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How to conduct a literature review

Date published by Date updated: December 27, 2016

When you are writing your thesis, you will undoubtedly be required to undertake a literature review. But what exactly does this mean? How should you structure this review in the first place, and then how should you incorporate the information you find into your own work?

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a method used to gather knowledge that already exists in relation to a particular topic or problem. This information can be found in various sources, such as journal articles, books, papers, theses, and archival material.

Conducting literature research provides insight into existing knowledge and theories related to your topic. It also ensures that your thesis has a strong scientific grounding.

When conducted properly, a literature review will not result in a simple list or summary of the available data. Your goal is instead to critically discuss the most relevant ideas and information that you have found as part of your theoretical framework.

What is the difference between a literature review and a theoretical framework?

The literature review serves as a real cornerstone for analyzing the problem being investigated. Depending on the structure of your thesis, it may also be used as the basis for developing a comprehensive theoretical framework.

Sample theoretical framework

Preliminary exploration of the problem

Once you have a general idea of the problem and research questions you would like to address in your thesis, the first step is often to begin reviewing the literature. This is a valuable way to better orient yourself within the field and hone in more precisely on the problem you will investigate.

The insights into the existing knowledge and theories that you will gain though the literature review will also help you to establish a strong scientific starting point for the rest of your research.

After you have identified a clear problem statement and research question(s), the next step is to delve more deeply into your subject and the relevant literature. This can be a real challenge, given the amount of literature available and the limited time you may have to write your thesis. It is therefore important to tackle the process in the most efficient and systematic way possible.

Literature roadmap

Following our four-step roadmap will help you to conduct your literature review effectively.

  1. Prepare
  2. Collect literature
  3. Evaluate and select the literature
  4. Process the literature

1. Prepare

This first step involves orienting yourself to the subject in order to get a more global picture of the area of inquiry. It also entails making a list of keywords, which will serve as the basis for the next step.

  • Read a recent publication on your topic. Choose something by a leading author, in which all (or as many possible) facets of your subject are discussed. This will give you a good general overview of the research field. Ask your supervisor if any questions arise.
  • While you are reading, record the terms that seem most important/relevant.
  • Also identify the most important/relevant terms from your (initial) problem and research question(s).
  • Create a master list of all of these terms. These are your keywords. For example, if you are investigating non-verbal communication, the following terms may be on your list:
    1. Nonverbal communication
    2. Nonverbal cues
    3. Nonverbal gestures
    4. Body language
    5. Mimicry

2. Collect literature

This preparatory work now makes it much easier to search for specific literature and other sources. This search often starts online. Using the right keywords is of great importance, which is why the first step of this roadmap is to compile a list.

Search for these terms in English as well as any other languages that you have a reading knowledge of. It is also helpful to try using both synonyms and different combinations of terms.

There are many different types of databases that you may wish to explore:

  • The online catalog of your school or university’s library. Most academic libraries have large repositories of physical resources, including books, papers, journals, and magazines. However, most have expanded their offerings exponentially by subscribing to additional electronic resources, including both journals and academic databases (see below). These days most institutions also allow students to connect via VPN, which enables you to access the online library from home.
  • Google Scholar. Via www.scholar.google.com will take you to Google’s special search engine for academic literature. If an article you are interested in may not be accessed free of charge, try accessing it through your institution’s library instead.
  • Country-specific databases. Some databases are maintained at a national level. For instance, the PiCarta database can almost always be accessed through libraries at Dutch institutions. It contains data on all publications available in the Netherlands, including the books and magazines that are not available in your own library.
  • Multidisciplinary databases. JDatabases such as JSTOR and EBSCO are digital libraries that include academic journals, books, and primary sources on a wide variety of subjects. Most institutions’ libraries subscribe to several.
  • Subject-specific databases. Several databases are focused on specific disciplines (or groups of related disciplines). An example is the AGRIS database, which covers a broad spectrum of topics related to agriculture and the environment.

When you have found a useful source, check the bibliograpy of that publication for other relevant sources (which is called the “snowball” research method). Does the same author’s name keep popping up? This usually means that this individual has done a lot of research on the topic. Taking a look at his/her website or searching for his/her name directly in (online) catalogs will likely lead you to more results.

3. Evaluate and select the literature

It is likely that you will uncover an overwhelming amount of literature. As you only have a limited amount of time, it’s important that you focus on the most important sources. We suggest rating the literature you have found first on relevance, then on scientific quality.

A relevant publication is one that fits with your topic or problem very well. To determine the relevance of a book or article without having to read it in its entirety, start with just the introduction and conclusion. This will often provide you with enough information to judge whether the publication is relevant to your work.

publication’s quality is determined by a number of factors. As a general rule, try to use only articles that have been published in leading journals. Rankings such as the Journal Quality List will help you determine what these journals are.

Looking at the expertise of contributing authors can also be helpful. Expert authors are usually affiliated with an academic institution, extensively published, and frequently cited by others.

Bear in mind that information from websites is often not reliable, with the exception of sites that are run by scientific, governmental, or intergovernmental institutions. It is also important to use the most recent literature possible; if you don’t, you run the risk of basing your work on outdated information.

4. Process the literature

Once you have identified the literature that you will focus on, the next step is to process the information you have found (through a problem analysis or theoretical framework, for instance). Of course, it’s important to start by thoroughly studying the selected publications. Ask yourself the following questions as you do so:

  • What is the problem being investigated and how is the research addressing it?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they being defined?
  • What theories and models does the author use?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does this publication compare to related publications in this field?
  • How can I apply this research to my own research?

Analyzing all of your sources in this way will give you a clear picture of the field and how your research fits into it. You’ll then be able to discuss the literature in a critical and well-founded manner.

The way in which you should present the results of your literature review vary by program. Your department should provide you with the relevant guidelines. If you use the literature review to prepare a theoretical framework, for instance, the emphasis would be on defining terms and analyzing theories and models.

How should you refer to your sources?

The citations in your literature review should be very accurate. Many schools and universities use the citation style of the American Psychological Association (APA). Use the free Scribbr APA Generator to help you create citations both quckly and correctly.

If you do not properly cite your sources, the information that you have used will be considered plagiarism. Plagiarism is a serious form of fraud that has severe repercussions. Have doubts or need help? Run a Plagiarism check – it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

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Article by Sarah Vinz

Sarah’s academic background includes a Master of Arts in English, a Master of International Affairs degree, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She loves the challenge of finding the perfect formulation or wording and derives much satisfaction from helping students take their academic writing up a notch.

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