to Write a Literature Review
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Purpose of a Literature
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
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.
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
There are three main steps:
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
selecting a research topic and
reading the articles, and
writing the review article.
A TOPIC AND COLLECTING ARTICLES
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
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."
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.
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.
You can use on-line databases
to narrow your search. PsycINFO is the CD-ROM version of the printed volume
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
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.
THE ARTICLES COLLECTED
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:
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.
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.
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 REVIEW ARTICLE
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).
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:
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.
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)
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:
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).
Make yourself comfortable. Give
yourself a chance to write well by writing in whatever is an optimal environment
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
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.
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.