8 Writing a Literature Review
The literature review is a common genre in the sciences. You will encounter it in your readings and you will probably be required to write one in your science classes. Certainly if you go on to major in the sciences you will need to be able to write this common type of document. Part of doing science is background research and the literature review demonstrates that you have done that. Literature reviews often are found in the introduction of a larger document, such as a research paper, but also can function as a stand-alone document.
The literature review is not an annotated bibliography. The annotated bibliography simply asks you to summarize each source you read. The literature review goes beyond the annotated bibliography—you should critically analyze each source you read and put the authors into conversation with each other—synthesize the information. The key to your literature review is to organize it around themes, trends, topics, or methods. A good literature review 1) sets up the context: where do each of the articles fit within the broader scholarly conversation; 2) shows your credibility: you are familiar with important ideas and even debates on this topic; 3) and if it is part of a research article: shows what gaps are there in the research that your document will address (Global Communications Center).
If your literature review is not part of a larger document then it should be structured as follows:
- Title page with author and date
- Abstract (optional, check with your instructor)
- Introduction (what is overall topic and your purpose to this document?)
- Conclusion (summarize main ideas, put in context of larger area of study such as discipline, etc.)
Writing tip: you might ask yourself, “What would the author of article A say to the author of article B about the same subject? Does author A add to author B’s research? Does author A critique author B’s research?”
Here are some do’s and don’ts from the Global Communications Center handout.
- Describe overall theme
- Connect multiple studies
- Situate individual authors within a trend
- Summarize research ideas and show which ones are the most important
- Show limitations of previous research or weakness in methods
- Summarize only one text
- Give too many details on one single author
- Fail to connect to overall theme
- Simply present a lot of data without explanation