Here you can find a short guide and a few suggestions for higher degree research candidates on how to get started on a literature review.

What is a literature review?

A literature review is an examination of the research that has been conducted in a particular field of study.

What is the purpose of a literature review?

  • To demonstrate your scholarly ability to identify relevant information and to outline existing knowledge.
  • To identify the ‘gap’ in the research that your work is attempting to address, positioning your work in the context of previous research and creating a space for your work.
  • To evaluate and synthesise the information in line with the concepts that you have set yourself for the research.
  • To produce a rationale or justification for your study.

Getting Started

  • Identify your research question(s). This is essential in helping you direct and frame your reading.
  • Identify and locate appropriate information. Generate some keywords and undertake topic searches.
  • Contact the Library at UNSW and book a Research Consultation with the UNSW library (this can be done online here)
  • Read and critically evaluate the information that you locate. You might start by reading quite broadly on the topic to enrich your understanding of the field. This is useful for refining your topic and establishing the perspective that your research will take. For example, reading broadly may help you identify gaps in the research and enable you to establish how your research builds on the studies already done.

    However, remember that the literature review needs to relate to and explain your research question. Although there may seem to be hundreds of sources of information that appear pertinent, once you have your question you will be able to refine and narrow down the scope of your reading.

  • Take notes of not only the information that you read, but also your thoughts about this information. This will help you draw your ideas together when you start writing. 
  • File and store your readings and notes. Use an effective method that lets you retrieve information quickly and easily. 
  • Plan, organise and write critically about the literature that you have located. You will need to establish which literature is most pertinent to your review and be able to synthesise and critique the relevant materials. Don’t underestimate the planning stage. Having a sense of the overall organisation of your literature review may help expedite the process.

How could I write my literature review?

When writing your literature review, it is important to keep in mind that it will only be completed when your thesis is almost completed, because new research is always being produced and published. At some stage you will have to be satisfied with what you have and leave it at that; however, throughout your thesis you will be continually adding to your review and will probably rewrite it a number of times.

It is invaluable to read the literature reviews in other theses. These will provide possible structural models for your own literature review. The UNSW library has many theses available on-line, so it is easy to locate examples of current theses in your area of research. Check out the UNSW library website for the Australian Digital Thesis program. Another useful strategy is to examine how literature reviews are undertaken in journal articles, although these are generally much shorter.

It is important that your literature review has a logical and coherent structure, and that this structure is clearly apparent to the reader. It is a good idea to let your readers know exactly how the review is organised. Although the suggestions (below) are commonly used in structuring the literature in a review, these methods are by no means the only ways of organising material. Remember that that the way you choose to organise your review will largely depend upon the type of information that you have gathered. Also remember that some literature reviews use a combination of structural approaches.

Possible ways of structuring a literature review

Chronological organisation

The discussion of the research /articles is ordered according to an historical or developmental context.

The 'Classic' studies organisation

A discussion or outline of the major writings regarded as significant in your area of study. (Remember that in nearly all research there are 'benchmark' studies or articles that should be acknowledged).

Topical or thematic organisation

The research is divided into sections representing the categories or conceptual subjects for your topic. The discussion is organised into these categories or subjects.

Inverted pyramid organisation

The literature review begins with a discussion of the related literature from a broad perspective. It then deals with more and more specific or localised studies which focus increasingly on the specific question at hand.

Discussing and evaluating the literature

Critically examine the literature

The literature review needs to critically examine the texts that relate to your research question, rather than to just list what you have located. Therefore, you must link the literature to your research question, demonstrating how it supports or extends the topic or the existing knowledge in the area.

You should also highlight the strengths, weaknesses and omissions of the literature, providing a critique of the research. Hence, the language used in a literature review is often evaluative and demonstrates your perspectives of the literature in relation to your question.

Make your 'voice' clear

Your 'voice', that is, your perspective, position or standpoint, should be clearly identifiable in the literature review, as in the thesis as a whole. However, in the literature review because you are writing about other people's work it is easy for your own 'voice' to be lost. The literature review then reads like a mixture of different tones and arguments.

It is important that, firstly, your theoretical position is clearly and strongly stated and that your critical evaluations are an integral part of this. Secondly, it is important that your language indicates your own or other writers' attitudes to the question or issue. Some ways of using language to do this are outlined in the Text Sample on the next page.


See next: Sample review text

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