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Literature Review: Purpose and Scope

This guide will introduce you to the methods of doing a literature review.

Purpose

The literature review analyzes relationships and connections among different works. This differs from an annotated bibliography which provides a list and brief description of articles, books, thesis, and other documents. The literature review should not merely list and summarize one piece of research after another. 

Through analysis of major works and subsequent scholarship the lit review lays out the evolution of scholarship on a topic and establishes a context for further research. This will help you to establish why the topic is important and place your research in a theoretical context.

A literature review will help you to avoid redundancy in your own research and to identify new problems, possibilities for further research, and to expand upon or ask new questions. The literature review allows you as a researcher to enter into an ongoing conversation with other scholars and researchers.

Scope

A literature review may be comprehensive or selective but should examine seminal or principal works and works that have been consequential in the field. The scope of a literature review will vary by assignment and discipline. The literature review may be part of a larger work or a stand-alone article, meaning that it is the entirety of a paper. The literature review may be part of the introduction, or a separate section to a thesis, dissertation, or research report setting up the context for the author's original research. The literature review:

  • Compares and contrasts
  • Identifies areas of consensus and dissent
  • Reveals gaps or oversights
  • Indicates areas needing further research
  • Points out trends, themes, approaches, methodologies, theories, and frames of analysis
  • Discusses major debates in the field
  • Examines methodological or theoretical strengths and weaknesses

 

Currency

The importance of currency (timeliness of information) will vary by discipline and the purpose of the assignment. The sciences are typically more concerned with current research, practice, and findings. For example, in fields like health or medicine the lit review may only draw on recent literature which has been published within 5-10 years. However, inclusion of much older works is often relevant in fields such as the arts, humanities, philosophy, or history.