Writing a literature review can be one of the most daunting aspects of the academic research process—and one of the most misunderstood. Dr. Robert Thomas, Lecturer in Marketing and Strategy at Cardiff University’s Cardiff Business School in Wales, is a subject-matter expert for SAGE Publishing who has written a book (“Turn Your Literature Review into an Argument – Little Quick Fixes”) and developed an online course (“Conduct a Literature Review”) that focus on this crucial stage of the academic process.
In a webinar hosted by Citavi, Conducting and Constructing a Literature Review for Maximum Impact, Dr. Thomas took an audience on a deep dive into the literature review process. He outlined the different types of literature reviews, what an effective literature review should aim to achieve, how to select and organize material, and how to craft a compelling review that establishes the foundation for an entire research project or dissertation.
He also emphasized the idea that a literature review is more than a summary of source materials. It’s an opportunity to refine your research question, demonstrate to reviewers that you have the capabilities to recognize and evaluate significant scholarship in your field, and identify gaps in the knowledge that your research can address.
Key Recommendations for Literature Reviews
- Literature reviews do not simply summarize the work of others; they are a 2,000- to 5,000-word document that presents your research question and aims within the context of other scholarship to establish a foundation for the rest of your work.
- To select material for a literature review, you should conduct keyword searches on journals in the field to begin capturing potential sources and gain an understanding of major contributors to previous research.
- Aim for a “point of saturation” with the number of sources ultimately included in the literature review to demonstrate breadth and depth of reading. Dr. Thomas recommends including at least 10-15 sources in a literature review, although you may read and evaluate many more than this.
- Adopt a robust note-taking process that encourages critical thinking about sources during reading such as the Cornell Notetaking Method or by using a writing organization tool like Citavi.
- Take care not to construct your literature review as an opinion piece that only covers supportive source materials. Instead, Dr. Thomas recommends introducing an element of argumentation by including sources that present counterarguments, then rebutting them with additional evidence.
- Dr. Thomas emphasizes that you must paraphrase sources using your own words, not AI summaries or other ghost-writing tools. Writing original paraphrases develops your understanding of arguments and evidence presented by scholars in your field while also reducing the risk of accidental plagiarism.
“[A literature review] is a chance for you to embrace and become part of the argument.” – Dr. Robert Thomas
Developing an Impactful Literature Review
Dr. Thomas recommends four different types of literature reviews:
This type of review has a pre-defined research question and aims to summarize as much of the scholarship on a particular question as possible. An example of this type of review is a meta-analysis which draws on research into a particular problem and then evaluates findings according to a common standard to arrive at an “answer”, or at least a general summary of findings across the literature. This type of analysis is usually conducted by experts in the field.
As the name suggests, chronological reviews evaluate scholarship in the field in a linear progression from the earliest historical sources to contemporary research. The idea is to demonstrate the importance of a field of study by tracing its development from the past to the present.
This type of review is rare. Instead of looking at theories or research outcomes in a given field, the methodological review looks at the steps taken by researchers to develop the evidence for their theories. A methodological review, for example, may evaluate sampling techniques or data analysis procedures.
This is the most common type of literature review, which draws on aspects of the prior three types of literature review to produce a document that is broad in historical scope while also justifying the methodological approach you plan to take in your research. An integrative review also combines theory and data to provide a focus for the overall project.
Dr. Thomas recommends a step-by-step process for developing an integrative literature review that can establish your credibility—and confidence—as a researcher in any field.
Step 1: Locating and Capturing Sources
First, Dr. Thomas emphasized that a literature review should draw on a wide range of sources including contemporary journals as well as books. He recommended conducting keyword searches on journals and in databases to begin identifying sources.
Step 2: Taking Robust Notes that Spark Critical Evaluation
Once you’ve identified potential sources, you need to read and take notes. Dr. Thomas recommends using a structured notetaking approach such as the Cornell Notetaking System — one that captures essential data and facts about the source as well as allowing you to record your thoughts, questions, and criticisms of the material. Taking notes is not just about summarizing the text you read, Dr. Thomas explains, but about ensuring that what you read can be “reduced down to what it means to you and the work [you are doing].”
Step 3: From Broad Ideas to Fine Details
A theoretical framework places your proposed research within the context of a body of scholarship and shows how you plan to produce new knowledge that can address gaps in a specific area of the field. Dr. Thomas gave the example of a researcher who wants to explain why people purchase Omega luxury watches.
In this example, the theoretical framework would begin with looking at evidence for the broader issue of consumer decision-making and the influence of marketing, then gradually digging down to evidence that drives purchases in the luxury watch market. From there, you would plan how to demonstrate the factors that lead people to choose Omega watches in particular.
Step 4: Maintaining Authenticity as an Author
Literature reviews require a great deal of analysis and synthesis of information. When developing your project, it can be tempting to make use of AI summaries or other ghost-writing tools to quickly produce an evaluation of a source.
Dr. Thomas emphasizes that you must avoid this at all costs. First, creating your own summary or paraphrase of a source’s theories helps you internalize and better understand it. Second, using ghost-writing tools can lead to plagiarism.
Step 5: Making the Case for Your Contribution to the Field
Finally, Dr. Thomas emphasizes that a literature review offers you an opportunity to present a balanced view of your subject area that acknowledges opposing evidence or perspectives. “You will [receive more credit] for actually accrediting those who do not support what you do than you will for creating something descriptive that [only] supports your research question.”
However, in addition to evaluating opposing evidence, you must also provide an effective rebuttal that demonstrates why your research ultimately matters. The ultimate goal of your literature review is to guide your readers through a labyrinth of texts, theories, and ideas toward the unique contribution you plan to make as a scholar.
Develop a More Impactful Literature Review with Citavi
Citavi supports every aspect of the literature review development process – from finding, evaluating, and taking notes on sources to constructing outlines, citations, and bibliographies.
Step 1: Finding Sources with Citavi
To help with locating sources, Citavi makes it possible for you to begin capturing potential sources from anywhere on the web or within the app itself. Carry out keyword searches of freely available databases — or data sources your institution has licensed — from within Citavi. Enter an IBSN or DOI number to automatically generate a citation. Import details about source materials you’ve found on the web using the Picker browser extension or drag-and-drop PDFs and references from other systems straight into your Citavi project. Citavi will also generate a bibliography as you add references and automatically generate citations that meet many different style guidelines.
Step 2: Writing and Organizing Notes with Citavi
Citavi is also designed to account for the changing nature of the internet. When you import a website address as a reference, Citavi will automatically generate a PDF of that page at the time you accessed it. This way, if the reference is changed or taken offline, you’ll still have access to the original information.
With Citavi, you can record notes, questions, quotations, comments, and summaries within the record for each reference — even on the PDF version of the document itself. These notes can then be organized into an outline which you can use for the next phase of the literature review process: establishing a theoretical framework for the research you plan to conduct.
Step 3: Building Frameworks with Citavi
Citavi makes it possible for you to begin building this “funnel” framework as you read and organize your source materials. You can build an outline for your literature review using the notes you have keyed into your project — an outline that’s easily exportable to a Word document, complete with citations and links – and then begin writing.
Step 4: Maintaining Authenticity as an Author with Citavi
By automatically connecting your sources to references you make, Citavi helps reduce the risk of unintentional plagiarism in your work.
If you’re looking for more ways to accelerate your literature review, Citavi also integrates with qualitative data analysis software, NVivo, which can help you identify themes in your sources. Watch this webinar to learn more about how using NVivo and Citavi together helps you go beyond simple reference management and creates a springboard to analyze your literature, connect it to your empirical data, analyze it with NVivo’s research tools, and publish your work faster:
>>Watch on-demand webinar: Accelerating your Literature Review with Citavi and NVivo 14
Access additional free literature resources here: Lumivero - Accelerating Your Literature Review
Make the literature review process more manageable with the all-in-one referencing and writing solution designed for individual researchers or teams. Download a free trial of Citavi or buy a subscription today.