The Literature Review

For this blog, I have analysed a specific text on a topic that may well come up in Mentoring sessions.  It is also one which I need to become more familiar with myself: the Literature Review (LR).  I have studied the text, Telling a Research Story: Writing a Literature Review by Feak and Swales (2009), available in the Study Skills library.  An interesting, accessible text, with plenty of examples and practical exercises, this is an excellent introduction into what makes a successful LR across different disciplines.  I have set down the main points here, with some relevant page numbers where I felt it appropriate to signpost for further details.

Telling a Research Story begins by outlining the background of the LR, as well as typical criticisms over past attempts.  It begins with a pertinent quotation: ‘We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they…because we are carried high,’ John of Salisbury, 12th Century theologian.  It then outlines different types of LR.

  • Narrative: this is apparently typically found in theses, with the research carried out by others collected and synthesised into a discussion. It is broad in focus, covering aspects from methodology, to findings, to research limitations.
  • Systematic: this LR follows a strict methodology in the selection of literature to review, in order to prevent any author bias. This is common amongst Health Sciences apparently.
  • Meta-Analysis: this LR gathers data from independent studies examining the same research questions in order to use statistics to analyse and understand the entire topic more clearly.
  • Focused: this is a term coined by the authors of this text, in order to refer specifically to an LR’s focus being limited to reviewing just one aspect of previous research, such as methodology.

The text then goes on to explore various features of the LR, including what it is not.  The advice may be summarised as follows.  The LR needs to:

  • take into account discipline and field requirements;
  • examine the literature with purpose, discerning choices, and a sense of argument and criticism;
  • be focused in terms of categories such as a historical perspective, an issue, current research, or a theory or model;
  • discuss any problems or controversies in the field, such as that of study findings;
  • present more important papers and studies over others for the purposes of the research the writer is conducting, including highlighting any key ground-breaking research;
  • explain the reasons for the inclusion or exclusion of sources in the LR;
  • pay attention to recent publications for the most up-to-date research;
  • possibly draw on research from peripheral disciplines;
  • present the literature logically and cogently, with cohesion between any theories and empirical findings;
  • help the writer to discover patterns and frameworks amongst the literature as much as the reader;
  • and, possibly most significantly, the LR needs to highlight the relevance of the research that the writer wishes to carry out.

‘Given that your LR is the foundation of your research, care must be taken to tell the research story that has led you to that research’ (p21).

The text then moves on to explaining how to go about attacking the masses of literature, to bring order out of chaos.  First things first, the literature must be found and read.  Only then can the review really begin.

In order to categorise the material, or even discuss which literature will or will not be included, there are many options to choose from for sorting the various articles and books: chronology, country of origin, discipline, attitude and perspective, type of publication, theme, whether the work presents or reviews original research or secondary data, language and so on.  There can be subcategories as well.  When first approaching the categorisation stage, tables and mind maps can help, in order to actually see the patterns emerging and make connections between studies.

Then comes the writing up and there are many features to be aware of:

  • the need for logical paragraph organisation,
  • how helpful it is to use sentence connectors like ‘however’, ‘ This section examines studies of’ (p38) and ‘Each of these theories will be examined in turn’ (p40),
  • steering clear of excessive and unjustified statements like ‘often used’ (p24) or an inference made without evidence,
  • the need to consider the discipline’s requirements, such as whether to use the passive or active voice, or first or third person,
  • clear referencing and the avoidance of plagiarism,
  • being clear with citations too: if a reference is placed next to a definition, does this mean that the referenced author is the originator of the definition? If three aspects of the study are mentioned and three references are cited, are these for all of the aspects, or for individual ones respectively?  Is a referenced author’s conclusion based on analysis of others’ data or on their own research?

Telling a Research Story then covers the findings of some intriguing research carried out into how researchers cite and use reporting language in their papers across a variety of disciplines.  For instance, there is an assortment of ‘citation patterns’, as they call them, according to the field (p44): that is whether researchers use quotations, extended or block quotations, paraphrase the sources, or collect references together for a general point.  Biology leans towards summarising or collectively citing references, whereas Sociology leans towards employing more direct quotations, though the majority of citations across all disciplines are still found in the form of paraphrasing.

Moreover, there is a difference in the way the citation is worded based on whether the source, the researcher, is ‘integral’ or not (p46).  For example, ‘According to Jay et al. (2006)’ would be written for referring to a prominent author, but where the research itself is more prominent, wording such as ‘Research indicates that…(Akerstedt, 1995)’, will be found instead.  It is thought that citations referring to an author rather than research tends to give the writer a chance to discuss their own opinion more, as there is a closer focus on analysis rather than on generalisation of facts.  Reporting verbs also vary according to discipline it seems (p55).  The harder sciences tend to opt for verbs such as ‘describe, report, find, show’ for instance, while the softer sciences like Linguistics and Education use ‘suggest, argue, find, note’.

Once the review is written, like any piece of work it will need redrafting, the original discussion being teased out as much as possible, other LRs can be evaluated for comparison, and clarity is key so that the reader can absorb as much of the argument as possible.  Yet, the book warns that despite the best efforts, the LR may still need defending at a later stage in the work, or perhaps in a viva voce for PhD students.  Indeed, even ‘Doctoral candidates are novice researchers almost by definition and do not have the luxury of being assumed to know the literature’ (p32), so every effort should be taken in the editing stages to really assess the value of the literature covered and how it sets up the research going forward.

The text ends with a helpful checklist of points to remember, including:

  • shape the LR to fit the research question(s),
  • group sources appropriately,
  • strike a balance between describing and evaluating sources,
  • explain the inclusion and exclusion of sources,
  • add a variety of explicit signposting language, especially to cover any obvious gaps in the literature due to your purposeful exclusions,
  • be careful of the discipline’s formatting requirements, such as for tense and citations,
  • does the LR show that the writer’s research is both relevant and original?

Just shy of 100 pages, this book is well worth a read, and a great introduction certainly, if the LR ever seems like an unwieldy topic.

Feak, Christine B. and John M. Swales (2009). Telling a Research Story: Writing a Literature Review. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



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