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WHEN THE TIME comes to write your dissertation (or sometimes even a simple research assignment), your lecturers will tell you that you need to conduct a literature review. As a rule, most students get confused because they’ve never heard of this before and naturally the unknown is scary. However, when you take a closer look, the literature review is not that scary at all. Despite the strange name, it is nothing but a critical summary of previous research on the subject. This article will make you familiar with this section of your study and show you that everything is simple once you know how to do it.


1. What Is a Literature Review?

As the title suggests, the literature review is a review (discussion combined with summary) of all the literature you can find on your topic. The literature you will be reviewing will consist of the following:

  • Textbooks that describe the theory related to your topic
  • Academic journal articles that describe experiments or studies related to the application of your theory
  • Chapters in edited books that are related to your field of study

In short, your literature review section can also be called ‘Previous Research’ or ‘Theoretical Background’. As simple as that.


2. Why Do You Need a Literature Review?

Everyone agrees that a literature review is an indispensable part of every research project, no matter how small. But why do you need one in the first place? There are three main reasons:

2.1. To show that you have read your books

A literature review demonstrates that you are familiar with the literature on the subject – not only the textbooks and compulsory readings, but also academic journals and conference papers which examine your subject in more detail. You should show that you’ve read them and are aware of what previous researchers have done.

2.2. To show that you know what your own research is about

It’s easy to get lost in your own research and start wandering away from your topic, even if you’ve dissected and defined it as clearly as you can. Your literature review is all about getting you back on track. When you discuss previous research, you need to refer back to your own topic. When you make links between what others have done and what you’re doing, you remind yourself and your reader what your paper is all about.

This may seem redundant to you. You might ask: ‘Why should I write about things that are self-evident?’ The answer is because they are only self-evident to you. You are writing about it and as a result, always keeping the bigger picture in mind, but your reader doesn’t have that picture.

2.3. To show that you understand potential strengths and weaknesses of the research carried out by others

Strengths and weaknesses are not objective, but relative to your research – e.g. previous researchers may have used different data and methods. You must demonstrate that you understand how your research differs from theirs.

So, how do you produce an effective literature review? You have to make it critical.


3. A Critical Literature Review

Critical Thinking. Source:

Your literature review needs special attention. Why? Because it is not just a summary of everything you’ve read. It’s a critical summary.

So, how do you make it critical?

A non-critical, ‘passable’ literature review consists of the following parts:

  • The theory you are going to use in your assignment (broad description)
  • A summary of papers, chapters and articles that describe how, when and where the theory was applied in the past
  • A summary of research methods that other people have used before you
  • A brief description of other researchers’ experiment design (participants, data used, theories tested, research methods employed)

Now, how do you transform this passable literature review into a first-class one? It needs to involve certain elements:

A) A description of the theory you are using, followed by a justification of why you chose to use this theory. You can justify your choice based on several criteria:

  • The theory you are focusing on is well-established, has worked for many researchers before you, but overturned some other theory that existed for a long time. You want to reinforce the fact that the new theory works better. Moreover, you want to demonstrate that it works with your data.
  • The theory is relatively new, has not been explored much yet and, consequently, there is a research gap that you are hoping to fill. You are also proving once again that it works.
  • You are testing a well-established theory using new data. You are trying to find out whether it will still work.

Please note that if at the end of your study you find that something didn’t work, do not despair. Try to think why the results were not as impressive as you had thought they would be – and write about it! A failed experiment is still an experiment. It is enough to write that the results are not significant to make a definite conclusion.

B) A brief description of the studies carried out by other researchers (what you have managed to find in academic journals, book chapters and conference papers), followed by a discussion of how their findings relate to what you expect to discover during the course of your study. This should include the following:

  • How your study design is similar to/different from theirs.
  • How your dataset is similar to/different from theirs (e.g. maybe they collected their data in one geographical region and you collected yours in a totally different one. Or maybe their data was collected over a long period of time, and you collected your samples within one week, etc.)
  • How the number of participants you used is similar to/different from other researchers’ studies, or the differences between the participants’ sociological profiles.

For example, imagine someone did a study on work-life balance in the general population and they used more participants than you did in a similar study, which used the same process of data collection. Their study should be more representative of the larger population. However, perhaps you used fewer participants but all of them were black mothers of two or more children and aged thirty to forty – in this case, your sample would be more focused and representative of that particular social group.

  • How your research method is similar to/different from theirs (maybe they chose loosely structured interviews and you used questionnaires. Maybe they used a different statistical formula, etc.)
  • How will all of these similarities and differences impact on your results? Will they be different? Will your study have similar outcomes and findings to previous studies?

Please note that these questions can differ depending on the assignment you are carrying out as well as the subject you are studying.

The main questions that you need to answer are:

What are the similarities and differences between my study and the academic study I am reviewing?

How will my study design influence my results?

The answers are very simple. S/he used A, but I used B. S/he used C and so did I. This allows you to make assumptions about whether the outcomes might be similar or different.

If you fail to produce a critical literature review and simply describe other researchers’ work, your lecturer (and subsequent readers) will say: ‘So what? Why are you saying this?’ It sounds silly, but I will repeat one piece of advice in many of my articles:

Don’t imagine you’re writing an academic paper. Imagine you’re writing a Guide for Dummies. Explain to your reader why every little fact you mention is important and how it is relevant to your assignment.

[Click here to read Part 2]

P.S. This article is based on Vlad Mackevic’s book From Confusion to Conclusion: How to Write a First-Class Essay. You can download sample chapters of the book for FREE by clicking here or by entering your email address below.

The book can also be purchased on in paperback and Kindle eBook formats. If you do not own a Kindle reader, Amazon provides a range of FREE applications for your computer, Smartphone or Tablet.


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