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Aerospace Medicine (NAMI-RAM)

What is a Literature Review?

A Literature Review Is Not:

  • just a summary of sources
  • a grouping of broad, unrelated sources
  • a compilation of everything that has been written on a particular topic
  • literature criticism (think English) or a book review

So, what is it then?

A literature review is an integrated analysis-- not just a summary-- of scholarly writings that are related directly to your research question.  That is, it represents the literature that provides background information on your topic and shows a correspondence between those writings and your research question.

A literature review may be a stand alone work or the introduction to a larger research paper, depending on the assignment.  Rely heavily on the guidelines your instructor has given you.

Why is it important?

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.
  • Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies.

Disclaimer!!

Warning!

Conducting a literature review is usually recursive, meaning that somewhere along the way, you'll find yourself repeating steps out-of-order.

That is actually a good sign.  

Reviewing the research should lead to more research questions and those questions will likely lead you to either revise your initial research question or go back and find more literature related to a more specific aspect of your research question.

1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.

Your literature review should be guided by a central research question.  Remember, it is not a collection of loosely related studies in a field but instead represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, interpreted and analyzed by you in a synthesized way.

Tips:

  • Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow.  Is it manageable?
  • Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.
  • If you have the opportunity, discuss your topic with your professor.

2. Decide on the scope of your review.

How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover? 

Tip: This may depend on your assignment.  How many sources does the assignment require?

3. Select the databases you will use to conduct your searches.

Make a list of the databases you will search.  Remember to include comprehensive databases such as WorldCat and Dissertations & Theses, if you need to.

Where to find databases:

4. Conduct your searches and find the literature. Keep track of your searches!

  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.
  • Write down the searches you conduct in each database so that you may duplicate them if you need to later (or avoid dead-end searches that you'd forgotten you'd already tried).
  • Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.
  • Ask your professor or a scholar in the field if you are missing any key works in the field.
  • Use RefWorks to keep track of your research citations. See the RefWorks Tutorial if you need help.

5. Review the literature.

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions. Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited?; if so, how has it been analyzed?

Tips: 

  • Again, review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.