The Literature Review - 4 Steps to Get Started

The Literature Review - 4 Steps to Get Started


Step 1:  Discuss Your Research

Consult with your thesis or dissertation advisor or other to address the following:

  • Is a particular format for the literature review preferred by your advisor? Will an annotated bibliography be required as an appendix to the review?
  • Are there a maximum or minimum number of sources that your review should include?
  • Does your advisor have a particular bias against particular types of resources?
  • Does s/he prefer journal articles to books, or would s/he prefer that you NOT use web sites?
  • Can your advisor suggest some good examples of literature reviews written by other persons s/he has advised in the past that you could examine?
  • Does your advisor think that your topic is a worthwhile one, and will the degree-conferring department approve it?

Consult with a Librarian to learn more about the following:

If you have questions, you may contact Library Support or Dan Lee, the UA Libraries' Copyright librarian.

Step 2:  Identify the Literature

Literature for your review will be acquired through dissertations, books, and journal articles.  Our Research Tools provide an overview of these resources, as well as directs links to dissertations and theses, the UA library catalog, and more.

However, a good literature review is not limited to just these resources.  Other sources of literature may include web pages, film and video, maps, United States and international government documents, photographs, book reviews, and materials in many other formats and categories.

Step 3:  Critically Analyze Your Readings

Key to your literature review is a critical analysis of the literature collected around your topic.  The analysis will explore relationships, major themes and any critical gaps in the research expressed in the work.

To critically analyze the literature, review the resources collected with the following topics and questions in mind:

  • A preliminary analysis
    • Who is/are the author/s? What are their qualifications (degrees awarded, positions at universities, previous research and publications) to write on the topic at hand?
    • What is the date of publication of the research? How up-to-date is the study? Has it been superseded?
    • Who is the publisher? Is the publisher a respected entity? Is it a university press or a private company? If a university press, what is the reputation of the institution? If private, what is the reputation of the company? (Your librarian can help you make this determination.) If the resource in question is a journal article, is the publishing journal a respected journal in the field?
  • Objectivity
    • Language.  If the resource in question is a written document, is it clearly written? What sort of language does the article use? Is it inflammatory or derogatory? Does it reflect a particular bias or slant?
    • Surveying.  Was the research based on surveys? If so, are the survey questionnaires available? How are the questions written -- that is, are they designed to elicit a particular response? How big was the surveyed population?
    • Methodology.   How well was the research designed? Does the researcher/author of the study include a thorough description of his/her methodology? What measuring instruments were used, and are they accurate or reliable?
    • Research Goals.  Does the author clearly state his/her research goals? Is the author/s' viewpoint or thesis obvious, and if so, does it reflect commonly accepted knowledge and practice in the discipline, or is it a radical departure from the norm?
  • Coverage
    • Is the literature you’ve found comprised of original research or secondary sources?
    • How well is the work researched? Is there an extensive bibliography? Of what sort of works does the bibliography consist?
    • How extensive was the study/surveying? How large was the sample? How long did the author take to complete the study?
  • Authority
    • If the resource in question is a journal article, have other researchers cited this work in their own research? Is the article generally regarded as authoritative and accurate?
    • What is/are the author/s' reputation/s in the field? How often is his/he/their work cited by other researchers? Is their work favorably regarded by other researchers?

Many of these questions can be answered through careful citation review, using databases like Journal Citation Reports (Science and Social Science Editions) and Social Sciences Citation Index. See Research Tools for more on these databases.

Step 4:  Categorize Your Resources

Divide the available resources that pertain to your research into categories reflecting their roles in addressing your thesis.  Possible ways to categorize resources include:

  • "Pro" / "Con" / Alternative views
  • Theoretical / Philosophical approach: i.e., empirical, structural, post-structural, etc.
  • Original / Primary / Secondary sources

Regardless of the division, each category should be accompanied by thorough discussions and explanations of strengths and weaknesses, value to the overall survey, and comparisons with other / similar sources.

Last modified: September 18, 2012