How to Carry Out a Literature Review

Are you about to carry out your research project and you have been asked to produce a review of relevant literature to that idea of yours? That exactly is a literature review. This is a stage that bothers many students as they begin to wonder how it will be done.

In this article, we have provided a comprehensive guideline on how to carry out a literature review. Without waiting any longer let’s take a look at what literature review is.

What is a literature review?

Literature review has been commonly defined as the search and appraisal of literary works in your chosen area or field. This review aims to check the veracity and quality of all bibliographic references – whether they are journals, books, articles, news, etc. – used to compose the text of research work.

Importance of Literature review

1. To avoid mistakes

Everything that is not checked is subject to error, and with research, it is no different. Have you ever imagined needing to hastily get your work out of circulation or retract yourself publicly for an error that could be avoided with a literature review? Of course, if your book is fiction, there is no commitment to the truth, but in case it has not yet been clear: this step is fundamental for all research works.

2. Search for relevant texts and authors

In addition to avoiding errors, this review allows you to check the quality of the sources and rethink the literary references chosen to support the book and, if applicable, have the chance to see that there are more relevant texts and authors to consider.

Did you forget to quote a super renowned author or discovered a work that brings new light to your theme? This is the moment!

3. Give text credibility

When there are no errors and the references are relevant, of good quality, and fully consistent with the context of the story, the views presented on the subject gain a solid basis and become more respected and even more convincing.

The well-known saying “against facts there are no arguments” is a great and brief explanation of what credibility can do for your work. There is no point in having great writing and a super interesting topic if there are no good references in the book to support it. When it comes to research work, the credibility of the text is a determining factor for success.

Nothing prevents you from creating new theories, suggesting a new look on a subject that has already been widely discussed or raised controversy. You can do all this as long as you are always accompanied by good – and true – references. To do so, remember what literature review is and put it into practice before publishing your book!

How to Carry Out Literature Review

If you have doubts when writing a literature review, you need to know the steps for doing a literature review by following the right steps.

We can summarize the literature review stages in three phases: Planning the Review, Conducting the Review, and Reporting the Review. We will discuss them in detail below.

Planning the Literature Review

The planning phase must be carried out with great care, as any error that happens will impact the other phases, and the review may be compromised. The main way out of this phase is the review protocol.

To carry out the planning, you must follow the following steps:

  • Identify the need for a literature review

For that, you have to reflect and try to answer the following questions: Is the research area developed enough, with enough studies published? Is there already a recent review on the same topic?

  • Define the research questions you intend to answer with the review

This is a critical part of the review; these questions are used to build the strings (keywords) to search for articles in the bibliographic bases. They determine what information will be extracted from the articles analyzed, which we call relevant literature.

Once defined in the planning phase, these issues cannot be changed in the following phases. We recommend that your supervisor for the research who we believe is an expert in this field, review the issues still in the construction phase of the protocol.

Literature reviews previously done in the same area, or similar areas, may help define these issues.

  • Create the review technique

In this phase, the entire step-by-step to carry out the review is defined. The steps must be well defined and followed strictly to reduce the possibility of errors in the review’s execution. All review authors must participate in the elaboration of the protocol.

It is important to simulate the protocol’s execution, which will help find possible errors in each of the steps. During the simulation, research questions can still be changed.

  • Validate the technique

This is a fundamental step that should be carried out with the help of your supervisor. This step is very important since this technique will determine how all research will be conducted.

It is very important you should only proceed to the next phase when you are sure that your technique is ready. Repeat the planning steps as many times as necessary to be sure. Remember that any mistake in planning can compromise your entire research.

Conducting a Literature Review

The conduct of the review must strictly follow the technique that was prepared. Below are the steps for conducting the review.

  • Search for relevant literature

There are three strategies to search for relevant studies; they are:

Manual search: when we visit the websites and/or annals of conferences and journals in search of articles on the researched topic.

Automatic search: when we visit digital libraries to search for articles according to a certain keyword or set of what we call search strings. Examples of digital libraries: Google Scholar, CiteseerX, ResearchGate, Jstor, etc.

Snowballing: It is when we analyze the list of references for the articles in search of new studies.

Search strategies can be used individually or in combination. To ensure your review’s completeness, we advise you to combine the three approaches and use more than one digital library.

It is important to note that the search engine of each digital library works in a specific way. That way, you will have to elaborate on your search strings according to each of the libraries.

  • Select relevant literature

In this step, you must select which studies will be considered in your review. That is, which ones will be analyzed.

Depending on the volume of literature captured in the previous step, we look at the title and abstract of these works to eliminate irrelevant studies. It is common in some research areas that the abstract (or summary) has little or low-quality information. In such cases, it is necessary to read the introduction and conclusion.

After this first filter, the full text of each work should be considered. We apply inclusion and exclusion criteria defined in the technique to obtain the final list of relevant literatures that will be considered in the review.

  • Assess the quality of relevant literature

It is important to assess the quality of relevant literature to support the inclusion/exclusion process and assign a weight to specific studies to be considered in the data synthesis phase.

There is no universal definition of a quality study, but the literature suggests that these studies have little or no bias, and internal and external validities are maximized.

  • Extract information from reviewed literature

We must identify and capture the information from each reviewed work. The approach to be used is to answer each of the research questions with the information contained in these studies.

A data extraction form must be defined and evaluated even in the technique review phase to reduce the bias of its review.

An interesting approach when we have a large number of literatures to review is to have a researcher for data extraction and another to verify the data that have already been extracted.

  • Synthesize the information

Once the data has been extracted, it must be synthesized to answer the research questions. Once this is done, you can proceed to the last stage; the writing part.

  • Writing the Literature Review

Once the questions are answered, the literature review should now be documented. You will write a document about your review, which could be an article, a chapter of your project, etc. In this context, the question arises: how will I know what to write and what sections and subsections should I consider?

The following are the main sections and subsections of a Literature Review:

Introduction: This section is for you to establish the aim and focus of the literature review. In our case of a literature review for a dissertation, you should emphasize the problem of the research, questions, and a summary of the theoretical framework. However, if you are writing a literature review for a stand-alone article, give a background of the topic and the scope of the reviewed texts.

Body: Your literature review must have a body. In this section, you have the various organizations of the reviewed works. There are several ways to arrange and unify your reviewed literature, such as chronological review, thematic review, methodological review, and theoretical review.

It is worthy to note that, although you may have chosen a particular style of organization, let’s say a thematic organization as the overall structure, it doesn’t mean you cannot employ a chronological style to discuss the themes.

Conclusion: Your literature review will also include an inference derived from the reviewed sources, which will serve as a basis for your research.

Things to Note When Reviewing Literature

  • Make use of evidence: like all other academic works, when reviewing literature, back up your opinions with evidence (citation) to show that your point is valid.
  • Be selective: Although it is called a literature review, it doesn’t mean everything in the work will be related to the idea you want to espouse. So be selective in picking ideas related to your work.
  • Reduce usage of quotes: you should avoid over citing a source in literature review, as this can overshadow your analysis of the work being reviewed.
  • Project your voice: Endeavour to make your opinion about the literature being reviewed the main point of the work.
  • Take caution when paraphrasing: When reviewing literature, be conscious of the writer’s idea and context while paraphrasing. 

Final Thought

From the above, it is evident that a review of literature is very important for research; in some cases, the literature review is to be conducted before choosing a topic. We hope the above steps will help you carry out a comprehensive literature review when you are working on your dissertation.