Skip to Main Content

Literature reviews

Information providing guidance on starting a literature review, including resources, techniques and approaches to searching the literature and writing the review.

What is a literature review?

A literature review is not a summary of the literature. You need to engage deeply and critically with the literature. Your literature review should show your understanding of the literature related to your research topic and lead to presenting a rationale for your research.

It focuses on:

  • the context of the topic
  • key concepts, ideas, theories and methodologies
  • key researchers, texts and seminal works
  • major issues and debates
  • identifying conflicting evidence
  • the main questions that have been asked around the topic
  • the organisation of knowledge on the topic
  • definitions, particularly those that are contested
  • showing how your research will advance scholarly knowledge (generally referred to as identifying the ‘gap’)

Taking notes for your literature review

An annotated bibliography can be a useful way of taking notes as you read in the literature and think about what you are reading. It allows you to collect both a summary of the key points from different readings, as well as a critical assessment of the literature and comments about how it relates both to your own research and to other literature.

An annotated bibliography has two main sections:

  1. A reference (bibliographic information or citation) in your chosen citation style.
  2. An annotation (description and comments on the source) that summarises or describes the key points or arguments the source makes, how it contributes to the area of research, how it is or might be useful in your own research, and an evaluation of the ideas presented.

Start with a summary or a description of each source, taking notes of the aim, methodologies, main arguments, overall findings and scope and limitations of the study.

Critically analyse the value of the material and the sources you are reviewing.

Writing a reflection for your annotated bibliography includes writing a few sentences explaining why or why not the source is useful or helpful for your research or how it relates to the overall theme of your research. This section of the annotation will be particularly useful when you come to building an argument for your research in your literature review.

Structuring your literature review

Where the literature review fits into your thesis depends on the structure of your thesis. Your thesis might follow one of the three following structures:

  • Traditional - A traditional thesis reports on a single study. Usually, in a traditional thesis, the literature review is a standalone chapter.
  • Traditional complex - A traditional complex thesis reports on more than one study. Within this structure there is usually an overall literature review, and then a smaller literature review associated with each study.
  • Thematic based - A thematic based thesis has its content organised according to themes. Within this structure, there is usually a literature review for each themed chapter.

Remember that in all theses, you will likely also refer to the literature throughout the thesis – for instance in providing a rationale for the study in your introduction, justifying your methodology or linking your discussion back to the literature.

The overall structure of your literature review should follow:

  • Introduction
    • Introduce the problem and the context
    • Summarise key trends, themes, areas of controversy and the gap(s) in the literature
    • Outline the organisation of the body and indicate the scope.
  • Body
    • Highlight the development of major concepts and influential studies.
    • Focus on areas of agreement, modification of design, tensions and inadequacies, narrowing the focus to studies closest to your own
    • More conceptually dense towards the end
    • *Identify the GAP where your research fits*
    • Sum up and link to your research
  • Conclusion
    • Summarises major contributions
    • Points out gaps or issues to be investigated
    • Relates the literature review to your research question or problem

Writing critically and authoritatively

Developing a voice of authority 

An important part of writing a literature review is to construct your identity as a graduate researcher. In other words, when writing your literature review, you need to develop a voice of authority. 

Amongst other things, developing a voice of authority involves learning how to: 

  • develop a clear overall argument 
  • ensure effective organisation and linking of ideas 
  • use academic writing style and grammar 
  • integrate your references within your text accurately and effectively.

Writing critically 

Another central part of developing your researcher identity is writing your literature review critically. Writing critically means that you do not simply summarise or find fault with pieces of literature. It also involves:

  • classifying, 
  • comparing,
  • contrasting, 
  • synthesising and  
  • evaluating the literature. 

In your review, your evaluation of the literature can be significantly enhanced by clearly indicating your stance or position towards the cited sources.

Writing your literature review

Pressbook module cover.

Writing your literature review

This module is part of the Research and Writing Skills for Academic and Graduate Researchers. It describes what a literature review is and its purpose, and outlines the steps in writing, structuring and styling a literature review. It also covers note-taking and employing the technique of an annotated bibliography.

Book cover attribution: "Research and Writing Skills for Academic and Graduate Researchers" by RMIT University Library is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0. Cover design by Dr. Lisa Cianci. Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa (underlayed), All rights reserved. Cover image: Human Skills by Vicons Design from Noun Project.