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Terrorized by the literature is the title of a chapter of Howard Becker’s excellent book, Writing for Social Scientists (1986, Chicago). Whether through terror or misunderstanding, the literature review is one of the areas that students in planning find most confusing. While I have dealt with the literature review briefly in my blog on writing proposals, the tips below provide more detailed advice on how to compose a literature review and how to find important literature in the age of information overload.
Terrorized by the literature is the title of a chapter of Howard Becker's excellent book, Writing for Social Scientists (1986, Chicago). Whether through terror or misunderstanding, the literature review is one of the areas that students in planning find most confusing. While I have dealt with the literature review briefly in my blog on writing proposals, the tips below provide more detailed advice on how to compose a literature review and how to find important literature in the age of information overload.
What a Literature Review Is
A literature review is a review of works on a subject. It is an important step in research and in many projects. It tells a story summarizing the themes and findings of works in an area, critically assessing their quality, drawing out their implications for one's own research or project questions, and identifying gaps or areas for future work. A literature review is typically one section of a research proposal. In a final report or paper, however, it may be in a single chapter or part but it also may be sprinkled throughout where it is relevant. A literature review is not:
What a Literature Review Does
A literature review identifies and analyzes what others have done so as not to reinvent the wheel. To do this you:
As I indicated in my earlier blog, in the case of a proposal, "it is a major step in your research or project and part of an iterative process where you develop a topic, review the literature to see how it is treated, refine your topic, and review again. In the end you will have a clear sense of where your study fits and what its contribution or importance is." A literature review tells a story.
A literature review is clear and careful about the sources of authority of the works it uses. There is a hierarchy of evidence roughly along the following lines (and this list can be found in similar forms in numerous books about reading and writing research):
Where someone is employed is far less important than the methods and data they used in the study. These sources of authority can be woven into the review:
This evidence also needs to be cited with author, date, and page and the full reference in a reference list (or in a footnote if you are in the humanities). For techniques on how to cite sources there are may guide books but I recommend Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (2007, Chicago-use the parenthetical reference/reference list version of citation). Web sites are "literature" but need to be cited just as carefully.
The methods may be as important as the substance. The methods used provide key information as you judge how relevant and believable the sources are. You may also want to replicate or modify a method in your own work so understanding how others used them is key.
There is so much "literature" in the contemporary information age that finding it might seem to present few problems.
For more information on the literature review, the Craft of Research by Booth et al. (2003, Chicago) is an excellent source. My web site contains a listing of my blogs classified by topic (look under advice). Those on undertaking the exist project and finding online sources have some additional helpful tips about literature reviews. Minor formatting edits made in January 2009.