How to write a strong literature review

Kozzi-pile-of-books-416 X 312 9 boughtThere are three main reasons for writing a literature review. It is part of:

  1. an assignment that is an assessment in a course you are completing
  2. a thesis or dissertation, or proposal
  3. a review or meta-analytic journal article

For further assistance or queries in writing a literature review email Bill Wrigley.

 What a literature review is and is not

A common difficulty students have in writing a literature review is that their review can be overly descriptive and provides insufficient critical analysis of the theories and concepts, viewpoints, methodologies or research results.

A literature review does not simply describe but essentially evaluates the viewpoints and research on the topic. This evaluation is achieved by demonstrating the importance of the topic, and synthesizing the strengths/advantages or weaknesses/disadvantages with the  theories, concepts, views, methodologies and research results on the topic.

A synthesis identifies the themes, patterns or trends according to the areas of agreement, disagreement or controversy, and the gaps or omissions .

The table below explains the key features that define a high quality literature review.

A literature review is NOT:A literature review is:
1. simply a description of the research results or viewpoints on the topic.a critical analysis, which means analysing the strengths/advantages and weaknesses/disadvantages of the literature on the topic.

a critical analysis of Theories, Concepts, Viewpoints, Methodologies and Research results (TCVMR).

provides a conclusion about the best considered or most convincing in argument or viewpoint, or about which studies make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of the topic (usually toward the end of the literature review).
2. an exhaustive and comprehensive description of all references or studies on the topic.

a review of one or two studies.

a collection of summaries of references.
a review of the key and important references on the topic.
3. a discussion only of the strengths of the various findings on the analysis of the areas of agreement, disagreement and gaps or omissions in the study of the topic.

is aimed to justify the need or importance for the research questions or hypotheses in your (or others') future study or research of the topic.
4. organized according to a list of research studies or researchersa synthesis of the literature, which means grouping and evaluating the themes, trends or patterns in the literature according to the TCVMR into a narrative (telling a story or giving an account).

So, generally the aim is to write paragraphs about the research on the different themes in the literature on the topic, not on a specific study (although a paragraph on a particular study my be necessary if it is an important study that needs some analysis.)
5. an annotated bibliography where each key study on the topic is briefly summarized in a paragraph.a synthesis of multiple studies in one paragraph

a demonstration of the importance, seriousness or problematic nature of the topic (usually at the beginning of the literature review).

 Writing the introduction of the review

The introduction section of your literature review should:

  • demonstrate the importance, seriousness or problematic nature of your research topic
  • identify the contribution of your study, or stance in your review

1.  Demonstrate the importance, significance, seriousness, or problematic nature of the research topic.


There has been a growing interest in …

Many recent studies have examined …

The high prevalence of… has produced widespread concern for…

Growing concern for … has prompted considerable empirical study of…

2.  Identify the contribution(s) of your study or your thesis statement  or stance for your literature review:

For a thesis or dissertation, decide how your research will contribute to the existing research. There are three main ways your study could contribute. It could:

2.1  contribute to an established theory by:

i. testing the theory

ii. elaborating or extending theory

iii. establishing a new theory by (establishing how it relates to or is different from existing theory, why it is needed, its scope, and application.

2.2  address a practical problem, issue or concern, eg a new treatment for diabetes. Establish and demonstrate:

i. why it is important

ii. how your research will address the issue.

2.3  address or fill the gap of a lack of information or understanding about a problem or issue

i.  clarify the gap

ii. demonstrate why improved understanding is important

iii. demonstrate the need for the information or understanding

 Writing the body of the review

The body of the literature review needs to provide a synthesis of your evaluation of the issues and research on the topic.
Synthesize the existing research, arguments and ideas on the topic, which means outlining what others have done and found on the topic according to the themes, patterns, or trends in the issues.
1.  Place the topic in the broader scholarly research field and issues by explaining what is known:

1.1 Explain the chronological development of the topic. Demonstrate a paradigm shift, if there has been one.

1.2 Explain any conceptual and/or theoretical issues  by:

i. defining the key terms, concepts or variables, theories, arguments or views, figures, or characteristics on the topic

ii. identifying where there is general or wide agreement on a definition

iii. identifying where there is no consensus but varied definitions

iv. discussing and resolving ambiguities and discrepancies in the definitions by proposing new definitions or relationships

1.3 Explain the different and most widely used methodologies, techniques or approaches to the problem or issue, eg quantitative, qualitative, retrospective, longitudinal, etc, and their advantages and disadvantages.

1.4 Explain the ongoing debate(s) or controversy(ies) in the topic for the issues, arguments or research findings.

1.5 Identify the most important, classic, seminal or landmark studies, and explain why they are important.

1.6 Identify other systematic reviews, or meta analytic studies on the topic where necessary.

2. Group or cluster the studies into categories of subtopics, subject areas, issues, or approaches, and identify relationships among them:

This means you compare the research and place studies  into groups of themes, trends, or patterns you have identified in the theories, concepts, arguments or views, methodologies, and research results, and  then write about these according to:

2.1 What is known or clear:

i. areas of agreement, authors who make similar conclusions

ii. strengths, benefits, advantages

2.2 What is disputed:

i. areas of controversy, debate and disagreement

ii. weaknesses, shortcomings, disadvantages

2.3 What is not known or unclear:

i. gaps and omissions

ii. under-researched, under-utilized, inconclusive findings

iii. limited or lack of understanding or information

 Below are standard academic phrases for introducing what is known, what is disputed, and what is unknown:

Known, In dispute, UnknownPositionAcademic Phrases
What is known or clear:
the areas of agreement, strengths, main contributions on the topicAgree / ConcurThere is general agreement that …
There is consensus for the proposition that....
Studies show…
Several studies have supported the proposition that...
Recent research has established that…
The majority of/Most studies have investigated….
There is wide agreement that...
There is widespread acceptance of the principle that...
These results are consistent with (similar to)....
Recent studies have found…Recent studies show that…
Recent research has identified…
Whereas previous research had identified…, recent studies have shown that…
EstablishedThe cause for this was established when….
These studies add weight to…These conclusions/results add weight to the argument that….
What is in dispute:
the areas of controversy, debate, disagreementIntroduce a debate or controversyAn area of controversy has been ….
opposing ideas, questions, inconsistencies, problems, or inconclusiveness on the topicSome have argued that… while others contend that…
it has been suggested that.... However, others maintain that..
Inconclusive / incompleteResearch findings to date have been inconclusive in helping to understand…
Evidence is lacking to clearly understand....
There is only limited evidence to support the view that.....
Oppose / Object to /
Take issue with /
Dispute / Disagree /
Do not support
Several authors object to this view because….
Although some argue that…, there are many who disagree with this position.
Some have found that..... However, others have argued that…
Smith (2010) rejects the finding that....
Jones (2010) questions the view that...
This research design seems unsatisfactory for....
The methodological approach of.... is of limited value in....
InconsistentThe view that… is not consistent with the evidence.
This result is inconsistent with the body of research that has shown that…
Nevertheless, new/recent research has shown that…
Diverse opinionsThere are so many diverse opinions that it is difficult to establish
What is not known or unclear:
the gaps or omissions on the topic: what has been under-researched or overlookedUnclearAlthough much of the research shows that… it remains unclear whether…
Overlooked /
neglected to consider /
disregarded /
takes no account of
The research has tended to focus on… rather than..
Although considerable research has investigated…, scarce attention has been paid to…
However, this view takes no account of…
Under-researched /
underestimated /
insufficient /
has been limited to
There has been insufficient/little research on…
…this area of study has been overlooked.
This area has been under-researched..
Suffered from /
requires excessive…
Some studies have suffered from serious methodological shortcomings.
InconclusiveResults to date have been inconclusive.
Confirmation of these results is required.
ConsequencesThere are important/significant consequences for…
There is wide/significant application for…
For the studies critically reviewed, comment on:sample size, type (eg students, managers, patients etc)
location of the study (if relevant)
methodology used
key results

 Writing the conclusion section of the review

The conclusion section of your literature review needs to:

  • draws conclusions about the most convincing arguments, or greatest contributions, and
  • explain the rationale and aims of your study

1.  Summarize the current state of the research in theories, concepts, views, methodologies & major findings, and draw conclusions as to which pieces are:

1.1 best considered or supported in their arguments

1.2 most convincing in their opinions

1.3 make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research


Although there is convincing evidence for… it remains unclear …..

 2.  Explain the rationale or justification for your study

2.1 Explain why further study is needed on the topic by referring to your discussion in your introduction section by highlighting that:

i. theory needs to be tested, extended or replaced with a new theory.

ii. a practical problem, issue or concern needs to be addressed.

iii. a gap, omission, or an under-researched area needs to be addressed

Although considerable research has examined, to date, there are few studies that have considered…..

The findings of this body of research have been inconclusive, and further study is required in order to …..

These studies have been limited in their approach to….To address this limitation, the present study aims to…

Research has tended to focus on… rather than address….

2.2  Explain what and how your study will contribute to, extend, build on, or advance the current body of empirical knowledge

If these results could be confirmed, they would provide important evidence that could assist in…..

This study extends and deepens understanding of…


Boote, D. N. & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6), 3-15.
Randolph, J. J. (2009). A guide to writing the dissertation literature review. Practical Assessment Research & Evaluation, 14(13), 1-13.
Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (1994). Academic writing for graduate students. Ann Arbor MI: U Michigan P.

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