Literature Reviews

Where do you find information and how do you refine it?

Starting a literature review can be difficult but the following steps will help.

Start with identifying your subchapters or subtopics and aim to write at least a paragraph (10-100 words) on each sub-chapter at first. A good strategy is to search for a “critical review” on your subject in an academic database e.g.

Find a suitable journal database or website and then type in “your subject review” or “your subject critical review”. For example, if you are interested in the topic of “benchmarking”, then search for: “benchmarking review”, “benchmarking literature review” and “benchmarking critical review”.

Restrict the keyword search to the title of the journal paper for greater accuracy. Unless you are researching an obscure subject, then you will see some results. For example, I used these papers as part of my review:

Alavi, M., & Leidner, D. (2001). Review: Knowledge management and knowledge management systems: Conceptual foundations and research issues, MIS Quarterly, 25 (1), 107–136.

Bontis, N. (2001). Assessing knowledge assets: a review of the models used to measure intellectual capital, International Journal of Management Reviews, 3 (1), pp 41-60.

Review papers are invaluable for starting a literature review, they tell you what is already known and more importantly who wrote it! Read the review papers and note down any quotes, comments or papers that are relevant to your work. Remember to read the primary sources and then reference them correctly. By reading 5-10 review papers on your subject you should now have a pretty good example of what topics you need to cover in your literature review.

For example, review papers A, B and C mentions “X” as the greatest thing in the subject – which means that if it is relevant to your research and you should also review it.

Paper C mentions “Y” but is the only paper to mention it. This means that either: it is under-researched and therefore a good thing to study (as your work will be published) or it isn’t considered important.

Do not attempt to review everything the other review papers cover, instead generate a list of topics and ask yourself – do the topics support your “Research Aim and Objectives”? If they do then great, if not then discard them.

Reading review papers or someone else’s literature review is a great way to focus your work. I recommend finding someone else’s thesis in a similar area and reading that before starting your review. Remember that a literature review is research itself, it proves that you can make a reasoned judgement and decide whether to devote time to studying a topic further.

Once you have created a list of topics, then run the draft structure and sub-headings past your supervisor or colleagues. They will be able to advise you if these are worthwhile writing about and whether you need to change them.


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