What is a literature review?
Flip the words around and you have the beginning of your answer: a review of the literature.
“The literature” means scholarly sources (mostly academic journal articles and books) conducted on a specific topic.
“Review” means that you’ve read that work carefully in order to create a piece of writing that organizes, summarizes, analyzes, and makes connections between sources, as well as identifying areas of research still needed.
Why write a literature review?
A lit review can serve several purposes:
In primary research that includes the results of an experiment or fieldwork, it precedes the results and sets up a later discussion of the results in the context of previous findings.
What is the difference between a literature review and an annotated bibliography?
There is not just one way to write a literature review or an annotated bibliography, so differences vary. However, one of the main differences is that an annotated bibliography is typically organized source by source—each one has its own paragraph of explanation, analysis, etc.
In a literature review, the writing is organized thematically, often with multiple sources addressed in each paragraph, and there is an overarching narrative driving the review.
Although there are “bibliographic essays” that are essentially narratively-driven annotated bibliographies, in general annotated bibliographies are a drafting step toward a more formal piece of writing, while a literature review is more likely to be that more formal piece itself.
Ok, what about the difference between a literature review and a research paper?
Here’s a secret: there’s no such thing as “A Research Paper.” There are papers that use research in many different ways, and a literature review is one of those ways. Typically, though, if your assignment is specifically to write a “literature review,” it may mean you are being asked to focus less on creating your own argument, driven by a thesis with research as supporting evidence, and more on finding something to say based on the patterns and questions of the research you’ve read.
How should I organize a literature review?
Typically, literature reviews are organized thematically, not chronologically or source by source. This means that you will need to identify several sub-topics and figure out how to group sources to tell a story in themes. Some sources may show up in multiple sections, and some sources will only appear once. For practical suggestions on how to organize, see organizing a literature review (as of 3/23/20: in progress!).
How comprehensive should my review be?
This really depends on the assignment or type of literature review that you’re doing. Some reviews are quite extensive and aim to be “exhaustive,” looking at every article on a particular topic. Chances are, yours is not that. For guidance you may want to ask your professor this question, or more specific questions like, “should I consider articles published more than 20 years ago? What about 10?” etc.
You may also want to consider if it makes sense to narrow your focus to a particular region, demographic, or even type of study or article, such as focusing on specific methods used.
Finally, the scope of your review may also be influenced by the state of prior research. If you are exploring a relatively under-researched or interdisciplinary topic, you may draw from a broader and more diverse set of articles. If you are looking at something that has a well-established scholarly history, your focus will likely be much narrower.
How do I know if I’m “done” researching/haven’t missed anything?
The truth is, research is never “done.” But it’s true you have to come to a stopping point so you can write and finish your review! Here are a few tips for making this assessment:
A literature review can be challenging, and requires a lot of careful thinking as well as the steps of finding articles and writing. But with time, patience, and help, you can do it, and you'll be proud of the results once you're done.