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Defining terms

What is a literature review not?

You may or may not have read many literature reviews before, so it’s worth beginning with what a literature review is, and what it is not. This may or may not be obvious. First of all – the key words.

‘Literature’ in this context refers to scholarly publications, not literary art. And we’re talking here about a body of texts on a particular topic – a collection of publications - not a single book. The collection to be discussed by a reviewer might include books, government reports and media broadcasts where relevant, but it will mainly be made up of research articles, which are published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

‘Review’ in this context means extended written discussion of publications, not just summarising them. A scholarly review of literature might be conducted on any topic that is researched and written about - what matters is that the reviewer appraises various sources of information, and discusses them.

‘The’ literature does not mean everything published on a topic, but a selection. Carefully selecting publications worth discussing in relation to a research project is a key part of the reviewer’s task, and involves broad reading and tough choices. Defining what is in and out of the collection to be discussed is hard work, and will be done differently by each reviewer. Not only is ‘the’ literature different for everyone, the approach and scope of reviews can vary enormously. What a literature review should look like depends on the level of study, the academic discipline, and/or the publication context.

A review of literature on a technical or medical topic might be approached very differently from a review of literature on a humanities topic. An undergraduate level literature review assignment is very different in scope and purpose to a literature review chapter in a PhD thesis… which is different from the literature review phase of a published journal article… which is different from a stand-alone published review article. The size, complexity and style of a literature review can vary greatly according to the norms of particular disciplines, and the time and space allocated to the task. But while there are great differences between the various types of literature review we might consider, there are enough things in common between the various types for us to be able to talk about them all as belonging to a recognisable genre, and to give some general guidance on how to approach this kind of task.

Conversation starter

  • What discipline are you reading in?

  • Have you noticed any patterns in the way researchers review their literature in your field?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong