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USP 125: Design of Social Research: The Literature Review

Literature Review: An Overview

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

  • Focuses on a particular question, area of research, theory or issue.
  • Provides an overview of the existing literature on a topic and reflects a critical analysis of this research. 
  • Demonstrates that you've read extensively in your field, have a thorough understanding of that field, and are capable of intelligently critiquing others' work.

The literature review forms the justification for your research. It is the platform upon which you will build your argument, place your research in context, and demonstrate how your research improves the discipline.

Conducting a Literature Review

1. Define a research question.

Your literature review should be guided by a central research question. The research question should be neither too broad nor too narrow.

2. Decide on the scope of your review.

How comprehensive does it need to be? For example, how many years should it cover? 

3. Select the databases you will use to conduct your search.

Your database choices may be partially or completely dependent on the subject you're researching. Start with the databases on this guide, then broaden out to others if necessary.  Ask a Librarian or contact Kelly directly if you need suggestions.

4. Conduct your searches and find your literature.

  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully, rather than reading the complete articles, to determine relevance.
  • Write down the searches you conduct in each database so that you can duplicate them if necessary.
  • Be sure to get all the information you will need to cite each source; also keep track of which database each article was found in.
  • Use the bibliographies and cited references of studies you find to locate additional related studies. 

5. Review the literature. Some guiding questions to keep in mind are:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Does the research seem to be complete? Can you identify potential problems in how the research was conducted?
  • How does the research contribute to your understanding of the issue you are researching?
  • Do various authors come to the same or different conclusions? How are the articles related?
  • What ideas have not been covered? What are areas ripe for future research?

6. Write your paper.

You may want to sort the materials you have read based on their different themes, theoretical foundations, or conclusions. Then, for each article, describe the research that was done and the conclusions of the authors. Discuss how that particular work contributes to the understanding of the subject that you are working on.