Many of us are nearing the time of the semester for final projects and research proposals. Some of that work involves reviewing research articles, either to inform a planned study or to summarize a body of literature. Although there are plenty of great resources out there, I wanted to share my own top 5 thoughts and tips about what makes for a well-structured literature review.

  1. The original research process makes or break the review: (Yes, you read that numbering correctly.) Although this isn’t part of the top 5, it’s foundational to the whole process. Hopefully your original search for conceptual papers and empirical research articles has been thorough and current. Even if you don’t use everything you find, keep it; you at least have it in your back pocket if you find you should need it. Library databases are great resources, and Google Scholar is even more user-friendly and flexible. Check the reference sections of articles you know you’re citing, and you’re likely to be able to chain references to pull together the entire research landscape on your chosen topic.
  2. A literature review is a persuasive argument: You’re making a case to your audience. You’re demonstrating that you’re familiar with the research that’s been done in a given area to show that you’re a credible researcher. You’re telling a story that the folks you are citing are relevant to your research by incorporating their findings and insights with your own ideas. You’re convincing your readers that your research is built upon, and belongs alongside, the papers you’re citing.
  3. Build themes: Literature reviews are not meant to be chronological, rote lists of facts from previous research strung together. Group things together as they are useful to constructing your argument. Some articles may be cited because they relate to your subject matter or topic; some are good for supporting or explaining a theory or a model; some are significant for their findings or outcomes; and some discuss the use of appropriate research methods.
  4. Use organizational and visualization tools: Get yourself out of word processing mode. Whether you use a spreadsheet, a flow diagram, a chart, or a visual outline, group together the articles you want to use based on their usefulness or their strong points. Visualizations help you see the themes and clusters of ideas from your personal database of articles. You’ll be able to see the progress of your argument as if it were a roadmap and move things around, if needed, to make more sense.
  5. Mix and match your citations: There is no rule that an article can’t be cited as many times as warranted. Let’s say you found a great article that explicates theory well, has relevant findings, and solid methods. Be sure to cite it within all those themes or clusters where it helps to build your case. I use the metaphor of packing a bag for a trip when you have limited space. You have a shirt that looks good enough to wear to dinner or brunch the next morning. Use your options and let articles do double or triple duty.
  6. Think of your review as a funnel: Once you have the building blocks in the form of your themes or clusters, put them in order from the most general to the least general to hone your argument. For instance, let’s say I’m applying a theory to study a user population like graduate students in LIS. First, I’ll want to talk about studies that have used the theory more generally, then touch on how the theory had been applied to other larger or generic user populations (adults, schoolchildren, undergraduates), and then cite specific research about how it had been applied to graduate students, but in other fields like sociology and engineering. As a result, you’re leading your reader down the path to help them see how the whole research landscape narrows down to your specific interest, which, as you can tell from the lack of research, addresses a research gap.

Most importantly, to write a good literature review, I would encourage you to be a good observer and reader of research literature. Find those review section examples that are clear and persuasive, such that they make it easy to follow where they’re going. You’ll notice how good literature reviews guide you through previous research by hitting relevant landmarks and signposts, so you can anticipate where they’re headed. If they hadn’t already introduced it (and they should have), you can see their research question coming based on the course and structure of the review. You’ll also know how they want to study their question based on the themes they’ve funneled down to, which show how their study fits into the specific research gap that they want to address.

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