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This booklet is an introduction to some of the skills and strategies that will help
Learning Development at the University of Otago.
Version 1.3 Revised 2017
Postgraduate students in many disciplines, especially Social Sciences and
short review as part of an Honours assignment, or a full-length chapter in a PhD
thesis, students consistently find it a struggle to turn the mass of diverse material
found in a literature search into a well-organised critical discussion.
The literature on writing literature reviews is generally useful in three areas:
evaluated; and identifying common faults in reviews.
When it comes to explaining how to go about actually planning and writing the
for example, that there should be “some kind of structure to the chapter” (Oliver,
2004, p.109). One guide depressingly takes it for granted that writing a review
will be a messy, long-drawn-out and repetitive process: “Start the first draft of
your review early in your reading. Many more drafts will be required before you
have a coherent and ‘critical’ account” (Bell, 2005. p.111).
In response to all the students who wonder how to plan their literature review, or
offers a practical, step-by-step approach to working efficiently and producing a
professional result. The steps outlined have been trialed on willing University of
Otago thesis students, and adapted according to their suggestions.
If you would like to offer feedback on this guide, especially good ideas to make
What is a literature review?
A literature review has three key components:
an overview and critique.
Types of literature review
A literature review could be:
Part of an extended essay on a specific topic – to show a grasp of the
hypothetical research proposal.
A stand-alone essay, sometimes using material previously gathered for an
literature on a particular subject.
The nature of the literature review depends on the academic discipline. If in
doubt, please check with your supervisors before starting the review. It is also
useful to look at some theses in your area (available in your department and
) to get an overview of what is required.
Typical Arts approach
Includes a substantial survey of the literature in the thesis proposal, to
demonstrate the need for the research.
Generally reviews literature throughout the thesis as it becomes relevant to the
Typical Social Science and Science approaches
A complete chapter
A common thesis structure is to have the following chapters: Introduction,
Literature Review, Method, Results, Discussion and Conclusion.
The Discussion chapter refers frequently to the Literature Review to consider the
relationship between the literature and the research findings.
Each chapter begins with a literature review relating to the focus of the chapter,
so that the thesis is more like a series of essays developing the thesis topic.
A systematic review, increasingly common in Health Sciences, is the subject of
the whole thesis. The purpose is to “appraise, summarise, and communicate the
results and implications of otherwise unmanageable quantities of research”
(Green, 2005, p. 270).
Students undertaking a systematic review will probably be required to use a
the Joanna Briggs Institute for Evidence Based Nursing and Midwifery, or The
Cochrane Collaboration. These methodologies are not discussed in this study
guide. The review might include a meta-analysis, a statistical synthesis of
findings. Statistical meta-analyses are not discussed in this study guide.
The fundamental skills required for a systematic review, described by Green
The aims of a literature review for thesis writers, regardless of the type of
To show a thorough
debates and problems
Shows understanding of main theories in
framework and methodology
follows a logical progression
Provides a well-argued account that
Producing a literature review is a complex task requiring a range of skills, from
(see Table 1).
Subsequent chapters of this guide focus on methods of simplifying your search
and writing your review.
Although these chapters necessarily follow a logical order – the search, record-
Information regarding searching strategies, databases and referencing guides can
You may also wish to explore the information directly relating to your particular
You could also ask your Subject Librarian for guidance. Go to the subject guides
on the library website (
) and then click on the link to
your subject; you will see contact details for your Subject Librarian here:
Skim through the material you find to see whether the source is relevant before
you read it in detail, or print it out. Table 2 shows the key areas to check quickly.
For those writing an extended review, keeping a well-organised and full
bibliographical record is essential so that you can keep track of sources found,
whether or not you eventually include them. Much time can be wasted following
up the same promising source twice because inadequate or inconsistent details
were kept the first time. Problems often arise, for example, when deciding how
to reference sources like websites. Your subject librarian or subject guide
accessed from the library website can help with this.
When you decide on the sources to be included in your literature review, you will
list, as well as citations in your text.
It is now common for those writing a thesis to learn to use a bibliographic
references often be copied electronically from databases or ‘scraped’ from the
Web, but lists of sources and in-text citations can be generated in the required
referencing style. Training in Endnote is readily available from university
A summary available on electronic databases, and at the
head of articles in most disciplines. A good starting
point, but sometimes too compressed to be really
Should explain the author’s topic and argument. Gives
Can be a useful guide to the structure and content.
Read through the first sentence of each paragraph for a
quick summary of the content.
This section in many science articles, examines the
author’s findings in the context of previous research.
Usually sums up the writer’s argument and comments
on its significance.
It is never too soon to start reading. Don’t wait, for example, until you have final
ethical approval for your research.
Don’t limit your reading to fixed study times, when it’s easy lose concentration
after an hour or two; it’s useful to keep some material on hand to read as a break
from looking at a computer screen, or to make the most of gaps during the day.
Managing hard copy
A cautionary note
It might seem efficient to print out relevant electronic articles as you find them,
but you will end up with a great deal of paper, often for the sake of a brief
reference in your review (see Chapter 4 on making notes).
Unread printed material also has a way of building up alarmingly, whereas the
process of previewing and evaluation should be on-going, so that you come to
each new source with increased knowledge of the field.
want to refer to frequently as you research and/or write.
For minor references make notes or print out one or two key pages
The library will advise about restrictions on the amount you are legally
permitted to copy.
Organising hard copy
The more material you collect, the more important it is to organise it efficiently.
The simplest method is to print the author and year on the top right and store
alphabetically in a ring binder.
Building your own database
It is extremely useful to build your own database from the start of your search so
that you keep a running record of key aspects of the material you find (see Table
3). (See also Evaluation and Note-taking).
An adequate database can be constructed using the Table function in Word, as in
a large database very quickly in conjunction with the bibliography/reference list.
These can obviously be decided and arranged to suit your thesis e.g. it might be
useful to have a separate date of publication column to arrange entries in
chronological order if you wanted to obtain a historical overview of how research
has developed in your area.
The headings used in Table 3, apart from the obvious Author and Title, serve the
Titles can be misleading, and it is useful to have a brief record of exactly what the
item focuses on. If the material is irrelevant, make a note of why, but there is no
need for further evaluation.
Defining the item’s argument/conclusion is an important part of your evaluation.
Assessing relevance to your topic.
Assessing the strengths/weaknesses and overall significance of the item.
Evaluation is discussed more fully in Chapter 4.
Topic: Academic skills training for adults returning to university for postgraduate
It is very easy to waste time by reading all sources with equal care, and making
detailed notes that will never be used in the review.
How relevant and significant is the source?
How much space (if any) will it warrant in your review?
These criteria determine how detailed or extensive should your notes be.
A simple scale, as in Table 4, is a useful tool for assessing the relevance of the
sources you find.
See Table 3 for examples of comments accompanying evaluation.
Table 4. Evaluation for relevance
Directly relevant to the topic.
Key work frequently cited.
Established basis for future research.
Will need adequate notes (in database or separately for discussion in
Needs to be included, but probably brief reference.
Useful for background material.
Similar to other studies – can include in grouped references.
Might be adequate to highlight useful background, make brief notes
Somewhat peripheral – might be worth including.
Potential relevance, depending on research findings.
Unlikely to need more information than database notes.
Promising title or abstract, but content too distant from your topic.
Dating the assessment
is useful, especially for thesis writers, because you might
should now be included.
influence on other essential sources, and this must be discussed e.g.
Cervero (2000) in Table 3.
The focus of your argument changes in the light of your research findings,
so that what originally seemed less relevant material becomes more
Dated notes leave a clear record of when and why your thinking changed. When
you made certain decisions. Revisiting an efficient record can save time on
further literature searches with a slightly different focus.
Remember you are writing a literature review: you are expected to assess the
quality of the material you include and comment where appropriate.
Undergraduate and Honours students are often set assignments requiring them
to critique some literature, perhaps in considerable detail, and guidance is
generally given about how to do that.
The approach to a critique varies between disciplines, and it is important
interpretation of historical evidence, and how well the conclusions are
A typical social science or science critique would consider whether the chosen
discussed, and whether the conclusions are valid.
Research students sometimes find it difficult to evaluate the literature on a
larger scale, where they need to consider not only individual items but the way
the literature has developed e.g. which aspects of the subject are well-established,
which are open to question and why, and which have not been considered
adequately, if at all.
It is helpful to consider:
Other people’s literature reviews in the literature you read. What do they
How different approaches, groupings, themes etc. are building up on your
these aspects of your review is discussed in Chapter Five.
As you read more widely, and develop expertise in the area you are reviewing, it
Making notes and the conventions of literature reviews
If you look at the literature review in an article, book or thesis you will see that:
without there being any additional information about each one.
These conventions allow the writer to cover a good deal of ground very
concisely. Making extensive notes, even on sources you think are very
important, may therefore be inefficient. Consider the management of sources in
the following excerpts from an article on ecotourism called ‘Exploring the
predisposition of travellers to qualify as ecotourists’:
giving a short survey of how ecotourists are ‘typically’ defined in the
literature, with the only detail given being brief examples, like their
destinations (‘e.g. National Parks’).
has conducted a literature search knows, these citations are likely to be a
modest proportion of the amount of literature found, checked for
relevance, read and evaluated.
Studies of ecotourists typically have identified them based on the destinations they go
viewing), the tours that they take (e.g. safaris), or in a few cases, self-identification
by the travellers themselves (Ballantine & Eagles, 1994; Fennell, 1999; Saleh &
Karwacki, 1996;Wight, 1996, 2001). On very few occasions and only recently,
studies have begun to identify ecotourists based on their psycho-social personal
makeup (Lemelin & Smale, 2007) of more stable and deeply ingrained character
traits responsible for directing visitor motivations and behaviours (Ajzen, 1991;
Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Lewis & Haviland-Jones, 2000)….However, the way
in which ecotourists have been typically identified in the bulk of the literature is
limited by relying too heavily on superficial markers of behaviour, destination, and/or
circumstance (Nowaczek & Smale, 2010, pp. 45- 46).
of being discussed individually.
information from each source to provide a basis for the final sentence,
which argues that previous definitions are inadequate.
Considering the space finally given to each source, if the authors had made
pages of notes on every one, they would have wasted a good deal of time.
What they needed for this paragraph was an overview of definitions of
ecotourists to provide the context for their own research and discussion.
early typologies, but even so, the three examples above are discussed in
only one sentence each.
In Example 3, the authors devote a paragraph to discussing one source.
It is clearly important for them to critique Juric, Cornwell and Mather’s
Juric, Cornwell, and Mather (2002) developed an Ecotourism Interest Scale with a
focus on visitors’ activity interests. Although exploratory in nature, the scale is
used to identify tourists’ desire for eco-friendly activities (i.e. a measure of
ecotourism interest) and to predict their participation in selected tourist activities. By
segmenting tourists based on their level of interest, different travel products could be
created based on the level of interest they reported; as such, Juric, Cornwell, and
Mather’s scale is product-oriented and potentially reflects a view of, and orientation
towards, ecotourism as a form of mass tourism (Weaver, 2001b) or simply a business
opportunity (McKercher, 2001). (Nowaczek & Smale, 2010, p. 48).
In many early typologies, ecotourists were classified on the basis of setting, activity-
based experiences, and group dynamics (Fennell, 1999). Laarman and Durst’s
(1987) study divided ecotourists along a continuum that measured the level of
interest in natural history from dedicated to casual, and the level of physical rigour
associated with the experience from difficult to easy. In another example, Kusler
(1991) used their activities, settings, and group dynamics to typify ecotourists as do-
(Nowaczek & Smale, 2010, p. 47)
Before making notes, stop and think:
Alternatives to traditional note-taking
As you will often need only very brief notes, consider these alternatives:
to when you write about that source.
With hard copy, highlight material you want to use and note points in a
of retrieving larger chunks of information.
Using a skeleton plan
Drawing up a skeleton plan of your review at an early stage can reduce note-
making and sort material efficiently (see Table 5, next page).
Use the headings in the plan to:
Put notes directly into the appropriate section, so that your material is
Use different coloured highlighting as a quick sorting tool e.g.,
Background/context material in the database - green
Green page stickers can mark relevant sections in hard copy, so you can
Many students do not think about planning and organising their literature review
eventually confronting a large amount of very mixed material, and trying to turn
it into a concise and well-structured piece of writing.
A far more efficient and less nerve-wracking alternative is to plan the structure of
your review as far as you can right at the beginning of your research, and extend
the plan as you work. This process is described below, with an example in Table
The skeleton plan
provide a useful skeleton structure for organising the material you find.
Before starting the search, list likely headings and subheadings in a logical
sorted as you research.
Update the master list regularly as you change or sub-divide headings.
control and is also a good way to see the emergence of themes.
Because material is being placed under the appropriate headings of the
says about any specific area, and the topic as a whole.
It is also much easier to critique the literature in each section, that is,
topic as a whole.
Typical questions to ask about each section and of the literature as a whole are:
Is there a clear line of development, or does the research branch off in
Your conclusions will form the basis of the introduction to your review, and the
introduction to each section.
Topic: Post-discharge coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery: Self-
reported outcomes (Caldwell, 2011).
Stage 1: Listing and sorting
Skeleton plan e.g.
List key words for literature
Early discharge trends.
Problems with recovery at home.
Use of phone call after discharge
recovery (pain, wound, healing
etc.); Psychological recovery.
Stage 2: Sorting material
Expanding plan e.g.
Develop more headings and
Timing – how long after discharge
affects comparison studies).
Frequency of calls – patient
Develop overview, argument &
List in best order:
Each heading &
& supporting references grouped
It is well worth taking some time to refine the final writing plan, because it is
much easier to do this than spend many hours cutting and pasting to change the
order, only to find that some rewriting is necessary to avoid awkward transitions.
Some general planning principles:
particular (e.g. sources discussed in detail, case studies). This progression
is demonstrated in Examples 1-3 in Chapter 4.
Move from earlier to later material so that there is a clear sense of
development in any specific area.
There is sometimes conflict between these two principles: decide what will
be clearest for the reader.
nature of the literature review) the introduction also includes substantial
In an extended literature review there is usually some explanation of the
focus and boundaries of the literature search.
Offers a concise synthesis, or overview, of the literature, summing up
what you have found and commenting on the conclusions reached
(argument/discussion). In the introduction quoted in Example 4, overview
comments have been put in bold.
higher education (Brimble & Stevenson-Clarke, 2005; Dawson & Overfield, 2006;
Pittam et al., 2009; Youmans, 2011), and this is commonly attributed to the
increasingly diverse student population as a consequence of the massification of higher
education (Dawson & Overfield, 2006). Because much of the data collected on the
prevalence of plagiarism is student self- reported, there is no clear agreement as to
how frequently plagiarism actually occurs.
Despite this… undergraduate students are reportedly more likely to plagiarise
than postgraduate students (Franklyn-Stokes & Newstead, 1995; Johnson &
Clerehan, 2005; Perry, 2010; Power, 2009)… (Adam, 2011, p. 2).
Each new section has a brief critical overview of the literature.
comment. Much of a literature review is factual, but it should be framed
Avoid repetition and verbosity by grouping sources that have similar
Conclusion or summary:
Concluding paragraph reiterates overall assessment of the literature.
thesis is intended to satisfy.
With the detailed planning described in Chapter Five, drafting the literature
Accordingly, this chapter focuses on some important aspects of writing a
Starting a paragraph with an argument sentence
material in the paragraph
merely a factual report
The argument sentence is then supported by the discussion of sources that
Consider the series of sentences in Example 5, from an article about suicide:
Each sentence quoted introduces a paragraph of literature review.
suicide, indicating where the evidence is strong (bolded words in
sentences 1-3) or uncertain (bolded words in sentences 4-5).
Reading these opening sentences consecutively, there is a clear logical
order to the review material, beginning with the most major and definite
findings, then considering other possibilities.
Example: Argument sentences
The most robust and compelling finding for men and women who
& Caine, 2004, pp. 128-129).
Ideally, comment and discussion should be maintained in the paragraph so that it
is clear how you reached the conclusion argued in the opening sentence. Without
such comment you are merely describing the literature, not reviewing it.
Students often feel there is nothing much to say about many sources beyond
that indicate you have thought about a study not just as an individual publication,
but assessed it in the context of other literature on the topic, makes a much
Some typical examples are listed below, but it is a good idea as you read the
they are simply listing summaries:
Table 6. Examples of argument comments
The limitation of…
This extensive survey…
An exception to…
There was little consensus between…
Only one study deals with…
The studies used different criteria to…
Overall, the evidence suggests…
This finding is consistent with…
Neither study can explain why…
These results contribute to the growing
body of evidence that…
The validity of the data is flawed
A contrary position is taken by…
Conversely, Bates (2009) found…
Studies have documented a need for…
This evidence challenges…
Note that many of these examples involve the comparison of studies, rather than
If you find fault with a study, it is expected that you will do so in a professional
emotive or sarcastic language.
An example of maintaining an argument throughout the paragraph is shown in
(Excerpt from a biochemistry article on ‘Insect circadian clock outputs’)
There needs to be enough detail about the literature you are describing to support
the conclusions you draw, and avoid misleading the reader.
Some typical issues are:
Generalising on the basis of only one study, especially if it is very limited.
Comparing studies without noting significant differences in, for example,
Avoiding a repetitive style
Avoid beginning every sentence with a citation e.g. Jones’ (2002) study
found…. Green et al.’s (2004) research revealed…. Smith and Brown’s (2009)
more interesting to read, and guide the reader through a well-digested overview
of the literature.
Limit your use of the passive voice
The active voice refers to sentences constructed in the following order: subject
– verb – object e.g. The cat sat on the mat.
The passive voice uses the order: object – verb – subject e.g. The mat was sat on
by the cat.
is driving this particular behaviour now’… Starting in the early 1990s, studies began
approaches augured a shift to a more nuanced view of how clock-cycling couples
to circadian physiological outputs, from a cell-based focus to a circuit-based outlook.
These anatomical studies led to the correct prediction that the neuropeptide PDF
(pigment-dispersing factor), expressed solely by the LNv (ventrolateral neuron)
anatomical subset of clock neurons, is a central circadian network modulator [11,13].
(Helfrich-Förster, Nitabach & Holmes, 2011, p. 90).
This very simple example
shows clearly how the passive sounds more awkward
and uses more words.
However, the passive is so common in
sciences, that many students use it consistently without thinking about it. We are
just as likely to see:
The participants were surveyed by Jones (2002), and it was found
Often the passive is used unnecessarily, as it is above, making reading slower
There is a move by some leading journal
editors to reduce the use of the passive by their contributors, and supervisors too
prefer the brisker and clearer writing style of those who use the active voice as
far as possible.
Plagiarism and paraphrase
“You plagiarise when you use knowledge that has been created elsewhere
is very important that you understand what constitutes acceptable academic
practice and the University rules around plagiarism. It is a good idea to review
the University online guide which explains what plagiarism is, how to avoid it
and where to seek advice:
It is also worth consulting the Student Learning Development tipsheet: Quoting,
The type of thesis that discusses the literature in a separate chapter must
You must therefore ensure that all discussion of the literature is consistent. This
sounds easier than it is, given that a thesis is written over an extended period of
There is usually a progression from the general to the specific.
Very general background material, used to introduce the thesis topic, will
probably not be referred to in the review.
Comments about previous research on the topic, indicating the present position
and the need for your research, will need to be substantiated in more detail in the
Discussion of findings
The discussion of your results, and their significance, needs to be placed in the
context of previous research so that it is clear what supports the literature, what
differs, what is new, and what remains to be researched.
The chapter should not include new references not mentioned in the literature
The way you present some sources in the literature review might need to be
changed in the light of your research findings e.g. a source given only a
name/date citation might now need some discussion.
It is useful to read through your Discussion with a copy of the literature review
beside you to ensure that your comments about sources are consistent.
As with the Discussion, literature should not be mentioned for the first time in
the Conclusion, and any comment should be consistent with what you have said
in the literature review.
Adam, L. (2011). Higher education students’ perceptions of plagiarism.
Bell, J. (2005). Doing your research project. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Caldwell, A. (2011). Post-discharge coronary artery bypass graft (CABG)
Chaudron, L.& Caine, E. (2004). Suicide among women: A critical review.
Green, S. (2005). Systematic reviews and meta-analysis. Singapore Medical
Helfrich-Förster, C., Nitabach, M. N. & Holmes, T. C. (20110. Insect circadian
Nowaczek, A., & Smale, B. (2010). Exploring the predisposition of travellers to
Oliver, P. (2004). Writing your thesis. London: Sage Publications.
University of Otago (2015). Plagiarism. Retrieved from