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Education Doctoral Program Orientation

What is a literature review?

Many times, research papers in masters-level courses require the student to write a literature review (AKA, the "lit review") at the beginning of the paper. A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes information in a particular subject area within a certain time period. Basically, it describes the work that's already been done and reported on the topic.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

While the main focus of an academic research paper is to support your own argument, the focus of a literature review is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others. The academic research paper also covers a range of sources, but it is usually a select number of sources, because the emphasis is on the argument. Likewise, a literature review can also have an "argument," but it is not as important as covering a number of sources. In short, an academic research paper and a literature review contain some of the same elements. In fact, many academic research papers will contain a literature review section. But it is the aspect of the study (the argument or the sources) that is emphasized that determines what type of document it is.

Why do we write literature reviews?

Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone. For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field. For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper's investigation. Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

Who writes these things, anyway?

Literature reviews are written occasionally in the humanities, but mostly in the sciences and social sciences; in experiment and lab reports, they constitute a section of the paper. Sometimes a literature review is written as a paper in itself.

Excerpt from “Literature Reviews” from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (, 2007.


Research Tips

Tips to keep in mind while you are searching:
  • You'll be explaining the background of your research problem with an eye to giving a comprehensive review of the discussion by scholars of your research problem up to this point in time
  • Look for well known studies that have been cited by others
  • Review the references of each article you find to determine if any of the resources they used might be pertinent to your dissertation as well
  • Search for each article you use in Google Scholar, then click on "Cited by" to see which articles have been written more recently that cite the article you are looking at to see the most up-to-date research on that particular topic
  • If you can't find the full text of the document, put in an Interlibrary Loan request and we'll try to get it for you, don't skip it!
  • Log your searches! Record which database you're using, what search terms and limiters worked, and make notes about the results and where you're going from there in case you need to stop
  • If you need to save an article, copy and paste its permalink/stable URL/persistent link. Don't copy and paste the link in the browser's search bar; it won't work the next time!

Literature Review Resource Handouts

You may find these worksheets helpful as you read through your sources. They can help you identify themes and summarize the salient points of the sources.