Lit Reviews: The How and the Why

When I was a new graduate student, I had a lot of trouble with the concept of a literature review. As a requirement in a class paper, it had the flavor of a book report, proof that you did your background research. Once I began reading more research-focused academic articles, it made sense as an introduction to the existing research on the topic… but writing them myself was still a painful and frustrating exercise.

The reality is that there are several purposes for a lit review:

  • provide background on a research topic
  • highlight the most significant literature
  • show gaps in research (either gaps in topic or in methodology)
  • provide perspective on the body of research on a topic: do studies agree, disagree, relate at all to broader conclusions?
  • highlight future research needs

Last semester in a research methodology course, our instructor recommended a fantastic article on how to evaluate literature reviews which has changed my perspective on how to write and evaluate them:

The best single take-away is page 8, a one-page rubric for a lit review. It gives specific guidance on how to achieve synthesis, critically assess sources, and use a lit review to provide a meaningful contribution to research literature. If I had to recommend one article for students about to write a thesis or dissertation, this article would be it. (For books, I recommend Peg Bolye Single’s Demystifying the Dissertation; more resources are listed on my wiki).

I’m interested in related resources on writing or assessing lit reviews, and other perspectives on them!


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