Conducting a Literature Review

Science books stacked up on top of each other

As part of a research study or paper you may need to identify and review relevant information on a specific topic.  Often times your instructor will ask you to conduct a review of the literature. The first goal of a literature search is to ensure that you are aware of other research in your field.  The goal is to become familiar with the knowledge base of scientific information on the topic so that 1) you can understand the topic and its major concepts; 2) you can place your research in context and 3) you can further develop your own ideas.

The Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students video from North Carolina State University provides an excellent introduction to conducting an extensive literature review for a course assignment, thesis, or other research.

In conducting a literature review you will want to survey scholarly journal articles, books, and other sources (e.g. scientific monograms, government documents and publications, dissertations, and grey literature,  etc.) that are relevant to a particular issue, area of study, research, or theory.  Your task in writing a literature review will be to provide a description, summary and critical evaluation of each work.  This will give you and your reader an overview of the significant literature published on a topic.

Four Steps in Writing a Literature Review

1.  Determine the topic or field that is being examined and its components or issues.

2.  Find materials relevant to the subject being explored.

3.  Evaluate the data to determine which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic.

4.  Separate out those materials which contain the best argument or those that are the most convincing of their opinions and which make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.

In step 4, consider the author's credentials.  Choosing works by experts in their field gives authority to the materials.  Ask yourself, are the author's arguments supported by evidence (e.g. primary historical materials, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings)?

Mad Scientist in front of his invention.  Lights and smoke are visible.

As you evaluate materials for inclusion in the literature review, be sure to look for objectivity.  Ask yourself:

  • Is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial?
  • Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing?
  • Does the work contribute in a signficant way to an understanding of the subject?

Determine, if possible, the value of the work.  Consider comparing and contrasting each work to others under consideration. Resolve any conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.  Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.  Point the way forward for further research. 

The literature review does not present new primary scholarship, but it does allow you to place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review. 

Scientific Information Literacy Modules

Unit 1:  What is Science?
Unit 2:  Scientific Information
copyright 2011 Napa Valley College

updated June 14, 2011, by Nancy McEnery, Reference Librarian-Instructor