Literature Reviews

How to create and approach literature reviews. Created for PAFF521

Literature Reviews: Introduction

A literature review is a "systematic, explicit, and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating and synthesizing the existing body of completed and record work produced by researchers, scholars and practitioners" (Fink, 2005). 

As a researcher, there are multiple reasons why you may conduct a literature review:

  • thoroughly understand your topic
  • understand the depth of research that has been done and what needs to explored
  • bring to light where disagreements on evidence are in the field
  • explore methodologies available for your research
  • to be able to place your own original work within the existing  literature (Booth, 2012)


Types and Organization of a Lit Review

As a researcher, you will have to select what type of review you think will work best for your work.   Since how your research will be conducted and organized might be determined by the type, this decision often needs to be made in the earlier stages of gathering literature.


  • Narrative/Traditional
    A highly common approach, it allows the scholar to summarize existing research, draw themes, and highlight disagreements and gaps in the field.  This approach also can be easily tainted by researcher bias, and if the existing body of research is large,  it can be difficult to organize the lit review easily.  See example.
  • Systematic
    This approach defines  what will be included and excluded in the review based on explicit criteria (such as time frame, study methodology, etc), documentation of the search process, quality assessment of the results, and seeks to be as fully comprehensive as possible.  See example.
  • Meta-analysis
    A systemic review analyzes quantitative studies that study the same subject, using the same procedure.  See example.
  • Meta-synthesis
    Reviews and analysis qualitative research studies by identifying common themes or elements with the goal of creating new theories or concepts. See example.


These are some common organization styles used to help structure literature reviews. No one organization method has to stand alone.  For example, within in each theme, you may opt to further organize your literature review by chronological order.  

  • Thematic
    Explore trends in specific topics, which allow disagreements among researchers and gaps in the field to emerge easily. 

  • Chronological
    This approach will allow changes in research patterns to easily emerge, but will only work if it clear that research has built on itself throughout time.  It may not work well if it is a field in which there has been many new influences from external disciplines.

  • Method
    Discussing a particular methodological theme in studies may bolster the approach that you opt to use for your own research.

(Sources: Booth, 2012; University of Toledo)

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