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Doing a literature review

What is a literature review?

❶Conclusion The Conclusion should provide a brief but thorough overview of your research project as a whole, and give special attention to the significance of your results. A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process.

Why do I need a literature review?




With small-scale writing projects, the literature review is likely to be done just once; probably before the writing begins. With longer projects such as a dissertation for a Masters degree, and certainly with a PhD, the literature review process will be more extended. This applies especially to people doing PhDs on a part-time basis, where their research might extend over six or more years. You need to be able to demonstrate that you are aware of current issues and research, and to show how your research is relevant within a changing context.

Staff and students in your area can be good sources of ideas about where to look for relevant literature. They may already have copies of articles that you can work with. If you attend a conference or workshop with a wider group of people, perhaps from other universities, you can take the opportunity to ask other attendees for recommendations of articles or books relevant to your area of research.

Each department or school has assigned to it a specialist Information Librarian. You can find the contact details for the Information Librarian for your own area via the Library web pages. This person can help you identify relevant sources, and create effective electronic searches:.

Reading anything on your research area is a good start. You can then begin your process of evaluating the quality and relevance of what you read, and this can guide you to more focussed further reading. Taylor and Procter of The University of Toronto have some useful suggested questions to ask yourself at the beginning of your reading:. You can add other questions of your own to focus the search, for example: What time period am I interested in?

You may also want to make a clear decision about whether to start with a very narrow focus and work outwards, or to start wide before focussing in. You may even want to do both at once. It is a good idea to decide your strategy on this, rather than drifting into one or the other. It can give you a degree of control, in what can feel like an overwhelming and uncontrollable stage of the research process.

Searching electronic databases is probably the quickest way to access a lot of material. Guidance will be available via your own department or school and via the relevant Information Librarian. There may also be key sources of publications for your subject that are accessible electronically, such as collections of policy documents, standards, archive material, videos, and audio-recordings. If you can find a few really useful sources, it can be a good idea to check through their reference lists to see the range of sources that they referred to.

This can be particularly useful if you find a review article that evaluates other literature in the field. This will then provide you with a long reference list, and some evaluation of the references it contains. An electronic search may throw up a huge number of hits, but there are still likely to be other relevant articles that it has not detected.

So, despite having access to electronic databases and to electronic searching techniques, it can be surprisingly useful to have a pile of journals actually on your desk, and to look through the contents pages, and the individual articles. Often hand searching of journals will reveal ideas about focus, research questions, methods, techniques, or interpretations that had not occurred to you.

Sometimes even a key idea can be discovered in this way. It is therefore probably worth allocating some time to sitting in the library, with issues from the last year or two of the most relevant journals for your research topic, and reviewing them for anything of relevance. To avoid printing out or photocopying a lot of material that you will not ultimately read, you can use the abstracts of articles to check their relevance before you obtain full copies. EndNote and RefWorks are software packages that you can use to collect and store details of your references, and your comments on them.

As you review the references, remember to be a critical reader see Study Guide What is critical reading? Keeping a record of your search strategy is useful, to prevent you duplicating effort by doing the same search twice, or missing out a significant and relevant sector of literature because you think you have already done that search. Increasingly, examiners at post-graduate level are looking for the detail of how you chose which evidence you decided to refer to.

They will want to know how you went about looking for relevant material, and your process of selection and omission. You need to check what is required within your own discipline. If you are required to record and present your search strategy, you may be able to include the technical details of the search strategy as an appendix to your thesis.

Plagiarism is regarded as a serious offence by all Universities, and you need to make sure that you do not, even accidentally, commit plagiarism.

It can happen accidentally, for example, if you are careless in your note-taking. This can mean that you get mixed up over what is an exact quote, and what you have written in your own words; or over what was an idea of your own that you jotted down, or an idea from some text.

This has the advantage that, when you come to use that example in your writing up, you can choose:. Help is available regarding how to avoid plagiarism and it is worth checking it out.

Your department will have its own guidance. It is important to keep control of the reading process, and to keep your research focus in mind. Rudestam and Newton It is also important to see the writing stage as part of the research process, not something that happens after you have finished reading the literature.

Wellington et al Once you are part way through your reading you can have a go at writing the literature review, in anticipation of revising it later on. It is often not until you start explaining something in writing that you find where your argument is weak, and you need to collect more evidence. A skill that helps in curtailing the reading is: Decisions need to be made about where to focus your reading, and where you can refer briefly to an area but explain why you will not be going into it in more detail.

The task of shaping a logical and effective report of a literature review is undeniably challenging. Some useful guidance on how to approach the writing up is given by Wellington et al In most disciplines, the aim is for the reader to reach the end of the literature review with a clear appreciation of what you are doing; why you are doing it; and how it fits in with other research in your field.

Often, the literature review will end with a statement of the research question s. Having a lot of literature to report on can feel overwhelming.

It is important to keep the focus on your study, rather than on the literature Wellington To help you do this, you will need to establish a structure to work to. A good, well-explained structure is also a huge help to the reader. As with any piece of extended writing, structure is crucial. There may be specific guidance on structure within your department, or you may need to devise your own.

Once you have established your structure you need to outline it for your reader. Although you clearly need to write in an academic style, it can be helpful to imagine that you are telling a story. The thread running through the story is the explanation of why you decided to do the study that you are doing. The story needs to be logical, informative, persuasive, comprehensive and, ideally, interesting.

A good dissertation should start from an abstract that clearly explains your research focus and conclusions. All Masters-level studies begin with an Introduction, which is an essential part of the dissertation structure.

The introductory chapter is longer and more detailed than the Abstract, and includes some information about your research context and overall aims. This chapter should set the tone for the remainder of the Dissertation, by conveying informed, critical thinking around your subject. It is less analytical than other chapters, but still scholarly in tone. The kinds of literature you will cover in a Literature Review will vary according to your discipline; in Humanities subjects you might pay more attention to philosophical works, for example, while Science topics might require more coverage of methodological theories.

More importantly though, it will provide a justification for your chosen methodology and a detailed explanation of its practical application. For example, it is not enough to tell readers that you will be using questionnaires as your major methodology; you should also explain why you think this is the best approach, and discuss the design and distribution of the questionnaires.

After the standard Abstract, Introduction and Methodology chapters you will need to write the main body of your dissertation, which will provide a discussion of your own research and explain and analyse your results. This can take the form of more than one dissertation chapter, depending on the complexity of your methodology and findings. The length and nature of these chapters will also vary depending on the area of your studies — in MSc subjects you would be less likely to present conclusions in these chapters, focusing instead on the data from your empirical research.

However, in Humanities and Social Sciences your theoretical conclusions should be woven into your overall analysis of data. In all cases you should be sure to refer back to the works cited in your literature review, and use them to support your analysis.

The Conclusion should provide a brief but thorough overview of your research project as a whole, and give special attention to the significance of your results. Try to address any potential criticisms of your research. Avoid the temptation to make rhetorical flourishes in your final paragraphs and end simply, clearly and factually. The Bibliography of the Masters Dissertation will vary depending on the citation style prescribed for your university and discipline.

Details of the style guidelines will be made available to you by your institution, and most can be found online. Be sure to pay careful attention to the details of the style conventions and avoid costly errors.

Some Masters Dissertations will also include an Appendix or Appendices. These give you an opportunity to provide additional details to readers. An Appendix might include charts, tables or figures that you refer to in your text, or essential documents that are not readily available to readers.

Together these sections form the standard UK Dissertation structure, which is almost universal across disciplines.


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The structure of a literature review. A literature review should be structured like any other essay: it should have an introduction, a middle or main body, and a conclusion.

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Writing a Literature Review As an academic writer, you are expected to provide an analytical overview of the significant literature published on your topic. If your audience knows less than you do on the topic, your purpose is instructional.

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Below is an overview of how you could structure your literature review. This is a general overview and you should always follow specific guidance given in your dissertation Writing a Literature Review in a dissertation 4 | P a g e your dissertation topic and field of study. The Structure of Your Literature Review Sep 09, by Dr Sally Once you have analyzed, synthesized, and evaluated the relevant sources for your topic, you need to think about presenting the material in a way that will best shape your argument and make sense to your readers.

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The literature review is very important to the rest of the dissertation structure, because it provides the context for your own research and outlines the key theories that your own work will be supported by. How to write your PhD thesis (part 1) How to write a PhD literature review (2-part course) 41 thoughts on “ How to write a PhD literature review ” Clara Tang. i have a question about the structure of the literature review, what is the best design or layout for the L.R.