The Literature Review

Imagine that the specific topic you’re looking to conduct research on is a jigsaw puzzle of which you have no reference. The completed puzzle is the hypothetical “objective truth” about that topic – an absolute conclusion that will invariably arrived at if all the important and relevant pieces of information are placed together and made to interact. Of course, this “objective truth” can never be obtained, and therefore the puzzle can never be completed (but that’s not the point). When you approach the specific topic with your research question, you’re basically looking at the incomplete puzzle. With your work, you’re seeking to help complete it – you are to cut up your own jigsaw piece and paint it appropriately to be inserted into what is already there.

A literature review is basically a broad survey into the specific topic you’re looking to do research in. Going back to the analogy, you’re looking at the incomplete puzzle and using the contours shaped by the already fitted pieces to inform your efforts of creating the new jigsaw piece. Sometimes you find that some pieces are inappropriate for the overall puzzle, and sometimes you find that there are too many significant gaps in the first place – making any concept of the picture you’re trying to obtain incomprehensible from the get-go. But that all comes with the territory; nobody said this job was easy.

In general, the literature review process can be broken down into two portions:

  1. A concise summary of the relevant arguments and conclusions that have already been made about the topic.
  2. A personal, deliberated judgment on what you have just summarized.

With these two fundamental aspects, you can then go on to lay out where to proceed from there. However, you need to know how to get those arguments and conclusions in the first place.

Professor Lisa Dierker describes the literature review:

Link to Part 2 of Professor Dierker’s Literature Review Video:

Link to Part 3 of Professor Dierker’s Literature Review Video:


Of course, begin with the Library.  Refer to the “Using the Library” section for further information on this.

Explore your faculty. Coming off several years of graduate and post-graduate as well as their own independent research, they probably know a book or two about your specific topic. They might even have it lying around in their office. Also, don’t limit yourself to professors who specialize in the field you’re interested in or just to those in your department. This is especially true if you know you’re researching a somewhat neglected or obscure line of inquiry. Your Azerbaijan History professor might know a guy who knows a guy who specializes in Post-Modern Nuclear Deterrence Fiction to whom she/he could refer you to, and so on so forth.

When you get your hands on your first few books, read through the Bibliography and References section. Take note especially of the works cited consistently across the books you’re reading – this is a good indication of a work or an argument well-accepted (or debated) among the academia of that topic.

A few words on the Internet. We are all, of course, enamored by the sheer accessibility of information that Google pampers us with, this being the digital age and all. However, be very aware and critical about the material you come across. Assessing credibility is ever so important in the expansive sea of the internet (which means, in general, never rely on Wikipedia – unless if you’re using it as a hub to get to better places). Two pretty reliable academic search engines are Google Scholar and Jstor, though the latter can only be accessed in certain Wi-Fi networks (like universities or libraries) or only if you have a subscription.

So, we’ve touched upon places you can start off with finding resources. There are probably other more crafty methods to find out useful books and articles, and if so please let us know so we can put it up here. Now that we’re done with that, let’s look at production and composition.

Writing the Review

Read the article mentioned below on “Doing a Literature Review” by Jeffrey W. Knopf. It’s a concise and effective article on the craft of doing this important step of your research/thesis, and it provides a lot of key considerations that you should be thinking about when you both survey the literature and put your review together.

A few other words:

  1. A Literature Review is yet another active narrative to your work. Do not simply treat it as a list; treat it as exposition. If anything, it is analogous to the first ten minutes of your basic movie: it sets up the world, the rules, and the players.
  2. Don’t extend your bias just yet – and don’t be biased when you’re presenting the multiple schools of thought. That just hurts your credibility if you come off the bat with it, because it renders your work somewhat subjective. A reliable piece of social science research has to have some character of objectivity, the findings have to come out from a clear consideration of all sides.

Notes on Sources

It is important, when conducting your literature review, to keep in mind that not all sources are made equally.  A familiar division is between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources (see Monmouth College description of sources).  However, there is also the issue of source quality.  Monmouth College’s evaluation criteria are a useful place to start. UC Berkeley Library’s guide to a “Critical Evaluation of Resources” also may be helpful here. They stress keeping in mind such factors as the suitability of a source (what was its intended audience?) and its authority (what are the credentials of the author? how does that author claim to know what they know?).  It is especially important to keep such issues in mind when gathering information from the internet. Johns Hopkins University’s Guide to “Evaluating Information Found on the Internet” has this specific set of concerns in mind. One of the tricky issues that they flag is the question of using sources that appear at the top of search results.  No one has a perfect answer for how to deal with the issue and every search engine is different. But it is important to keep this in mind.


Wesleyan University Library Guide on Literature Reviews:


Abstract: Educator and naval postgraduate school professor Knopf presents a brief and wholly comprehensive summary of what is a literature review and how to write one. He also discusses some other interesting issue to consider, like contributions students can make to their fields of interest and the techniques of framing.

Contributor: Nicholas Quah

updated July 12, 2017 – MN