A literature review thoroughly describes work that has already been done on a specific area of research. It does not present new scholarship. Often it is included within a larger research project. Although it varies in size and format, a literature review always requires critical evaluation of sources before accepting them for inclusion.
The first step to writing a good literature review is, of course, to perform a good literature search. Look carefully at the list of indexes and databases that relate to your discipline. Use Boolean operators such as AND and OR. Use truncation symbols, usually an asterisk (*), to return results having all forms of a root term (e.g. parent* to include parents, parenting, parental, etc. into your search). Please see Research Help for additional information. Please also take advantage of the reference services available to you in the Geisel Library. Contact the Reference Desk in person or online at Ask a Librarian.
While your professor will offer specific instructions on preparing a literature review, the library indexes and databases will provide access to appropriate readings as well as examples of literature reviews which have already been accepted for publication. Although these databases are generally considered 'scholarly,' care must still be taken to evaluate content before accepting a title for inclusion in your review. For example, some articles may be from a trade journal, not a scholarly journal. Other titles may not be peer-reviewed.
It is up to you to 1) determine the level of scholarship of each reading; 2) determine whether the reading is a primary or secondary source; and 3) determine whether the content of each reading addresses your research question. The following research aides will assist you in making these decisions.
Types of Articles and their Characteristics (PDF/15KB)
Types of Information Sources (PDF/83KB) – Primary, Secondary, Peer-Reviewed, Refereed
Most literature reviews have the following common characteristics:
- An overview of the subject, which includes a statement of the objectives
- A categorization and discussion of the works being reviewed, such as by methodologies, pro/con, etc.
- A detailed explanation of each work, with emphasis on similarities and differences from other works
- A conclusion which evaluates the works and suggests major implications
To locate examples of published literature reviews in many of the journal article databases, key the following search statement into the find box and view results: "literature review" or "review of the literature" or "review article". (Note: One of these phrases will often be included in the article title or abstract.)
Here are some examples of a sample literature review (citation and abstract only) in Criminal Justice, Psychology, Economics and Literature.
The following guides (from other academic institutions) offer additional information on preparing literature reviews:
How to Write a Literature Review (from the University of California, Santa Cruz)
Information Fluency: The Literature Review (from Washington & Lee University)
Writing a Psychology Literature Review (from the University of Washington)
See also the following books located in the Geisel Library for chapters about conducting literature reviews:
Political Science Research Methods
JA71 .J55 2005
See chapter: "Conducting a Literature Review".
Proposing Empirical Research: A Guide to the Fundamentals
H62 .P316 2005
See chapter: "Writing the Introduction and Literature Review".
Writing Literature Reviews
Ref 61.8 .G34 2006