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How to... carry out a literature review for a dissertation or research paper

Options:     Print Version - How to... carry out a literature review for a dissertation or research paper, part 2 Print view


How to approach the literature review: organization

The author of an undergraduate essay may work from a reading list supplied by the relevant faculty member; the research student needs to cast his or her net far wider, over the whole field of literature relevant to the study. This is clearly a major task and requires organization.

Stages of writing a literature review

There are essentially four main stages of writing a literature review:

  1. Defining the topic area of investigation.
  2. Locating the key literature – this is the literature search.
  3. Analysing the literature.
  4. Structuring and writing the literature review.

The last three items will be dealt with separately; here are a few points on general approach and organization.

General approach and organization

The topic area of investigation may initially be fairly broad; part of the function of the literature review is to refine it to a subject of the right size, and home in on a particular question. Initially it is important to identify the concepts within the overall topic.

Oliver (2004) provides an excellent example here: quality assurance in distance learning in higher education. He points out the need to look at literature on each of the concepts – quality assurance, higher education, and distance learning – as there may be too little literature on three, or even two, concepts together. Indeed, one reason why little literature may be found is that the initial question may be framed too narrowly.

Conversely, if the literature review reveals vast amounts of literature, the initial question needs to be framed more narrowly. (For example, if your topic had been "distance learning in higher education", you would almost certainly end up with a vast amount of citations.)


  • In "Principles of corporate rebranding", Merrilees and Miller (2008) consider not only corporate rebranding, but also corporate branding.
  • In "Relational and economic antecedents of organisational commitment", San Martín (2008) looks at the literature on organizational commitment, relational antecedents and economic antecedents.

Carrying out a literature review should be both serendipitous and systematic.

Serendipitous because the process is rarely linear. Steane (2004) uses the analogy of a river trip with expeditions down tributaries and creeks. Searching a database may throw up a list of citations and the temptation is to look through them methodically. However, you may find that a particular article throws up interesting-looking references, so you are off on a tributary.

Systematic because whether you follow a list of database references, or jump directly to the citations of a particular article, you need a system of keeping records. These should in the first instance be bibliographic (author, date, title of article/chapter, publication, volume and issue number, edition, etc.). However, you should also keep a record of notes on the content; many suggest providing a brief analysis (we will review structures for this in the next section) as opposed to free-style notes.

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