Whether you are writing a Master-level dissertation or a PhD Thesis or a long academic report, you will be required to review the existing published literature, relevant to your topic, in a critical manner with a view to:
- developing a context for your research study;
- establishing links between your study and the previous pieces of research carried out by other researchers;
- identifying and addressing research gap;
- justifying the findings of your investigation later on; and
- establishing your credibility as an authentic researcher.
Such critical assessment of the existing research literature is often termed as ‘literature review’ in academia, and is apparently a nightmare to many students who have not done it ever before. If you happen to be one of such students, you must read through this article which sheds light on the process of conducting critical literature review, particularly, in the context of writing a dissertation or a PhD Thesis and provides some excellent tips to work with.
To start with, you should pay heed to what counts as ‘published literature’ because you would be urged by your university to review the same for the purpose of drafting an authentic literature review for your dissertation or PhD Thesis.
‘Published literature’ refers to any piece of scholarly work that has been written or produced by an established academic researcher/accredited scholar and/or put out by a recognised publisher, and is available for review in many forms, including scholarly books, journal articles, industry publications/reports and government websites. You must make use of as much of recently-published literature as possible to make your research paper look authentic, credible and up-to-date to its readers.
Close on the heels of using the ‘recently-published literature’ comes the important task of reviewing it in a CRITICAL manner. Instead of just summarising each and every reference (listed in your research paper) briefly, it is important that you construct synthesis of various sources/references and evaluate those critically with a view to producing coherent arguments for the study you are engaged in or carrying out.
As you are now well aware of the significance of published literature and its CRITICAL review, let us get to understand other crucial aspects of reviewing literature, such as how often to conduct literature review as a Master’s or PhD student, how to set boundaries for literature review, how to search for the authoritative and relevant references, how to structure your reading, when to stop reading, writing your literature review, how to organise and synthesise your sources while writing and revising the draft.
1. HOW OFTEN TO CONDUCT LITERATURE REVIEW AS A MASTER’S OR PHD STUDENT
Unlike small-scale academic projects where literature review is most likely to be done once, long-term writing projects such as Master-level dissertations or PhD Theses would normally require ‘literature review’ process to be carried out in the following three phases:
- At the very beginning, various pieces of published literature are reviewed with a view to establishing context & rationale for the study and justifying the research question.
- In the middle of the research study, relevant and current pieces of published research need be further reviewed as so to cover all the important aspects/current issues related to the research problem/gap.
- In the last stage, literature is usually reviewed to support the findings of the research study in question.
For PhD students, the process of reviewing published literature goes on for extremely long period of time as their research studies normally span over 3-4 years if they are regular students and 6-7 years if they are part-time students.
Hence, make it a habit to keep yourself abreast with the current issues related to your research area constantly so as to make your PhD Thesis look current and relevant within the ever-changing context at the time of its submission to your university.
2. HOW TO SET BOUNDARIES FOR LITERATURE REVIEW
Keeping in mind the three stages of conducting literature review, you should go about reading relevant pieces of recently-published literature now.
Although you can start by reading any published literature related to your research area, yet it would be wise for you to brainstorm on the scope of the literature review so as to remain committed to focused reading throughout the tenure of your research study.
When defining the boundaries for your literature review and deciding about which all pieces of published work or literature to read, you should consider:
- The topic of your research study;
- The type of content that is needed to review the topic or research problem appropriately (e.g. theory, methodology, policy, empirical data);
- The type of available literature that contains the content needed for review (e.g. books, journal articles, government web pages);
- The type of literature that is considered to be authoritative, relevant, appropriate and useful in the chosen academic discipline (e.g. nursing, psychology, marketing, sociology, operations management, finance);
- If all the relevant pieces of literature (with as many alternative points of view as possible) have been taken into account and all the irrelevant ones dropped; and
- If the volume of reviewed literature is sufficient for the level of dissertation or PhD Thesis.
In addition, you should decide on whether to start reading on the broad issues first and specific research problems/questions later on or vice-versa. You may want to follow the generic or common way of engaging in literature review as is adopted by many Master’s or PhD students, i.e. you cover literature that explains broad issues around your research area before reviewing literature that is closely related to the research problem of your study. Please take a look at the following pyramid to understand the flow of your literature review:
3. HOW TO SEARCH FOR THE AUTHORITATIVE AND RELEVANT REFERENCES
After you have defined the scope of literature review, you should go searching for relevant and authoritative references or sources (e.g. academic books, journals, research reports, government publications) that could help you write it up in a critical manner.
Many new students have been seen resorting to Google or any other search engine for pulling up references for their research studies. What such students fail to understand that all search results or references provided by search engines may not be academically authoritative and that it will take ages to sift the good ones from the entire lot. Therefore, you should avoid running a generic search on the internet and pulling up a filthy list of references. Rather, you should make use of authoritative databases to look for good references for your dissertation or PhD Thesis. For your perusal, we have listed a number of recognised databases for ‘Business Management’, ‘Linguistics’ and ‘Health Science’ subjects below. Please note that you will need to obtain log-in credentials from your university to be able to access the references/sources available on the listed databases.
- Business Source Complete
- Science Direct
- Web of Science
- Communication and mass media complete [CMMC]
- MLA International Bibliography
- Translation Studies Bibliography
- The Cochrane Library
- NIHR Journals Library
- Science Direct
- Web of Science
In addition to searching authoritative databases, you could consult your dissertation or PhD supervisor to get hold of references that you must go through to write up a critical literature review for your research paper.
You could also seek help from a liaison librarian for your subject area to discover some useful references. The library’s catalogue search engine or shelves could turn out to be quite helpful in this regard too.
Apart from visiting your university’s library for help, you could take a look at the review articles, which cover all the recent developments in your research area, so to be able to come across some good references.
Lastly, you could take a look at the bibliography or reference list of all the references that have been identified as authoritative, relevant and important for your research paper so far. By scanning through the reference lists of the already-chosen references, you would be able to recognise the standard references that are often cited by academic authors in your subject area and use those appropriately to strengthen arguments in the ‘literature review’ chapter of your dissertation or PhD Thesis. You may also chance upon some new references that introduce you to completely new perspectives related to your research field.
Make sure that you keep your literature review up-to-date by using recently-published academic literature.
4. HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR READING
Once you have conducted literature searches, you should be able to put all the selected references under various headings/themes so as to structure your reading in an appropriate manner.
Pick up each heading or theme and read a few important references related to the same. While reviewing references, please keep in mind that some of the references may have to be discussed under more than 1 heading. Hence, do not forget to make notes while reading.
Below given are few questions for you to consider while making notes:
- Has the author defined the key idea of the written literature clearly?
- Has the central idea of the literature been supported by concrete pieces of evidence?
- Could there be other ways to interpret the used pieces of evidence?
- What types of research method have been used by the author (e.g. qualitative, quantitative, mixed, experimental etc.)?
- What is the author’s theoretical framework (e.g. psychological, developmental, feminist)?
- Have other pieces of literature been duly critiqued by the author?
- Have the opposing views been duly taken into consideration by the author?
- How reliable and valid is the research data collected by the author?
- What are the strengths and limitations of the author’s published literature?
- How does this piece of literature contribute to your dissertation or PhD Thesis?
Please note that effective note-making is the key to drafting a good literature review. Software packages, such as EndNote and RefWorks, could turn out to be quite helpful in managing references and storing your notes on each of them. So, make use of these software packages to make your life a bit easier.
After you are done with reading all the selected references for each heading or theme, you should write down a summary of what you have read about and how the reviewed references are significant for your research. Thereafter, you should ascertain if anything else need be discussed. If yes, engage in further reading accordingly to fill the gaps. Synthesis Matrix might turn out to be quite helpful in this regard. Please see the below-given section titled ‘how to organise and synthesise your sources while writing’ to know more about this matrix and how it can help.
5. WHEN TO STOP READING
You cannot simply go on reading infinite number of published sources as it will do nothing but waste some of your precious time that could have otherwise been utilised in carrying out other productive tasks. Hence, you must keep a check on your reading and stop when its purpose has been duly fulfilled or realised.
The question of when exactly to stop reading has been the bugbear for many students. So, below given are few tips for you to consider if you’re struggling with afore-mentioned question:
- Try to work out the word-count for literature review you are supposed to carry out for completing your research paper. 30% of the total word-count is normally considered as adequate for ‘literature review’ section of your dissertation or PhD Thesis. Once you have calculated the word-count that needs to be devoted to ‘literature review’ chapter, you need to break it down further in line with the headings or themes you have decided to read on. As you now have an approximate word-count for each heading, you should work toward achieving it. In this way, you will avoid both over-reading and under-reading.
- Try to determine how long you plan to carry on with reading. In order to arrive at this answer, you would need to look at the deadline for submission of your dissertation/PhD Thesis and work backwards. This process would let you know how much time you can afford to dedicate to reading literature before moving on to other aspects of research process (e.g. writing up the literature, data collection, analysis of the collected data and discussing the results).
- Make sure that you have read all the important references and all the recently-published literature on your research topic. If you have already done it, you are probably on the verge of completing your literature review.
- During the process of reading published literature, you have to be attentive all the time. Once you see the influx of similar information over and over, you should probably quit reading as any further reading is highly unlikely to add something new to what you have already covered.
- Needless to say that you should only read those references that contribute to the research you are engaged in. If you find yourself glancing through academic papers that do not relate to your research, you are probably going off the track and this is when you need stop reading and get your focus back on your research topic.
As suggested in one of the previous sections of this article, please make sure to engage in the process of reviewing literature constantly if your research study is going to last for a number of years (as is the case with PhD students). Normally, what you should do is read and prepare an initial ‘literature review’ draft that informs your research design and objectives. Thereafter, you should move on to data collection. Afterwards, you should read again and update the ‘literature review’ draft with recent developments in your field of study so as to keep your research paper up-to-date and relevant at the time of submission. Make it a habit to devote sometime to reading every week as a PhD researcher.
6. WRITING YOUR LITERATURE REVIEW
You should get on with drafting literature review for your dissertation or PhD Thesis only after you are completely through with reading the selected pieces of literature, taking notes on each of chosen references and summarising the sources for each of the headings or themes.
Your literature review should start with an ‘Introduction’ that throws light on the broad context of your research, highlighting the proposed study’s main issues/debates, outlining the strategy for choosing the references and setting the scope of the review.
After you are done with ‘Introduction’, you should move on to write the main body of the literature review that should aim at analysing the chosen sources/references in a critical and structured manner. Make sure that main body of the written review flows in a smooth way from the beginning till the end. All the paragraphs should link appropriately and come together to tell the readers a coherent story of what you are doing, why you are doing it and how you are going to do it on the basis of previous research.
In the end, you should conclude by summarising the content of the main body and directing readers to the research question/s that will be addressed by your investigation.
Given below are few tips for you to consider while writing up the literature review:
- Discuss only those points (from the reviewed pieces of published literature) that are relevant to your research study. All the irrelevant points must be counted out;
- Summarise and synthesise all relevant points of the chosen sources in your own words throughout the review;
- Take extra caution to avoid sweeping generalisations by always supporting your claims with appropriate evidence;
- Use direct quotes from the chosen pieces of literature to the minimum;
- Always paraphrase a source’s/reference’s content accurately and in your words, and give due credit to the authors to avoid the possibility of getting involved in plagiarism;
- Employ tables to show numerical data or make comparisons of various theoretical perspectives or numerous methods or sets of assumptions or sample profiles;
- Make use of indirect and tentative language (e.g. this paper attempts to show that, this paper argues or it could be argued and so on) instead of writing anything down in first person (e.g. I attempt to find out, I argue and so on);
- Prepare a list of references for the readers to follow-up on;
- Put in all the efforts to get rid of issues related to grammar, spelling, fluency, evidence, structure, and referencing.
7. HOW TO ORGANISE AND SYNTHESISE YOUR SOURCES WHILE WRITING
As literature review is not simply a summary of the chosen sources, it could be an extremely daunting task to organise and synthesise those in a way that is meaningful and relevant in the context of your research during the process of writing the review.
Hence, we have listed two important ways of organising your selected references below to enable you to structure your writing:
- By theme – As suggested in the ‘how to structure your reading’ section previously, you can categorise your sources according to various themes or headings that make up the whole literature review.
- By chronology – You could also order your sources according to their respective years of publication and develop your literature review chronologically on your research topic. Please make sure that you are writing about the sources in a critical way instead of simply describing their content while arranging them in this way.
Once you have decided on how you are going to organise your references (e.g. by theme or by chronology or by any other method), you need to think about how you plan to synthesise them together to be able to write paragraphs (for each theme or heading or topic) that demonstrate critical evaluation of the chosen sources and are meaningful in the context of your overall research study.
Synthesis Matrix has been touted by many researchers in academia for its usefulness in synthesising sources and producing a well-drafted literature review. Hence, you could use it to synthesise information while writing up the review.
As you can see in the below-given layout of Synthesis Matrix, it is a chart where various sources on a particular theme/heading/topic are placed horizontally and main ideas of those sources are listed vertically.
With this matrix, you can get a clear picture of what all main ideas have been discussed in relation to a particular theme or topic by various authors so far and where the gaps exist. This information, in turn, would help you draft critical literature review for your research in the best possible way.
8. REVISING THE DRAFT
After you have written the first draft of your literature review, please ensure that you revise it to see:
- If it displays appropriate balance between description and comment;
- If any worth-discussing dimension of the reviewed pieces of literature has been omitted in error;
- If all the chosen sources have been organised or arranged in the most effective and appropriate manner;
- If there is any weak argument that needs to be further strengthened with the help of additional sources or references;
- If all the written paragraphs link well to one another as well as to the research question/s of your investigation;
- If importance of every piece of literature for your research has been duly established;
- If there is due justification for the research approach, topic and research question;
- If recently-published literature has been used in bulk; and
- If it is plagiarism-free. (Check out our useful video to learn what counts as plagiarism so that you could avoid it).
Please note that you may have to cut out a number of inappropriate paragraphs and replace those with the appropriate ones that adhere to the above-given checklist. If it turns out that paragraphs are not ordered properly, all you need to do is re-arrange the paragraphs in a way that makes more sense to the readers. By the end of revision, you should have a piece of nicely-drafted literature review for your dissertation or PhD Thesis.