Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Wollongong's online course, Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 14 seconds With my personal experience with literature review is that initially you start it as a report writing. So you may not be on that emotional level when you start it. But as you go deeper into it, as Quinn pointed out, you have got your abstract or introduction. So with introduction, you also become more aware of what you’re doing, and what has been happening in that area. And then it narrows down to actual reviews of the articles that you have gone through, and it would be trends that you will discover. So it will be a snapshot of the story you’re telling. So in last one decade if you choose, was it last two decades, the story will slightly change.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds So for me, I would try to capture the recent last five years of what has happened with virtual reality. And it was really a very interesting way of looking at it from different research article perspective. And also my personal opinion about it, which kept on changing as well. And my research question also got fine-tuned in the process. When you read an article you’re reading it from the other person’s– the other’s point of view. And that will get some influence on your point of view, and you will read this article in a different way. And when you write your own literature review you’re presenting it in your way of what others thinking of this research programme.

Skip to 1 minute and 42 seconds We are playing with others’ ideas, others’ views. And we use their ideas, and we use opinions to prove or disprove what they’re going to say. So there should be logical sequence, a logical thread to maybe put all these beads into a string, and ultimately to have this necklace on our hand. So literature review should be a story starting from our interaction and the body of these arguments, and end up with some sort of conclusion. Like the story, yes, definitely so. Yeah. Well, you want them to tell a story, and you want them to be critical. So hopefully they get there, but they do tend to start out being more descriptive.

Skip to 2 minutes and 23 seconds That is a– apart from the intrinsic quality of the writing, probably the critical analysis of the literature is something that is a significant challenge for first-year students. And that’s something to be expected. It’s hard to get a grasp on the importance of individual pieces of work, which you’re going to build up a broad knowledge of that field. I think people who are starting off writing literature reviews are quite descriptive, yes. I think it takes some time for a student to develop the confidence that they can critique the work of an established researcher. So I think part of it is time and confidence.

Skip to 3 minutes and 8 seconds I think students also need to understand that being critical– it doesn’t mean to say you’re saying somebody else did a bad job. That’s quite a common misperception at the start. So being critical, understanding how was the research undertaken, why was it undertaken, what was the context. Well, I think students struggle with– when they think about the word “critical,” they have to think, oh, I’ve got to find all the weaknesses in this work. When really what we’re saying is that this is a good piece of work because it enables us to make a new chemical. However, there’s still some areas where– and this is where it differs from previous work. That’s the kind of the subtle strength.

Skip to 3 minutes and 43 seconds But maybe there’s a little bit of a gap here that people are going to work on, or there’s something we don’t– or that the researchers don’t understand about the actual way it’s working. Rather than saying, that was quite good, but it could be better for this reason. So it’s a really tough thing to be critical. And I guess that’s the issue– that where I’m reading these they’re actually the first chapter of a thesis. So they’re about setting the scene for why we’re going to do this research. And that’s about saying, this is what’s been done. There’s some really good work, there’s some maybe not-so-good work.

Skip to 4 minutes and 16 seconds But there’s these clear gaps that are the things that the student is going to then pursue for the next year or the next three years. And so to me, we say it’s a literature review. And I suppose I feel that a literature review should be that– should be about reviewing and critiquing. But I guess there is an element of that that is perhaps not understood in normal usage. And I think in the sciences you would never have an annotated bibliography, so I suppose it’s maybe that. That there isn’t this sort of a lower– a level that is just about saying this is all the stuff that’s out there. Because that could almost be a list out of endnote.

Skip to 4 minutes and 56 seconds It’s like here are all the papers I’ve found, and their abstracts. But the beginning of the literature review provides an opportunity for them to understand the field, find the gaps in the field, understand the significance of pieces of work.

Skip to 5 minutes and 13 seconds And so when I went through that process I was– it’s hard for students or any researcher to understand initially what’s the significance of that particular paper. So you need to understand where it fits. And also to realise that, well, not every paper you publish is suddenly a great leap forward. So everything is interrelated. So developing that understanding of how the work is related to each other, and the significance of individual research, is really critical to help them on their research journey. Because then they can understand what kind of advances they are going to make. They’re not going to suddenly invent something completely new from the bottom up. They’re going to build on other people’s work.

Skip to 5 minutes and 52 seconds I think the role of a literature review in the research project is primarily to contextualise the research. So a research project without a literature review– it can’t really make a contribution to anything that’s been established, because it hasn’t established what are the parameters of this body of scholarship, this body of research. So the literature review needs to establish first of all this is the space I’m working in. This is my community of scholars. This is the work that’s been done in the field already. That can be sort of descriptive, that part of it.

Skip to 6 minutes and 35 seconds But then I think the essential next step is for the students to identify the sorts of themes that are emerging from that body of literature that are relevant to their study. So that’s where they can begin to say, here’s the broad parameters of the area I’m working in. These are the themes that are relevant to my study. And my argument is going to be that this theme X hasn’t really been explored very much. Or if we take a different theoretical approach to theme Y– then it reveals different results.

Skip to 7 minutes and 10 seconds It seems to me that at all levels, going from undergraduate through to even to high-degree research, one of the things that students really need to kind of refine their ideas on is the difference between description and claiming. So describing something and claiming something. So even in my undergraduate, and through to the high-degree work, I spend a lot of time getting people to try to see the difference between what’s– someone discussing what someone just sort of talking– what does it mean to say that someone is talking about something, versus what it means to say that someone is claiming this or having this thesis. And I think that’s quite central to the need for the story and the structure of the story.

Skip to 8 minutes and 5 seconds Because you kind of need to have the possibility of questions and claims in your mind. And in terms of the language, underpinning the way in which the literature review is structured to get that story happening.


Setting the scene for further research

In the video some students and academic staff are talking about the role of the literature review in a wider research project. As you listen, think about the various challenges of moving from description to telling a story that justifies new research.

Conversation starter

  • Do you feel comfortable ‘critiquing’ the work of more experienced researchers?
  • Can you easily categorise the work of other researchers that you’re reading, and see how they are similar and different?
  • Are you thinking about your literature review in terms of how it can justify doing further research on your topic?

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong