What Makes a Good Literature Review: Tips from the Pros

When you are working on a research project, the aim is to address a problem from a different perspective or approach. This means identifying gaps in the research as well as previous studies that have also looked at the issue. This article will provide tips on what makes a good literature review. You can think of it as a “How to Write a Literature Review for Dummies.”

Here is what a proper literature review should do:

  • Categorize the sources used in the literature review - such as peer reviewed articles and books - in a uniform manner. This will allow the reader to recognize whatever gaps, inconsistencies or new questions are raised in the literature.
  • Summarize the information from articles that are most directly related to the research you are doing. 
  • Provide synthesis of previous work on this research area, identify the researchers who carried out the work, discuss what previous studies indicate about your paper’s topic, and identify whatever gaps or disagreements exist in this area. 
  • Provide context and background information so that the reader understands the relevance of the topic as well as the possible weaknesses and limitations related to previous research that need to be corrected.

Here is what a literature review should NOT do:

  • Include every source that you cited in your paper. The literature review should specifically focus on the works that you are summarizing and discussing in order to highlight the issues related to your topic.
  • Include sources that are not directly related to your topic. This will only create confusion and frustration among the reader since they will not understand the point of your research.
  • Simply state, “Many different researchers have studied the relationship between A and B” and proceed to list those researchers and their conclusions.
  • What makes a good literature review is the ability to provide depth and synthesis so that the reader truly understands the nature of the problem.

How to Perform a Good Literature Review?

If you do not know how to start a good literature review, you need to know that it starts by determining a few aspects related to your research. First, you need to identify the purpose of your work. You should also think about how much agreement there is about whatever theories are out there that pertain to your topic. Other factors such as the length of your paper and how many previous studies have been conducted on the topic.

With that in mind, here are some things to include in your literature review:

  • A discussion of relevant theories and ideas that serve as the foundation for your study. For instance, as you discuss the relationship between one thing and another, you should make reference to any theories or models that address this link. This will help provide context for your study.
  • Information about the current trends and circumstances as they relate to your research. Identify whatever questions, issues or debates are at the forefront. Since new discoveries are being made all the time, you should indicate how your research fits into these changing developments.
  • Provide the reader with information about your topic from a historical perspective. What were some of the beliefs about your topic in the past? By understanding how theories have changed and how perceptions have evolved, you are indicating to the reader that you understanding how to discuss and apply theoretical concepts.
  • Familiarize the reader with the terminology related to your field. Depending on the complexity of your topic, you might need to define obscure terms or those that are context-specific. 
  • A summary of related research as a way of discussing what the studies have succeeded in uncovering and what they have yet to find. Ultimately, the purpose of your research is to expand upon or challenge other work.
  • Strong, credible sources. This is importance since successful research builds upon the work found in previous studies.

Types of Literature Reviews

There is no single universal approach to writing a literature review. They differ in terms of structure, length, and complexity. They can revolve around a very specific topic for which there is very little research (or even just a single published study). On the other hand, a literature review could cover a topic that has been studied in detail by many researchers. While we have discussed the literature review more in terms of how it serves as an important section or chapter of a research paper, it can also be published as a standalone work.

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