Section 4.3: Elements of a Literature Review | Research

Fundamentals of Social Research by Adam J. McKee

Elements of Your Literature Review

Of course, you will use your most current version of your outline to provide the “skeleton” of your paper.  There are some elements that should be considered that your outline may not specify. Some of these are provided below:

Identify your general problem area early.  The beginning of your literature review should start with an identification of the broad problem area under review.  As a rule, move from the general to the specific.  There are, however, limits to how general to be at the beginning.  Avoid global statements that do not identify any particular topic area.

Indicate early why certain studies are important.  Be sure to clearly state why you think a particular study is important.  Is it the largest of its kind? Has it been the most influential in policy?  Did it use a superior research or analytical method?

Indicate landmark studies.  Make sure that you identify “classic” or “landmark” studies in your review.  Such studies are often pivotal points in the development of a field. They are often a source of key concepts and terms.

Indicate replication studies.  Landmark studies often lead to a flood of new research—that is why they are called landmark studies!  These studies are often replicated in order to improve the generalizability of the research finding. Be sure to note whether the replication study reached the same results as the original.

Discuss review articles.  If you are lucky enough to find a previous review article on your topic, it is important to mention it in your review.  Be sure to note what makes your review better than the old one. Is yours substantially more current? (The most common justification for doing another review).  Is yours broader or more narrowly focused? If you are doing a review article, you need to be adding to the knowledge base.  Merely repeating what someone else has already done is not at all useful.  It is boring as a term paper, inadequate as a thesis, and not publishable as a journal article.  

Indicate Reviews of Side issues.  Often, you will want to mention an issue that you cannot develop within the scope of your paper.  In a case like this, refer your reader to review articles on the topic that you cannot develop.

Indicate gaps in your review.  If you find a gap in the literature, explain how you arrived at the conclusion that there was a gap.  Do not let your reader assume that you were lazy and just did not bother looking for articles on that particular subtopic.  Avoid a blanket statement about a gap existing; explain that there was a gap based on your particular search strategy.

Indicate inconsistencies in results.  It is not at all uncommon for studies on a particular topic to produce inconsistent or widely varying results.  Be sure to specify clearly which studies reach which results—this means not using the Bad Idea of including a parenthetical cite at the end of a paragraph.

Include a justification of your study.  You have written a paper.  So what? You readers want to know why they should waste their valuable time reading your paper.  Tell them. Justifications can take many forms, such as closing a gap in the literature, testing an important aspect of a theory, replicate an important study, retest an old hypothesis with new methods, resolve conflicts in the literature, and so forth.

Things to Avoid

Avoid nonspecific references.  There are two purposes to a citation in academic writing: 1) to give credit where it is due, and 2) to demonstrate the breadth of coverage of the paper.  A long list of nonspecific cites at the end of a paragraph leaves the reader wondering many things: Are these empirical studies? Are these statements research results or speculation?  Are all these studies of equal weight, or do some provide more solid evidence than others do? Introduce studies with specificity.

Introducing references after the review section.  Cite all of your references in the literature review of your document.  By the time the readers get to your discussion section, they should already have been introduced to all the important works on your topic.  Make sure your literature review is comprehensive (especially so for a thesis or dissertation).

Bad English.  Misspellings, capitalization errors, and easily recognizable grammar errors make you look like an idiot.  Proofread your paper. Fix your mistakes. If you have less than perfect grammar skills, get someone else to help you with editing.  Most universities have a writing center where you can get help. (Help with English usage—do not expect writing center personnel to be experts in your field or the APA style!).  There are software plugins available that can automate many editing tasks, making your work better quickly. (I personally use Grammarly).

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  06/11/2021

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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