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The Literature Review: 5. Organizing the Literature Review

This guide provides an introduction to the conduct and organization of a literature review

1. Organizing Principles

A literature review is a piece of discursive prose, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another. It should have a single organizing principle:

  • Thematic - organize around a topic or issue
  • Chronological - sections for each vital time period
  • Methodological - focus on the methods used by the researchers/writers

4. Selected Online Resources

2. Structure of the Literature Review

Although your literature review will rely heavily on the sources you read for its information, you should dictate the structure of the review. It is important that the concepts are presented in an order that makes sense of the context of your research project.

There may be clear divisions on the sets of ideas you want to discuss, in which case your structure may be fairly clear. This is an ideal situation. In most cases, there will be several different possible structures for your review.

Similarly to the structure of the research report itself, the literature review consists of:

  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Conclusion

Introduction - profile of the study

  • Define or identify the general topic to provide the context for reviewing the literature
  • Outline why the topic is important
  • Identify overall trends in what has been published about the topic
  • Identify conflicts in theory, methodology, evidence, and conclusions
  • Identify gaps in research and scholarlship
  • Explain the criteria to be used in analysing and comparing the literature
  • Describe the organization of the review (the sequence)
  • If necessary, state why certain literature is or is not included (scope)

Body - summative, comparative, and evaluative discussion of literature reviewed

For a thematic review:

  • organize the review into paragraphs that present themes and identify trends relevant to your topic
  • each paragraph should deal with a different theme - you need to synthesize several of your readings into each paragraph in such a way that there is a clear connection between the sources
  • don't try to list all the materials you have identified in your literature search

Conclusion

From each of the section summaries:

  • summarize the main agreements and disagreements in the literature
  • summarize the general conclusions that have been drawn
  • establish where your own research fits in the context of the existing literature

5. A Final Checklist

  • Have you indicated the purpose of the review?
  • Have you emphasized recent developments?
  • Is there a logic to the way you organized the material?
  • Does the amount of detail included on an issue relate to its importance?
  • Have you been sufficiently critical of design and methodological issues?
  • Have you indicated when results were conflicting or inconclusive and discussed possible reasons?
  • Has your summary of the current literature contributed to the reader's understanding of the problems?

3. Tips on Structure

A common error in literature reviews is for writers to present material from one author, followed by information from another, then another.... The way in which you group authors and link ideas will help avoid this problem. To group authors who draw similar conclusions, you can use linking words such as:

  • also
  • additionally
  • again
  • similarly.

When authors disagree, linking words that indicate contrast will show how you have analysed their work. Words such as:

  • however
  • conversely
  • on the other hand
  • nonetheless

will indicate to your reader how you have analysed the material. At other times, you may want to qualify an author's work (using such words as specifically, usually, or generally) or use an example (thus, namely, to illustrate). In this way you ensure that you are synthesizing the material, not just describing the work already carried out in your field.

Another major problem is that literature reviews are often written as if they stand alone, without links to the rest of the paper. There needs to be a clear relationship between the literature review and the methodology to follow.