Some general information and guidance about a literature review.
General guidance only
This is a generic resource for literature reviews that should be taken as such. You should consult with your course or programme handbook, course webpage, programme director or project supervisor for subject-specific guidance surrounding your literature review.
What is a literature review?
Generally, a literature review is a survey of the work that has previously been published in your subject. It can be a separate assignment or it can form part of a larger body of work, such as a dissertation. It should be comprehensive and relevant in its scope.
A literature review can also mean the process of reviewing the literature. It starts when you pick up your first paper/book/source, it continues as you research and question, write, and edit the piece, and finishes when you complete your final draft.
What is the purpose of a literature review in a dissertation?
…your task it to build an argument, not a libraryRudestam, K.E. and Newton, R.R. (1992) Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process.California: Sage Publications Inc.
At postgraduate level, a literature review is more than just an account of what has been read. It should demonstrate your understanding and familiarity of your subject by interpreting previous work, stating areas of controversy, and identifying any gaps or formulating questions that are unanswered by the current context.
As a critical evaluation of your field, it is important that there is a clear, logical structure to your literature review. It is possible that there will be several ways to structure your literature review e.g. chronologically, thematically, or developmentally. It is important you spend some time thinking about what works best for your dissertation. There may also be discipline-specific conventions regarding literature reviews, so ask your supervisor or programme director for guidance.
By the end of a literature review, the reader should have a general understand of your topic, the current context of it (including gaps and controversies) and why your question(s) is being addressed.
Download our Literature Review worksheet (MS Word)
How do you start a literature review?
You just need to read something about your research topic. It could be a book, a journal article, a methodology paper, or a case study. It might not even be text-based, depending on your discipline. It could be a piece of sculpture or a film. Whatever you start with, the next step is to evaluate it, thinking about the quality and relevancy to your question(s). This will then lead you to more focussed research and sources. Having effective notes of your reading will help you in producing a good literature review.
Have a look at our Managing reading workloads page
If you submitted a proposal for your dissertation, you could start with the sources from there. You may find that some of the sources and references from your course(s) may be useful. You can also use electronic databases and online catalogues to search reference material. Your supervisor may also have some starter or key references for you.
Have a look at our Literature searching page
When do you stop a literature review?
It is important to set yourself a deadline for completing the process and the writing of your literature review. Whilst you need to ensure your research is up to date, you have to give yourself time to assimilate it into your work. Some subjects are rapidly expanding such that there are new publications weekly or even daily that are relevant to your research. Only you know how well and quickly you can process and incorporate new information into your writing and your ‘stop-point’ should reflect this. Ideally, as with the whole dissertation, you should aim to stop reading for, and writing your literature review with enough time before your submission deadline so that you can edit and proof-read it.
Have a look at our Assignments: planning and drafting page
Royal Literary Fund: Literature reviews
University of Leicester: Doing a literature review
University of Reading: Starting a literature review
These books (and others) are available from the University main library. If you want to invest in a book, it may be worth browsing a few to find one that works for you.
- Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination (SAGE Study Skills) – Chris Hart
- The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students (SAGE Study Skills) – Diana Ridley
- Succeeding with Your Master's Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Handbook (Open University Press) - John Biggam (online access to 3rd edition via DiscoverEd)
Using case examples of both good and bad student practice, the handbook takes students through each step of the dissertation process, from their initial research proposal to the final submission. The author uses clear illustrations of what students need to do - or not do - to reach their potential, helping them to avoid the most common pitfalls.
This essential handbook covers: Producing focused and relevant research objectives Writing your literature review Citing your sources correctly Clearly explaining your use of research methods Writing up your findings Summarizing your work by linking your conclusions to your initial proposal Understanding marking schemes Aimed primarily at Master's students or students on short postgraduate courses in business, humanities and the social sciences, this book is also key reading for supervisors and undergraduates considering postgraduate study.