In this blog, we take you through the ins and outs of literature reviews, what critically examining the literature means and how to get started.
A good literature review:
- Recognizes and groups published information into the same, related or different fields of interest.
- Emphasizes the focus of your topic.
If you’re just starting out, consider reading up on what a literature view is first. The University of Melbourne, Deakin University, Birmingham University and others have published consolidated guides to literature reviews. These will provide you with the right context and set you up for success.
Position your research in the broader context:
To do this you first must introduce the research problem and context. Indicate the structure of your literature review – is it driven by a particular methodology? Also, consider where your research sits in a broader setting by explaining your research problem and what you intend to cover. In doing so reflect on any:
- Trends in your research topic. Have recent events influenced trends?
- Themes or commonalities.
- Schools of thought.
- Areas where scholars have agreed or disagreed. If they disagreed, why is this so?
- Gaps in the literature.
There may be a lot of (or sometimes little) literature published on your given topic, so by focusing in on your area of the topic, you’ll be able to demonstrate that you understand what your contribution to the research discipline is.
Evaluate and contrast your sources to demonstrate your familiarity with your research topic:
When evaluating sources consider the structure, key themes, the conclusion and what is missing:
- The structure: Look at how the piece is written. Use the subtitles and key words to decipher the methodology.
- The key themes: Record the key themes and note how they used different methodologies to validate their ideas.
- The conclusion: This is the best way to determine if the evidence and arguments presented support the hypothesis. Take note of this conclusion – and see if any other sources agree with it, disagree or challenge it entirely.
- What’s missing: This isn’t always the easiest thing to do from the outset – however you will get better at finding out what is missing after you read widely. Research disciplines evolve over time – so what one person concludes with is not the end, but can be the cause for further investigation or can help you to make a stronger argument.
Remember, your research contributes to the field:
Your research will be filling a gap in the current literature. Your contribution is your ‘voice’. This will come through as your thesis takes shape, however, as you are evaluating other people’s work try to consolidate other research into your own ‘voice’ so it does not come across as a disjointed mix of different papers, voices and arguments.
Literature review checklist:
Use this checklist when conducing your literature review. It is not an exhaustive list, but we know it helps starting somewhere:
- Does your literature review recognize and discuss the most relevant and noteworthy research on your topic?
- Does your literature review analyse, compare the research?
- Do you identify theorists and schools of thought?
- Have you contextualized and validated your intentions?
- Have you considered opposing viewpoints?
- Do your points make sense?
- Have you referenced your source material correctly?
Using EndNote and NVivo for literature reviews:
NVivo is a good tool to use when conducting a literature review. It allows you to manage your sources, identify themes and helps you to make connections between sources.
Using NVivo also means you can go back easily, and review your literature review as you go.
Lee Fallin – a library skills advisor from the University of Hull has written widely about using NVivo and EndNote in literature reviews.
“I find NVivo is an invaluable tool in my research arsenal and I want to talk about how I use a combination of NVivo and EndNote for every assignment, paper or article I write.
Using both of these tools together, it is easy to rapidly collect journal articles, interpret them and get on with writing. This is useful for all levels of academic work, from undergraduates writing their assignments to academics writing research papers.
While NVivo is not a replacement for reading articles, we can use it to:
- Help prioritise reading or query papers.
- Get an overview of core concepts/ideas.
- Analyse article metadata.