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Literature Reviews

This guide is an introduction to writing a literature review.


What is a literature review?

A literature review is designed to be a critical analysis. What does that mean?

When you analyze something critically you are identifying the purpose and point-of-view of the writer. A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area. It can be applied to a particular period in time.

Literature reviews are as varied as there are fields of study. Your literature review could be from scholarly sources for the treatment of a torn ACL for sports medicine. Your roommate’s literature review could be about finding and analyzing evidence of British Colonialism in Africa.

What is the difference between a research paper and a literature review?

The main focus of a research paper is to develop a new argument—your argument—using the literature as a foundation, or support, for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of the literature review, however, is to compile opinions and then summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.

Why do literature reviews if you’re not contributing your point of view? 

Literature reviews can be used as the means for the following:

  • As a guide to a topic
  • As the means to become quickly up-to-date on a topic
  • As a time saving step before exploring new research
  • As the background material, prior to the investigation, to add credibility to a proposal   

What is the goal of a literature review?

The goal is to gain understanding of the topic. This is also what you want the reader of the literature review to gain. What’s been said? What’s the history or development? What are the divisions and perspectives on the topic? What are the different opinions being discussed out there in the literary world?

How to do a Literature Review

Consider the following process when conducting and writing a literature review:

  1. Select a topic
  2. Search the literature to locate relevant research articles
  3. Read and analyze the articles
  4. Organize the review
  5. Write the review

Select a Topic:  When selecting a topic make sure that your topic is not too broad.  Your instructor may limit the number of sources that you need to do your assignment.  Make sure that the number of sources are sufficient to cover your topic.  Check with your instructor if you have questions about your topic.

Search the literature to locate relevant research articles:  Grace Library subscribes to 50+ journal databases, covering a wide range of subjects.  You can search the databases to access research articles in scholarly or peer-reviewed journals.  When searching the databases, you want to use keywords.  Look at your topic and note the main ideas or keywords.  If your topic is the following:

“An assessment of the quality of care in nursing homes

the keywords would be

  • Assessment
  • Quality of care
  • Nursing homes

To locate relevant articles, use the Library Search box on Grace Library’s website.  This allows you to search all of the library’s resources at one time. You can then limit your search results to just scholarly or peer reviewed articles.  As an alternative you can also search specific subject databases by clicking on the A-Z journal list and choosing your databases.

Read and Analyze the Articles:  Now that you have selected articles, you need to read and take notes.  You may want to begin by reading the abstracts for your articles to get a general idea of what the article is about.  You then need to read each of the articles more carefully.  As you read, you may notice themes or issues which help you to organize your articles.  You may also determine that some articles do not fit or are not relevant to your topic.  Take notes for each of your articles regarding the main points, the type of study, strengths, weaknesses, etc.

Organize the review:  After reading and analyzing the articles, you are ready to organize the articles in preparation to write the review.  Consider your purpose in writing the review.  Think about what are the most important topics and subtopics and how you should present them.  Decide how you would like to organize your articles, whether by trends, by topic, or methodologically.  You might want to create an outline to help you organize your argument and your topics. 

At this point it might also be helpful to look at some actual literature reviews to get an idea of how to organize your review.  You can search the library’s databases to get copies of literature reviews.  Go to the Grace Library web page ( and enter the keyword “literature review” in the library search box.  Once you receive the search results you can then further limit the results to “Academic journals” and/or “peer reviewed” by putting a check in either or both of those boxes.

To retrieve literature reviews in a specific subject area, combine “literature review” with a subject term, e.g.

Literature review and education 
Literature review and social work
Literature review and nursing

The above searches will retrieve articles on literature reviews in education, in social work, and in nursing respectively.

Writing the review:  Once you have organized your articles you can begin to write the literature review.  When you write your review be sure to present the research topic or question that you are going to address.  In your review you want to summarize your sources and back up any claims that you make with evidence, just as if you were writing a research paper.  Be sure to include your findings, any gaps in the literature, any limitations and implications for further research.