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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 6 Print view

Structuring and writing the literature review

Once you have an overview of the literature, you are ready to begin writing. In this section, we shall look at the position of the literature review, how it should be structured, and the style you should use to write it.

Where to place the literature review

A standard (but by no means always universal) way of organizing a thesis is:

  • introduction stating the aims and objectives,
  • literature review,
  • research methods,
  • data analysis,
  • findings and discussion.

Most empirical research articles follow the same pattern.

The literature review chapter is in a pivotal position, after the aims and objectives but before the actual description of the research. The actual research question is likely to come out of the literature review. Sometimes, discussion of the literature takes place over several chapters, for example the methodology chapter might contain some discussion of different research approaches.

The structure of the literature review

There are a number of ways of structuring the discussion of the literature. Steane (2004) recommends a dialectical approach, in which different views and theoretical debates are compared and contrasted. This may work if your area is one where there are strongly divergent views, and you should always show awareness of different perspectives.

Another possible approach is to use the aims and objectives in your introduction, or a pilot study you have done as early research, to provide topics. Type of research may provide another option, for example academic versus practitioner.

As with any piece of writing, make sure that your structure is clear by explaining what you are going to do, and using appropriate headings.


Redmond and Griffiths' review of food handling studies (2003) is an important summary statement of consumer food safety studies over the past four decades. The review analyses studies according to similarities and disparities of consumer knowledge, attitudes, intentions, self-reported practices and actual behaviour. It starts by looking at the studies within their historical context and also covers research methods, study size, country of origin, and year of completion.

The paper is clearly laid out with the structure as described above. Under each of the headings of consumer knowledge, attitudes, self-reported practice and behavioural intentions, findings are reported relating to such issues as hand washing, raw and cooked food, and temperature control. There are numerous tables which allow for comparisons, for example between Europe, North America and Australia and New Zealand, and the conclusions are given as a numbered list (p. 27) so are easy to follow.

It may be carping to suggest that the review would have been even clearer if the middle section, "Results and discussion", had a separate level of heading for the different aspects of the main categories of knowledge, attitudes etc.; as it is the overall structure is not always clear. However, the review still remains a model of its kind, and was cited over 100 times in its year of first publication.

Always make sure you relate your discussion to your own piece of research, and in particular to your own research question, which may well have come about through a gap you have identified in the research.

Writing a literature review

Always use an accepted bibliographical convention for in-text references to citations, for example the Harvard system where the work is only identified by the author's name and the date, with full references at the end, or the Vancouver system, where references are identified by numbers and listed in full at the end.

Check which system is preferred by your department or journal for which you are writing, and make sure you know how to use it consistently. There is a "How to guide" on the (used by Emerald) Harvard referencing system.

Your writing style should be objective, balanced and dispassionate. The word "critical" may lead some to believe that they can be negative. Others, however, and particularly those from cultures which promote deference to the teacher, may feel intimidated by the thought of being critical.


A fairly extreme example of a critical view of the literature is Jones and Noble's "Grounded theory and management research: a lack of integrity?" (2007). While this is not a review of the literature in the traditional sense, the authors do look in some detail at a number of studies that use grounded theory, criticizing them for the way in which they do not adhere to the fundamental tenets of the methodology. They also describe the evolution of Strauss and Corbin's own views of grounded theory and their subsequent disagreements. The style of writing, however, is measured and balanced.

In the following example, the authors comment that whilst attitudes are an important aspect of behaviour, attitudinal questions do not form a large part of the studies being reviewed. However, rather than making this criticism explicit, they state the facts (note in particular the last sentence).


"It has been proposed that attitudes are affected by beliefs and values (47); for the purposes of this review, these psychological constructs are grouped together and referred to collectively as attitudes. Attitudinal questions were included in just over half (53%) of the food safety surveys reviewed. However, a large proportion of these surveys (44%) included only one or two questions relating to attitudes. Such questions usually concerned beliefs about causes of food poisoning, beliefs about favorable providers of information, perceptions of risky foods, beliefs about responsibility, and levels of concern about various aspects of food safety. Very few survey studies actually involved detailed investigations of the role of cognitive elements that may influence important food safety behaviors and specific practices" (Redmond and Griffith, 2003).