By Dr Justin Alam, Teaching Fellow, Skills Centre
The aim of a literature review
Usually, a literature review follows an introduction. In an introduction you explain the question or issue that you are dealing with. Then, in the literature review, you explain what we know about the answer to this question and crucially what gap in our knowledge still needs to be filled. The aim is to convince your reader that there is a need for your study.
Avoid just summarising
A literature review needs to be more than just a series of summaries of the relevant literature. You need to tell a research story explaining how each development led to the next one. It should be your voice that leads the discussion.
Organising a literature review
Often the best way to organise the information texts is to start with the earliest first and then work through the other relevant research in time order. This will give your reader a sense of how knowledge has been built over time as you explain how deficiencies in earlier research motivated new research. However, bear in mind that this may not be the clearest way to explain the gap. (Also, in some disciplines they just want to know what the present state of knowledge is.)
There are alternatives to chronological organisation which may be better suited to making the gap clear to the reader in your particular case. You could, for example, organise according to whether the researchers agree or disagree with a particular claim (i.e. have all the ‘agrees’ first and then all the ‘disagrees’ second); or organise according to where the research was published. To identify possible types of groupings of texts, you could record key information about the texts you have read in a spreadsheet (see below) and then try to identify possible groupings. Christine Feak and John Swales suggest using a spreadsheet to record relevant information about the texts you have read.
Remember, whatever organisation you decide on, your idea of the gap should be clear and it should be your voice leading the discussion towards that gap.