentence (Study 1, Year; Study 2, Year; Study 3, Year, etc.).

  1. DO discuss studies’ methodologies

It’s easy to focus on the content of people’s findings and overlook the methods they used to get there. This is especially important if you will be using a unique research method, or if your method will be different than much of the previous research. Maybe your research topic has typically been studied using large data sets, and you are going to use in-depth interviews; this is an opportunity to discuss the similarities and differences between your studies.

  1. DON’T assume that there is no research on your subject

Here’s another common question: “I couldn’t find any previous studies on my subject. What do I do?”

Typically if a student has trouble finding other research on a topic it means one of two things: they are not looking in the right places, or their topic is so far astray from the discipline that it really isn’t an appropriate topic of study. In other cases, they are interested in an issue that is hot in the news at the moment, but has not yet made it to the publication stage, which can take anywhere from 6-12 months or more.

If someone has genuinely undertaken a thorough search and is coming up with nothing, consider studies on similar topics (or see #4, similar methods). It is even more important to highlight the rationale for why research should be done on this topic in this case.

  1. DON’T feel like your study is in competition with others

Most research has its flaws but also its uses. Don’t bash previous studies in order to promote your own. Even research conducted completely differently than your own probably has something to teach us. A lit review isn’t about condemning others to prop up our own work.

  1. DO make your lit review interesting

A good lit review can be both engaging and informative. You are explaining why you are studying a topic that you are interested in, right? Be sure to communicate your interest in previous research: what aspects of other studies you found most compelling, and what is most exciting to you about the research you are planning on conducting. A little inspiration goes a long way towards making for a great, readable lit review!

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