Types of Literature Review

So, you’ve chosen your topic, hatched a rough plan of attack, now you need to conduct a literature review. But what is a literature review? Put simply, it is an analysis of prior academic research so as to identify the who, what, where, and whys’ of the chosen topic area.

You may or may not have conducted what some academics call a preliminary study – a brief search into the existing academic work in your chosen topic. After all, for some students carrying out primary research it’s vital that their work has never been carried out before and these initial studies are crucial when identifying a unique topic for research.

In some subject areas, it may be difficult, if not impossible to identify areas for primary research and therefore a preliminary study may not be necessary (secondary research is usually carried out as a result).

Whatever the starting point, the literature review forms one of the first major pieces of work in a dissertation.

There are several main reasons why you would undertake a literature review. The first is to enable you, the author, to become absolutely clear on what it is you have chosen to research and study. By understanding other academic literature you can gain an understanding of what has been and is currently being researched. This will help with your own work by identifying windows of opportunity and helping to cement your research questions. For some subjects you may find there has not been much prior research in your field of study, in which case your literature review will have to be less specific and the academic net in which you search will have to be thrown further.

The second reason for carrying out a critical review of the literature, as it is often called, is to demonstrate that you, as the author of an academic piece of work, have a strong awareness and knowledge of your chosen subject. You need to build up your credibility, not just for your work, but for you as an author. The reader needs to trust you before they will trust your work. Once this is achieved you can justify your research and explain where it fits in with other research topics in your subject area.

Many students use the literature review as a way of clarifying the aims and research questions of their dissertation, something that begins at the start of a research project. However, a critical review of the literature is an ongoing process. New research is continuously being published and as you delve deeper into your research topic, you should be prepared to add and update your literature review. See it as a work in progress throughout the length of the entire research project.