What is a Literature Review?
A literature review is a scholarly used to examine the state of knowledge and understanding of the academic literature on a topic or issue placed in context. It summarizes, synthesizes, and critics (evaluates) journal articles, books, conference papers, books, government documents, and other documents of academic value to illuminate how knowledge has evolved within the field and highlight what has been done, what is generally accepted, what is emerging and what is the present state of thinking on the topic.
Literature reviews have two types. First, it can be a stand-alone product, which summarizes, synthesizes, and critiques existing studies on specific a topic and drives a conclusion about current understanding. This type of literature review is written in a structure similar to a standard essay, i.e., introduction, main body, and conclusion (See this article as an example). Second, it can be part of a larger research project, which provides an overview of current knowledge that allows you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research, and helps you justify your research questions. Typically, this type is organized into five parts: (1) introduction to the problem; (2) what is known about the topic (key theories, findings, methods, and/or trends); (3) relevant previous studies’ findings, theories, or constructs; (4) discrepancies, limitations, or gaps; and (5) research question or hypothesis.
Importance of Literature Review
Literature reviews are important because it facilitates you to know your field comprehensively so that you can make informed decisions, act competently, and set policies in your field of expertise. Research typically begins with literature reviews because, as it is previously stated, they help the researcher justify proposed studies, uncover patterns of findings in the field, enter into scientific debate, and discover gaps in knowledge that lead to future research questions. To emphasize the importance of literature review, Boote and Beile (2005) stated “a researcher cannot perform significant research without first understanding the literature in the field” (p. 3).
Literature Review Differences in Quantitative and Qualitative Research
According to Creswell (2014), the literature review of quantitative research is different from the literature review of qualitative research in three ways: “the amount of literature cited at the beginning of the study, the use it serves at the beginning, and its use at the end of a study” (pp. 80-81).
Since the literature review in a quantitative study should justify the research problem's importance and offer a rationale for (and foreshadow) the study purpose and research questions or hypotheses, the researcher needs to discuss a considerable literature at the beginning. As such, the literature review of quantitative studies can be written as a separate section titled "Review of the Literature". To show whether the findings confirm or disconfirm prior predictions, the literature is also cited at the end of quantitative studies.
The literature reviews in qualitative research should also justify the research problems importance. Yet, to allow the views of the participants to emerge without being constrained by the views of others from the literature, at the beginning the researchers do not extensively discuss the literature. At the end of the studies, the literature is also cited to show whether the findings modify or support existing ideas and practices in the literature.
Steps in Conducting Literature Review
There is no prescribed path to follow in conducting a literature review. Yet, to write a literature review as a part of a research project, you will typically go through the following five interconnected steps: (1) identify the key terms (that are relevant to your research problem) to use in your search for literature; (2) locate literature by consulting various types of materials and databases; (3) critically evaluate and select the literature for your review; (4) organize the literature you have selected by abstracting or taking notes on the literature and developing a visual diagram of it; and (5) write a literature review that reports summaries of the literature for inclusion in your research report.
Step 1: Identifying Key Terms
Key terms identification can be conducted by turning the research problem into a “working title” and/or posing a short, general research question that you would like answered in your study. If, for instance, your research problem is “The effect of using short stories on EFL learners' reading proficiency," (because it has been well-phrased as a title) you can use it directly as a working title. You can also form another working title from it, such as "Short stories effect on EFL learners' reading skills". Then, based on the problem, you might pose a research question like "Do short stories affect EFL learners' reading proficiency?" or "Is there any significant effect of short stories use on EFL learners' reading proficiency".
Step 2: Locating Literature
Using the identified key terms, you can start the search for relevant literature by exploring databases (Google Scholar, JSTOR, EBSCO, ERIC, etc.). assessing the electronic journals available on a topic, searching in an academic library, and asking your lecturers to recommend good sources. A Literature review can include both primary and secondary source materials, but you need to prioritize locating primary sources for two reasons. One, primary sources present the original author's viewpoint as they serve the literature in the original state. Second, they also offer better details of original research than secondary sources do (Creswell, 2014).
Step 3: Critically evaluate and select the literature for your review
When you locate the literature, it is necessary to ensure whether it is good and relevant to use in your particular research. To determine whether a source is good or not, prioritize to include sources published in refereed journals; then continue to non-refereed journal articles; then books; then conference papers, dissertations, and theses; and finally non-reviewed articles posted to Web sites. To determine the source relevance, while selecting literature for a review, consider the following criteria. First, does the source focus on a topic similar to that you want to study (topic relevance)? Second, does the source involve or examine participants and sites similar to those you proposed to study (participants and site relevance)? Third, does the source investigate the same questions you want to address (problem and question relevance)? Fourth, is the source downloadable, available, or accessible from a website or the library (accessibility relevance)? The source is relevant to your study if you answer yes to them (Creswell, 2014).
Step 4: Organize the literature
After ensuring their relevance, you need to organize the literature to make it easy for you to reference them later. This step involves reproducing (photocopying, scanning, or downloading) and filing the sources. At this time also need to get the connections and relationships among the sources by identifying the themes, debates, and gaps. To do this, quickly read the sources, mark, take notes, or summarize pertaining ideas so that you can easily insert them later into your written review. The pertaining ideas to consider include: (1) themes, i.e. the concepts and questions that recur across the sources; (2) trends and patterns in theory, method, or results acknowledged by the approaches that become more or less popular over time; (3) debates, contradictions, or conflicts on which the sources disagree; (4) crucial publications, i.e. any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field; and (5) gaps that are identified by missing elements in the literature or the weaknesses necessary to address.
Finally, organize these pertaining ideas to structure the outline of your review whose divisions and subdivisions depend on the variables or factors involved in your research problem. In the organizational structure of the review, these variables are presented in a logical argument that smoothly leads into the research project and justifies both the need for work and the methodology you are going to use. The review typically ends with (1) a conceptual framework, a written or visual representation of an expected relationship between variables, and (2) hypotheses (for quantitative study) or research purpose and research questions (for qualitative study).
To illustrate, if your research problem is “the effect of using short stories on junior high EFL learners' reading proficiency’, you can outline your literature review into the following divisions (and subdivisions):1. Short Stories in Language Learning
2. Reading Proficiency
3. Teaching EFL Reading Using Short Stories
4. Gaps in Literature
5. Conceptual Framework
Step 5: Write the literature review
As stated earlier a literature review should have an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion. The introduction typically describes the focus of the review and how it is organized. To describe the focus, restate your research central problem in a summary of the scholarly context by accentuating the timeliness of the topic (e.g. “various recent studies have focused on the effect of using short stories on EFL learners’ reading proficiency” or highlighting a gap in the literature (e.g. “despite the numerous research on the effect of using short stories on EFL learners’ language skills proficiency, few researchers have taken the reading proficiency of junior high school students into consideration”). In the next paragraph, briefly describe the outline of your review.
The main body summarizes, synthesizes, analyzes, and interprets relevant ideas in the previously planned outline. Each division/subdivision begins with an overview of the main points of each source and combines them into a coherent whole through appropriate quoting, summarizing, and paraphrasing. But overviewing the ideas is not enough. You should also add your interpretations where possible, compare and contrast different theories, concepts, etc. to indicate your own position, discuss the significance of findings concerning the literature as a whole, and critically evaluate the ideas by mentioning their strength and weaknesses. Make sure that you write in well-structured paragraphs by starting each with a topic sentence and employing correct transition words. You should also appropriately cite and reference conforming to the style (APA, MLA, AMA, etc.) required in your research project.
The conclusion summarizes the major themes found in the literature and provides the reasons to conduct your study. To write the summary, ask yourself, "From all the research I have reviewed, what are the major results and findings?" The answer to this question will provide the identification of three to four themes that emphasize the major ideas under each division in the main body of the review.
The reasons to conduct your study reveal why the current literature is deficient and why research on the topic of your research is necessary. These reasons describe how your study will add to knowledge and justify the importance of your research problem.
Boote, D. N., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6), 3-15
Creswell, J. W. (2014). Educational research: Planning, conducting and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (4th ed.). Harlow: Pearson.