Research, Write, Publish

The Literature Review

Last modified: June 22, 2015

The Literature Review - Overview

A literature review provides an overview of the scholarly writings published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. Specifically, a literature review:

  • Focuses on a particular question, area of research, guiding concept, argument or issue you wish to address. It is narrowly focused to concentrate only on truly relevant materials.
  • Contains a thesis or statement of purpose (stated or implied), at its core.
  • Describes the existing or relevant literature on a topic and reflects a critical analysis of this research. It is not a comprehensive list of books and articles pertaining to a particular discipline or field of inquiry, nor is it an annotated bibliography
  • Demonstrates that you've read extensively in your field, have a thorough comprehension of your field, and are capable of intelligently and knowledgeably critiquing others' work.

The literature review is the very basis of your research; it is the platform on which you will build your argument, place your research in context within your discipline, and demonstrate how your research improves your discipline. 

Though literature reviews can also be found in journal articles and term papers, this guide focuses on literature reviews for theses and dissertations.

Last modified: December 15, 2015

The Literature Review - Purpose

Though disciplines may differ in their approach to literature reviews, across the board, a good literature review will help you justify your research and develop your thesis position.

Be aware that a literature review differs from an annotated bibliography; find out the differences at literature review vs. annotated bibliography.

Justify Your Research

  • Place your portion of the discussion in the academic context by showing that there are gaps in knowledge in your field that merit a closer investigation.  Demonstrate that your work will fill this gap by adding knowledge in and understanding of your field.
  • Demonstrate your work hasn't been previously done, ensuring your intellectual contribution is indeed original.
  • Demonstrate a critical approach to scholarship. Show you have analyzed and critiqued the theories or methodologies in the field and that you know the main arguments related to your topic.
  • Consider how the available research and existing scholarship support your research. How does it contradict your research? How will your research resolve the difference?

Develop Your Thesis Position

  • Educate yourself on the primary theoretical and methodological approaches to your discipline, as well as the primary actors.  Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Who are the most important scholars in your discipline?
    • What questions have they asked and answered?
    • What controversies remain within the discipline?
  • Identify controversies and differences of opinion among scholars in your field, and makes a case for your research as a valid, important response and possible resolution of those controversies.  Consider the points on which scholars differ - either differing theoretical approaches to the question or differing conclusions drawn by scholars. What part will your work play in the resolution of said controversies?
  • Synthesize the results of your research into a concise, coherent account of what is known in your field of inquiry and what remains to be learned, such that it addresses the specific thesis, problem, or research question.

Literature Review vs. Annotated Bibliography

Differences in Purpose
  • A literature review makes a case for further investigation and research, highlighting gaps in knowledge and asking questions that need to be answered for the betterment of the discipline; as such, its contents are selected to make the case.
  • An annotated bibliography is a list of what's available in a given field, accompanied by a short description. While it may feature a critical component, the criticism is generally directed at the quality of the work, rather than at its value in answering a particular question or buttressing an argument In short, a literature review usually has a thesis or statement of purpose, stated or implied, at its core.
Differences in Format
  • A literature review is a prose document similar to a journal article or essay, not a list of citations and descriptions. Here at the University of Arizona, the literature review is generally presented to one's dissertation advisor/sponsor, and occasionally to the dissertation committee, as a precondition to departmental approval of one's research. Your advisor does not want to read a long list of book and article titles, and neither does the department committee.

It may help you and your advisor if you organize your writing into sections, each with a theme. For example, your literature review might include a section on resources that support your hypothesis, another section on resources that disprove or contradict your thesis, a section on resources that neither support nor disprove your thesis but raise additional questions, etc. See the section of this guide on steps of the literature review for more guidance, and remember to speak with your dissertation/thesis advisor about the best possible formats for your literature review.

  • An annotated bibliography is simply that: a bibliography (a list of works or resources), accompanied by annotations. The annotations are usually short descriptions and a brief critical assessment of each work. While annotated bibliographies are generally not acceptable as literature reviews written for departmental review and approval, they are valuable adjuncts to literature reviews. Indeed, the best literature reviews will be based on good, comprehensive annotated bibliographies; and many UA departments require that literature reviews written for departmental approval of research be accompanied by an annotated bibliography.

Last modified: December 15, 2015

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:

Ask us if you have questions or get touch with our 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: e.g., 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 similar sources.

Last modified: June 12, 2017

The Literature Review - Research Tools


UA Library Catalog

This catalog references the physical contents of the UA Libraries: the Main Library, Special Collections, Science-Engineering, and Fine Arts. It also includes the collections of the Law Library, Arizona Health Sciences Library, Media Arts Library, Poetry Center, and College of Education's International Collection of Children's & Adolescent Literature. The catalog references books, serials, maps, videos (VHS, DVD and other formats), etc., as well as links to electronic resources where available.

WorldCat (FirstSearch version)

WorldCat (FirstSearch) indexes all types of material cataloged by libraries throughout the world and is the closest thing available to a “universal catalog.” This is a great resource for finding materials not at the UA Libraries and in some cases not available in the United States. This version generally allows for more precise searching than WorldCat Local, as well as the ability to view complete bibliographic records, though it does not include article citations.

WorldCat Local

A link to this can be found under the Summon search box on the homepage. It's an openly available version of WorldCat. WorldCat Local includes local information on the holdings of UA Libraries, including locations, call numbers, and links to our online resources. In addition, millions of article citations from databases such as JSTOR, ERIC, Medline, GPO, and ScienceDirect are included and linked. See our WorldCat Local guide for more details on what is included in WorldCat Local.


ProQuest Dissertations & Theses

This is an index of all doctoral dissertations and some master's theses from most North American and many European colleges and universities. Dissertations published from 1980 forward include 350-word abstracts written by the author. Master's theses published from 1988 forward include 150-word abstracts. Includes full text of dissertations from 1996 to present. NOTE: Some full text is not available due to restrictions placed by the author, patents pending, or problems regarding use of copyrighted material without permission.

Use ProQuest Dissertations & Theses to:

  • determine what research on your topic has already been performed by other graduate students in your field
  • find bibliographies on your topic
  • get a good overview of the various theoretical approaches to your topic/discipline
Dissertations & Theses @ University of Arizona

This searches the above ProQuest database solely for those dissertations and theses submitted by graduate students at the University of Arizona for degree credit. Dissertations & Theses @ UA goes back to 1922. It can be searched by advisor and broad subject areas, but not by university department.

Use Dissertations & Theses @ University of Arizona to:

  • determine what research has been done by other graduate students at the University of Arizona in your subject area
  • view dissertations and theses your advisor has approved
  • get a better idea of what your advisor and sponsoring department is seeking from students and researchers
UA Theses & Dissertations (UA Campus Repository)

This locally produced database includes full-text UA dissertations (and some theses) submitted since 2005, and from 1982-1996, and more. These are openly available and can be searched by degree program or browsed by "subject".

Use UA Theses & Dissertations to:

  • browse and view recent dissertations and theses submitted by other UA students in your area.
Web of Knowledge Citation Indexes

Web of Knowledge (which includes the Science, Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities Citation Indexes) is a complex database offering several tools of great value to the graduate and faculty researcher; one of which -- Journal Citation Reports on the Web -- is linked below. With Citation Indexes, you can search for citations to articles in scholarly and academic journals, find links to full-text articles, and search for articles that cite a particular work or author.

  • Journal Citation Reports (JCR) on the Web - Science and Social Science Editions
    • JCR allows you to gauge the relative importance of a particular journal within a field of inquiry by measuring a number of factors: impact (the frequency with which the average article in a journal has been cited in a particular year), total citation counts ("total cites" - the total number of times that each journal has been cited by all journals included in the database within the current product year), and other factors.


RefWorks is a web-based bibliographic utility. It allows you to store an unlimited number of citations and sort them in a variety of formats. With RefWorks, you can easily import references from other databases and automatically sort and format them in seconds. We have licensed RefWorks so that any student, faculty member or staffer at the UA can register free and create their own web-accessible database. RefWorks is comparable, but not identical, to ProCite and EndNote. If you already own a copy of ProCite or EndNote, you do not need a RefWorks account; however, one of the advantages of RefWorks is that it allows one to access one's personal database from any web-enabled PC or Mac, whereas with ProCite or EndNote, you must use those programs on the computer on which they're loaded.

For a comparison of utilities, see the excellent review of RefWorks, EndNote, EndNote Web and Zotero available from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Last modified: December 9, 2016

The Literature Review - Examples

Examples of Literature Reviews


Last modified: December 22, 2016

The Literature Review - Further Reading

Books on Writing Literature Reviews in the UA Libraries

(click on titles to check location and status)

Online Guides to Writing Literature Reviews


Last modified: August 21, 2017

The Literature Review - Get Help

Get Help

Last modified: September 20, 2017