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Resources to help you conduct research in the field of Psychology, and related disciplines.

What is a Literature Review?


A literature review, also called a review article or review of literature, surveys the existing research on a topic. The term "literature" in this context refers to published research or scholarship in a particular discipline, rather than "fiction" (like American Literature) or an individual work of literature. In general, literature reviews are most common in the sciences and social sciences.

Literature reviews may be written as standalone works, or as part of a scholarly article or research paper. In either case, the purpose of the review is to summarize and synthesize the key scholarly work that has already been done on the topic at hand. The literature review may also include some analysis and interpretation. A literature review is not a summary of every piece of scholarly research on a topic.

Why are literature reviews useful?

Literature reviews can be very helpful for newer researchers or those unfamiliar with a field by synthesizing the existing research on a given topic, providing the reader with connections and relationships among previous scholarship. Reviews can also be useful to veteran researchers by identifying potentials gaps in the research or steering future research questions toward unexplored areas. If a literature review is part of a scholarly article, it should include an explanation of how the current article adds to the conversation. (From:

How is a literature review different from a research article?

Research articles: "are empirical articles that describe one or several related studies on a specific, quantitative, testable research question....they are typically organized into four text sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion." Source:

Steps for Writing a Literature Review

1. Identify and define the topic that you will be reviewing.

The topic, which is commonly a research question (or problem) of some kind, needs to be identified and defined as clearly as possible.  You need to have an idea of what you will be reviewing in order to effectively search for references and to write a coherent summary of the research on it.  At this stage it can be helpful to write down a description of the research question, area, or topic that you will be reviewing, as well as to identify any keywords that you will be using to search for relevant research.

2. Conduct a Literature Search

Use a range of keywords to search databases such as PsycINFO and any others that may contain relevant articles.  You should focus on peer-reviewed, scholarly articles. In SuperSearch and most databases, you may find it helpful to select the Advanced Search mode and include "literature review" or "review of the literature" in addition to your other search terms.  Published books may also be helpful, but keep in mind that peer-reviewed articles are widely considered to be the “gold standard” of scientific research.  Read through titles and abstracts, select and obtain articles (that is, download, copy, or print them out), and save your searches as needed. Most of the databases you will need are linked to from the Cowles Library Psychology Research guide.

3. Read through the research that you have found and take notes.

Absorb as much information as you can.  Read through the articles and books that you have found, and as you do, take notes.  The notes should include anything that will be helpful in advancing your own thinking about the topic and in helping you write the literature review (such as key points, ideas, or even page numbers that index key information).  Some references may turn out to be more helpful than others; you may notice patterns or striking contrasts between different sources; and some sources may refer to yet other sources of potential interest.  This is often the most time-consuming part of the review process.  However, it is also where you get to learn about the topic in great detail. You may want to use a Citation Manager to help you keep track of the citations you have found. 

4. Organize your notes and thoughts; create an outline.

At this stage, you are close to writing the review itself.  However, it is often helpful to first reflect on all the reading that you have done.  What patterns stand out?  Do the different sources converge on a consensus?  Or not?  What unresolved questions still remain?  You should look over your notes (it may also be helpful to reorganize them), and as you do, to think about how you will present this research in your literature review.  Are you going to summarize or critically evaluate?  Are you going to use a chronological or other type of organizational structure?  It can also be helpful to create an outline of how your literature review will be structured.

5. Write the literature review itself and edit and revise as needed.

The final stage involves writing.  When writing, keep in mind that literature reviews are generally characterized by a summary style in which prior research is described sufficiently to explain critical findings but does not include a high level of detail (if readers want to learn about all the specific details of a study, then they can look up the references that you cite and read the original articles themselves).  However, the degree of emphasis that is given to individual studies may vary (more or less detail may be warranted depending on how critical or unique a given study was).   After you have written a first draft, you should read it carefully and then edit and revise as needed.  You may need to repeat this process more than once.  It may be helpful to have another person read through your draft(s) and provide feedback.

6. Incorporate the literature review into your research paper draft. (note: this step is only if you are using the literature review to write a research paper. Many times the literature review is an end unto itself).

After the literature review is complete, you should incorporate it into your research paper (if you are writing the review as one component of a larger paper).  Depending on the stage at which your paper is at, this may involve merging your literature review into a partially complete Introduction section, writing the rest of the paper around the literature review, or other processes.

These steps were taken from: