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How to Write a Literature Review

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Research evaluation tips
How to write write Research Papers in APA Format

Purpose of a Literature Review
There are two approaches to a literature review in psychology. The first approach is to choose an area of research, read all the relevant studies, and come up with some meaningful way to organize the studies. One example of an organizing theme might be a conflict or controversy that you discover in the area; you could first present the studies that support one side, then present the studies that support the other. The other approach to a literature review is to begin by choosing an organizing theme or a point that you want to make, and then to select your studies accordingly. In either case, your literature review will have two purposes: (1) to describe work done on a specific area of research and (2) to evaluate this work. Both the descriptive and evaluative elements are important parts of the review. Do not simply describe past work without evaluating it, and do not just discuss recent theories in an area without describing the work done to test those theories.

How to Evaluate Areas of Research
As the APA Manual (4th ed.) points out, authors of review articles evaluate a body of literature by identifying relations, contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies in the literature and by suggesting the next step needed to solve the research problem (p. 5). For example, you can compare individual studies or lines of research in terms of assumptions about the research question, experimental method, data analysis, and conclusions drawn on the basis of the results.

Literature Reviews vs. Research Reports
Literature reviews discuss work done in a particular area of research. Research reports include a condensed literature review in their Introduction section, but the emphasis in a research report is on the methods and results of one particular study, not a whole area of research. The introductory literature review in a research report is used instead to demonstrate the rationale for the study.

Published literature reviews are usually referred to as review articles. The emphasis in review articles is on interpretation, of how a line of research supports or fails to support one or more theories (see Psychological Bulletin for examples). Review articles are valuable information sources, not only because they cite every important piece of research in the area surveyed, but also because they compare and evaluate all the key theories in a particular area of research.

Steps in Developing a Research Article
There are three main steps:

  • selecting a research topic and collecting articles,
  • reading the articles, and
  • writing the review article.
This process sounds straightforward enough, but a number of obstacles commonly arise. Suitable topics are hard to select and locating articles in the library can be a challenge. After you have collected the 7-12 articles required for the typical short review article, you must read them and understand their implications before you can write the literature review. Each of these steps is discussed in more detail below.


Selecting a topic is the most difficult part of writing a good literature review. Some research topics are much easier to write about than others. By choosing a well-defined area of research and making sure your articles are available, you will make your job a lot easier in the long run.

Start early. "So many topics, so little time." A 10-week quarter is a very short time in which to write a thorough literature review. Start early on selecting your topic and collecting articles (not necessarily in that order) and do not underestimate the time and effort required before any writing can take place.

Choosing a Well-defined Area
Your topic should be narrow, adequately-researched, and of current interest.

  •  Narrow your topic. The topic in a short (12-15 page) review article has to be extremely narrow. Unless you are already knowledgeable in a research area, you usually cannot pre-select a narrow topic. You have to go to the library with a general topic in mind and look at what has been researched. A broad topic such as hypnosis, telepathy, or dreaming has literally thousands of articles on it. Because your job is to thoroughly cover your topic by citing about 12-15 articles, the task of narrowing the topic will take time and effort.
  • Choose an adequately-researched area. Initially choosing an area that is well-defined and well-researched will greatly ease your task. There will be more lines of research to choose from, and theoretical discussions will be specific rather than vague.
  • Choose topics of current interest. You will usually be asked to summarize the current state of affairs in a line of research. So it works best to pick a research topic that is of current interest (about which articles are continuing to be published) rather than a "defunct" area. Browse through recent issues of APA journals to find out what's "hot."
  • Comprehensive coverage. Review articles offer comprehensive coverage of recent research done on a topic. Do not pick a broad topic (e.g., language production in early childhood) and present articles on different aspects of the topic (one on syntax, one on semantics, one on individual differences, etc.), because your coverage of each area will be too superficial. Instead, pick a narrower topic (e.g., production of passive constructions in English-speaking children ages 4-6 years) and discuss and evaluate recent work done. Comprehensiveness and narrowness of topic go hand in hand.
  • Try to write about what you know. Contrary to popular opinion, instructors are usually receptive to students writing on topics they are already familiar with. If you are familiar with the topic, you'll be more efficient at gathering information, and you'll write a paper that is more fun to write and probably more fun to read, too.
  • Library Research Strategies
    It's a good idea to visit the library before you even decide on a topic. You may find several promising topics simply by looking for well-defined lines of research first. Certainly go to the library before finalizing your topic. The right topic may not be the one that sounds most intriguing at the onset. You will not know enough about potential topics to finalize one until you see what research is available in the library.
    • Browse in the appropriate library. Most psychology journals can be found in academic libraries.  Ask the reference librarian.
    • Initially consider several topics. Do not get too attached to any of them before you see what research has been done. Doggedly hanging on to a topic about which practically no research has been published is a recipe for disaster.
    • Look for lines of research. A line of research is a series of studies done by the same individual or related individuals. A line of research is often initiated by a professor working with a graduate student (e.g., Carter & Chen, 1978); the next study may be conducted primarily by the graduate student (e.g., Chen & Carter, 1980); subsequent studies may be done by the graduate-student-turned-professor and her or his students (Chen, Mulino & Young, 1982). Pinpointing closely related, well-defined lines of research facilitates the development of a narrow, well-defined article.
    • Search for helpful articles. Some articles will contribute more than others to your understanding of a topic. Sometimes you can find a pivotal article that can serve as a foundation for your paper. No one characteristic identifies a pivotal article; it may be exceptionally well written, may contain particularly valuable citations, or may clarify relationships between different but related lines of research. It is often best to locate at least one article that you find really helpful before finalizing your topic. One good source of such articles is Current Directions in Psychological Science, published by the American Psychological Society, which has very general, short articles written by people who have published a lot in a given area.
    • Find an old review article. Old review articles that you can update in your review are often very helpful. Reading a review article written 5-10 years ago is an efficient way to understand the area you're researching. Use PsycInfo to see whether authors of articles cited in the early review have continued to do further studies. Alternatively, use the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) to see what recent studies have cited the authors cited in the early review.
    • Make sure the articles are readable. Look at research articles in the topic areas you are considering. That will give you a "hands-on" feel for the articles published in those areas. It's not unusual to find that the articles in some areas will be hard to find or hard to understand once you find them. You won't know until you actually get them.
    On-Line Resesarch
    You can use on-line databases to narrow your search. PsycINFO is the CD-ROM version of the printed volume Psychological Abstracts. MEDLINE is the medical journal equivalent. The Thesaurus of Psychological Terms can help you pick the right subject headings for your search. For more in-depth assistance, you can sign up for a one-on-one "term paper planning session" at the Odegaard reference desk. They can help you with PsycINFO as well as other resources related to your topic.
  • Search on several possible topics. Saving the results to disk or e-mail takes less time than printing them out.
  • Make sure the articles are accessible. Avoid choosing a line of research in which all the articles have been published in journals found only in distant libraries ("distant" could mean Berkeley, Tacoma, or Health Sciences, depending on your mobility and transportation). NEVER assume that you can get articles through Inter-library Loan in time for a quarterly research project.

    Reading research articles is different from other types of reading. It tends to be slow and sometimes frustrating if you are not familiar with the topic and the language of the field. A good understanding of the literature is a necessary prerequisite for a well written review article. And understanding the literature requires you to read, re-read, and mentally digest complex ideas.

    How to Proceed:

    • Read the easier articles first. The difficult, condensed, or poorly written articles will be easier to understand if you read them last.
    • In your initial scan of each article, you want to determine (1) the research question, (2) specific hypotheses, (3) the findings, and (4) how the findings were interpreted. It may help to develop a summary sheet where you list these key points for each article.
    • For the initial scan, do not read the articles straight through. You'll get bogged down in detail. Look just at the abstract (which reveals the research question), the introduction (for the researcher's orientation and hypotheses), the tables/gra phs in the Results (the findings) and the Discussion (the interpretation). It may help to jot down the main conclusion of each article next to the abstract so that you can see the main idea at a glance. This quick summary will also help you build a mental representation of the literature upon which you can base your paper.
    • Next, read for depth. After you have an idea of the main ideas in each article, try to discern the precise methods used and the theories tested. An in-depth understanding is necessary for comparing the work of different researchers.
    A careful reading will reveal subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences in theoretical outlook. For example, you should notice some overlap among articles in the work cited, but how do different authors cite the same work? One author (a supporter of an earlier author's work) may explain the method of the earlier study, delineate its results, and cite it repeatedly; a less enthusiastic author may simply include the earlier study as part of a long list of previous studies. Use such clues to discern differences in experimenter outlook.

    Allow enough time. Before you can write about research, you have to evaluate it. Before you can evaluate it, you have to understand it. Before you can understand it, you have to digest it. Before you can digest, you have to read it, thoroughly. This takes a lot of time.

    Writing the article is the last step in developing a review article. The writing will be much easier if you've devoted sufficient time to the previous steps.

    Number of articles reviewed. Published review articles may cite more than 100 studies: fortunately, most instructors require fewer than 20 (5-10 is typical). But writing a less exhaustive literature review means that student authors must be discriminating in choosing the most representative articles.

    Length. Student papers are typically 8-20 pages, double-spaced. (Longer reviews are hard to write in a 10-week quarter).

    Organization. Remember, you either began your literature review process with some theme or point that you wanted to emphasize, or you discovered some sort of theme as you read your articles. The organization of your paper should highlight that theme. Although no two review articles look exactly the same, they tend to be organized something like this:

    • Research question introduced (what it is, why it is worth examining)
    • Research question narrowed to the studies discussed
    • Statement outlining the organization of the paper (for example, if there is a major controversy in this literature, you might briefly describe it and then say that you will present research supporting one side, then the other. Or if three different methodologies have been used in addressing the question, you might briefly describe them and then say that you will compare the results obtained by the three methods).
    • Studies described in detail
    • Studies compared and evaluated
    • Implications of studies discussed (your judgment of what the studies show and where we go from here)
    It is common (in fact, often better) for the description and evaluation sections to be combined, but if you do combine them, don't forget to perform the evaluation.

    Headings in review articles. Headings are necessary to delineate major sections. They will help you see the organization of you paper and to pinpoint organizational problems. But they're useful only if they are SPECIFIC. Vague article titles and headings are one of the most common weaknesses of student papers. They are also one of the easiest weaknesses to correct.

    How to Proceed:

    • Make yourself comfortable. Give yourself a chance to write well by writing in whatever is an optimal environment for you.
    • When writing the introduction, start off with a research question (e.g., cognitive abilities of infants), progressively narrow it (category formation in infants), and finally state the specific lines of research you will be discussing (eight recent articles on infant discrimination of basic-level categories for concrete objects). You want to establish a brisk but even pace when moving from a broad topic to a specific topic, avoiding the sudden jumps that will lose your reader.
    • After describing each article (or each line of research; see what makes sense), compare them. Making comparisons is essential; descriptions alone are not very illuminating. What do you compare? The possibilities include: research assumptions, research theories tested, hypotheses stated, research designs used, variables selected (independent and dependent), equipment used, instructions given, results obtained, interpretation of results, researcher speculations about future studies. Your job is to determine which factors are relevant, and that kind of understanding requires a thorough reading of each article. Hint: All studies have strengths and weaknesses. Finding them will help you make meaningful comparisons.
    Based on your comparisons, evaluate the work done in the area you are researching; i.e., state its strengths, its weaknesses, what remains to be done. Make sure your assertions are well supported by evidence. Then recommend future studies (make sure you specify how future work would differ from that already done).

    Other Tips:

  • Do not start writing too early. Budget plenty of time for research and reading; budget no more than one-third of your total project time to writing. If you start too early, you will tend either to "freeze" or to write in circles. That's because you do not have enough to say yet.
  • Leave time for breaks. Leave time to step away (you'll have a fresh perspective when you return), to revise, and if possible to give your paper to others to read. You need at least three drafts of a complex paper like a literature review.
  • Use specific language and support your arguments with concrete examples. Avoid vague references such as "this" (e.g., "this illustrates" should be "this experiment illustrates"). Sentences started with "I feel" often signal unsupported statements; these should be revised or deleted.
  • Rely primarily on paraphrases, not direct quotes. In scientific review articles, paraphrasing an author's ideas is more common than using direct quotes. For information on how to document the source of a paraphrase or quote, see the next section, "APA Citation Format" or the APA Manual (4th ed.).
  • Evaluate what you report. The goal of a literature review is to synthesize the research, not just describe it. Many writers are good at writing detailed descriptions but balk at making evaluations of the work of established authors and scientists. Do it anyway. Evaluation requires more thought and entails more risk, but without it, your paper is little more than a book report.

  • Avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism is easy to avoid if you give credit where credit is due. Whenever you cite someone else's ideas or use their language, give the name of the author and the year of publication (see next section). Using old review articles as a starting point for your paper is not plagiarism, as long as you don't present someone else's ideas as your own.

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