Non-fiction Writing

Navigating the Literature Review

A thesis or dissertation can be daunting in itself. When an advisor tells a graduate student to start with Chapter 2, the literature review, anxiety can knock the wind out of even the most proficient writers. What follows is an OVERVIEW of a literature review, its purpose, and its structure.

What is the Literature Review?

A literature review (lit review) is most obviously a review of literature, but I realize that is not all that helpful. There is a body of literature on almost every subject you can imagine, all created from someone’s research or metaresearch (a summary of existing research). A researcher’s job is to justify her own research by ensuring her study has not already been done. Additionally, a researcher must illustrate how the foundation of her study has been laid based on existing research. A literature review provides the background for the study as well as evidence the researcher’s study is necessary. It should illustrate a gap, some study that has not been done, ideally pointing to the researcher’s purpose for doing his or her study.

How Do I Organize My Lit Review?

The organization of a lit review will most likely be driven by the literature found. A researcher must be creative and thorough with keywords when searching his topic to amplify his chances of exhausting the literature in the research area. For example, if a researcher is studying the effects of a tutoring program on homeless students in grades 3-6, the following topics are the minimum to be searched:

  • homeless children ages 9-12
  • tutoring programs, grades 3-6 (what’s a typical one look like?, a successful one?, a failed one?)
  • tutoring homeless students (what have other educators done?)
  • research on students in the district area in which the tutoring program will be implemented
  • barriers to tutoring program success
  • evaluating tutoring programs
  • recruiting criteria for tutoring programs
  • mandatory tutoring based on test scores

Depending on what the searches reveal, or the amount of literature in each area, the headings for the lit review could be determined by the search phrases. If not much was found, new search terms may need to be used and the researcher may have few headings.

There is typically a historical segment in the chapter that gives either an overview of the literature at hand or gives a chronological progression of how the research led to the current point of study. In the tutoring case, there would most likely be a history of homelessness – along with data describing homeless children’s school retention, test scores, and transiency – as well as a history of tutoring programs in the country and in the geographic area in which the program will be implemented.

What Does it Mean to Review Literature?

In a more specific sense, reviewing literature does have its regimen. There is much synthesis involved and some summarizing. It is important to find research studies, as opposed to theoretical articles, so there are empirical data to support your reasoning. It is great when big thinkers make important assertions, but it is even better when those are supported by data. However, research should be grounded in theory, typically described in a section titled Theoretical Framework (located in Chapter 1 or 2, depending on the program).

Critically analyzing the relevant literature is crucial to including the right literature in a document. Each study cited must in some way be relevant to the topic of the proposed study. In reviewing a study, it is important to discuss the methodology of the study, emphasizing differences from the proposed study. It is important to clarify for readers the study is not simply a duplicate of what has already been done. Reviewing a study means seriously examining sample size, population demographics, instrumentation, data collection and analysis, and conclusions and include those components that support the need for the study. Each of the above concepts does not necessarily need to be written up in the lit review. However, a researcher should analyze them all and cull the points key to his study’s relevance.

When writing about other studies, a researcher will summarize some of the information, but the connections between the proposed study and other studies on the same topic are created by synthesis. Synthesis by the writer creates connections for the reader so the inclusion of that particular research being cited is clear. An important point to mention is the idea of paraphrasing. A good lit review is one that has been synthesized from the existing literature instead of one containing direct quote after direct quote. If a researcher has only one paragraph between direct quotes, there are too many quotes.

How Much Literature Do I Need to Review?

While some programs may have a specific value in mind for how many studies the lit review should contain, it is more important the researcher cover his topic thoroughly in terms of the existing pertinent research. However, number of sources does not always equate to relevance. If a researcher has yet to provide evidence for why she is doing the study, she needs to keep looking for literature. On the flip side, if she found her gap, that does not mean she is finished looking. If someone can still question why she is doing her study the way she is doing it, she has more research and writing to do.

For more on lit reviews, see the following:
UC, Santa Cruz Library
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Writing Ethically

Citations and references. They can be the bane of any non-fiction writer’s existence, not because writers do not want to give other writers the credit they deserve, but for possibly many other reasons. Maybe keeping track of them is such an arduous task, or formatting them and getting all the pieces in correctly is the challenge, or maybe a researcher is not sure when to cite and where.

What to Cite

Any time we take results from someone else’s research, we need to cite the research. When we have synthesized paragraphs from various articles we have read, the information still needs to be cited. Typically, we will find more than one authority on a topic that has been well researched. It is not uncommon to pull from multiple researchers or theorists and create our own writing based on their ideas. However, it is still based on their ideas, which, unless we cite, we would be claiming as our own.

Why Cite

Most likely, no matter what type of research we are doing, we will not have done all the research that led up to our specific study. Our study becomes more credible if based on those of other, more seasoned researchers. Also, we do not want to be duplicating other studies. We want to be adding something new to the research base and dealing with at least one new variable in a new way. Therefore, we will be utilizing other authors’ material, research, concepts, and theories (if you are doing a foundational study, less of this will be occurring). This is why we cite, the primary reason. The other reason we cite is so others reading our work can find the sources of the argument for our study. They may be doing research similar to what we are doing and our study can be an opening to many literature doors.

What Happens When We Do Not Cite

When we do not properly cite, we are plagiarizing. We want to avoid plagiarism, which among other things, can lead to expulsion from a program, failure of classes, and being sued. As an editor, I have experience with people who have inadvertently plagiarized. Most people do not plagiarize on purpose. Often it is a combination of losing track, not knowing (i.e., not learning), or forgetting and being in a hurry. None are good excuses. There is no excuse.

I work with students on their citations and references. If I read paragraphs of literature review text with no citations, I question the client. Where did you get these ideas? I cross check clients’ references with their citations, meaning I look up every one of their citations in the reference list to make sure there is a proper reference for each citation. Just citing the work is not enough. Some authors write multiple articles in a year so a search for the citation (Banks, 1995) may give multiple results on the web.

The other issue, besides plagiarism, not citing or properly referencing causes is a dead end for other researchers. Say you cited Banks as above, but there was no corresponding reference. A fellow researcher may have been interested in that particular information you attributed to Banks but now has no way to get to it. A search for the information could take 10 minutes or hours, precious time a researcher cannot spare. I cover searches in a later post. In the past, I have, at the request of the client, relinquished a document missing half its references because the client did not want to do the footwork of locating the references. That study is less useful to future researchers than it should be and the scholarship level is definitely sub-par. The citations are incomplete, as a corresponding reference needs to be listed on the reference page for each citation.


Some researchers believe no one will read their material and, thus, no one will know what is missing. I caution against underestimating the power of the internet. Most theses and dissertations are now loaded onto the internet at submission. I had a client contacted by the primary researcher because his work was quoted directly in my client’s document, but not cited at all. The client was essentially claiming the information as his or her own (to protect my client). They were the only two researchers who had covered that particular topic in one way or another. The cleanup was pretty ugly.

Citing and referencing is ethics. Ethics is not something with which we are born. It can be learned if the passion is there.

Take the time. Write ethically, for everyone’s sake.

For more on plagiarism, go here.