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How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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See an example

writing literature review youtube

Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).


The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.


If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources


A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility


  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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Writing a Literature Review

  • What is a Literature Review?
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What is a Literature Review

Watch this short tutorial created and presented by San Jose State University, King Library. Know that you can utilize many of the same databases and apply the suggested search strategies using the   A-Z Databases webpage  here at the University Library.

OWLPurdue Vidcasts

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  • Last Updated: Jun 6, 2024 9:36 AM
  • URL: https://csus.libguides.com/litreview

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Writing a Literature Review

Useful guides/tutorials, guides/tutorials.

writing literature review youtube

A search on Google will retrieve numerous guides and tutorials focused on researching and writing literature reviews. Some are general, i.e. not subject nor level-specific while others focus on literature reviews in a specific discipline and/or on a particular level, i.e. undergraduate, or graduate. Below are a few examples:

Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students  (NCSU Libraries) What is a literature review? What purpose does it serve in research? What should you expect when writing one? Find out here.

Writing the Literature Review in Three Parts (YouTube videos):

Part One: Step-by-Step Tutorial for Graduate Students

Part Two: Step-by-Step Tutorial for Graduate Students

Part Three: Outline and Write the Review of Literature

The Literature Review (Massey University) This video lecture explains how to write a Literature Review, and examines which elements are required in one.

Literature Reviews (The Writing Center, U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Explains what literature reviews are and offer insights into the form and construction of literature reviews in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Literature Review Advice This is a short talk about what should be in an academic literature review such as the one you might produce in a final year project. 

  • << Previous: Phase 6: Writing the Literature Review
  • Next: Citation Management >>
  • Last Updated: Dec 5, 2023 2:26 PM
  • Subjects: Education , General
  • Tags: literature_review , literature_review_in_education

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How to Write a Literature Review

Start drafting.

It’s time to start drafting your paper. Follow the structure from your outline and start filling in the missing parts. Get out your notes and remind yourself of the sources you plan to talk about. You don’t have to write your paper from beginning to end in order–you can go to the parts that feel the easiest and start there. Here are some places you can start:

Bullet-Point Draft

With a Bullet-Point draft you take the ideas you’ve been outlining and fill them in with more details but only in bullet-point form. The beauty of bullet points is that they keep you from getting caught up in the language and style and allow you to focus simply on your main points. You can smooth out the sentences and transitions later, but for now, just get your ideas on the page.

Write the Introduction

Another way to get started is to write the Introduction. You already have a thesis statement, so now you can start introducing your topic and its importance, setting up your literature review.

Write a Body Paragraph

Or a third place to start is to jump into writing a body paragraph that synthesizes your sources. Use your notes and outline, and choose one set to talk about in paragraph form.

Don’t think too hard about getting things perfect when you’re drafting–that’s what revision is for. Just focus on getting started. If you get stuck, do some brainstorming activities to get your creative juices flowing. Once you have something written, I suggest seeking feedback to make sure you’re going in the right direction. In fact, I recommend getting as much feedback as possible along the way.

As you create a draft, try to incorporate several sources into each paragraph to be sure that you’re synthesizing and not just summarizing or listing without making connections. Your color-coded notes can help you be sure that you’re synthesizing.

Add Metacommentary

Metacommentary is the key to synthesis. Metacommentary (aka metadiscourse) is a type of commentary that guides your reader and helps them interpret the sources and evidence you’re presenting. Think of it as really powerful transitions.

Transition words act like signposts–they guide your reader through your points. They can also glue your ideas together so they feel more cohesive. Beware that transitions can definitely be overdone, but most students in general could use more transitions in their papers rather than fewer.

You might think you can just stop at transition words, but metacommentary is much more than just sprinkling some “therefores” and “howevers” throughout your paper–metacommentary actually takes your synthesis to the next level. What do you comment on? You can either interpret why a source is important, highlight its significance, or connect it with other sources. This is your chance to point out the answers to the four questions you looked for in your note-taking:

What do researchers agree and disagree about?

How are researchers narrowing or changing their focus to create new information?

What are each study’s limitations and strengths?

What’s the next step in research—what should be studied in the future? (The research gap)

You can think of metacommentary as a sandwich with your name on it. If my student’s name were Alisa, here’s what and Alisa sandwich would look like:


First, Alisa starts with a claim about what’s happening in the field or about a particular subsection or focus of the field. This could serve as a topic sentence for a paragraph, for example.

Second, she sets up the source with guiding language like transitions and references to her past points or sources.

Third, she writes about the source itself and summarizes pertinent information.

Lastly, Alisa comments on the source and/or connects it to her main point or to next source.

This type of sandwich can occur several times in a paragraph as you synthesize your sources. Here’s a sample paragraph from Chris, a Public Health student, who wrote a paper called “The Causes of a Behavioral Pandemic: Screen-time Addiction and Consequent Depression Among Adolescents.” I’ve bolded the metacommentary Chris included to guide his readers and to connect his points.

Even though there have been far fewer studies on adolescents than adults , adolescent studies have consistently shown that those who are more physically active experience less depressive and associated symptoms, as well as a greater overall state of well-being (Kremer, 2014). These studies have also shown that low levels of vigorous exercise in youth can independently cause depressive symptoms. One longitudinal study revealed that over 30% of children who participate in high levels of screen-time use experience moderate to high levels of depressive symptoms (Kremer, 2014). Additionally, another study of children in the United States demonstrated that those who participated on a sports team were less likely to exceed recommended screen-time limits established by the US Department of Health. This study also demonstrated that as the number of total physical activity sessions increased among youth, both during free time and at organized events, children were less likely to exceed recommended screen-time limits (Carlson, 2010). In this study, children who were more physically active consistently showed lower rates of depression and other emotional disorders. Therefore, evidence across multiple studies suggests that participating in screen-time activity may not be the direct cause of depressive symptoms, but rather the sedentary lifestyle and lack physical activity it causes among youth. With this recent evidence, experts are beginning to search for ways to replace screen-time participation of adolescents with physical activities.

Note how the last few sentences of this paragraph consist entirely of metacommentary–points that connect to the bigger picture of Chris’s literature review. Also notice how Chris uses transition words and phrases to glue his points together so it doesn’t come out of the blue when he brings up a new study. Also, Chris discusses more than one study in this paragraph, demonstrating his ability to synthesize and not just summarize. Without the metacommentary, it would be much harder to see the connections between the studies and how they fit into the bigger picture. Finally, Chris indicates the implications of these studies and points to what researchers are doing next . This has a duel purpose of reminding readers why this topic is important as well as indicating where he will go in his next paragraph (about physical activities). Metacommentary is powerful!

Metacommentary takes practice, but you can do it! And it will not only make your points stronger, it will make it easier for your audience to read and understand–which should always be your goal.

If You Get Stuck

Literature reviews can be hard. If you get stuck, I have a little trick I tell my students. For your first draft, try starting every sentence with “Researchers . . .” I know this seems formulaic, but if you can keep your focus on what particular researchers did or what they agree or disagree on, you’ll avoid the most common pitfalls of literature reviews: sounding like a typical argumentative research paper. If your focus is always on what researchers are doing or what they’ve found, then at the very least you’ll stay in the realm of the literature review genre. Later you can go back through and change up your sentence structure, but I’ve found that this is an easy way for students to get through a first draft.

A Word on Verb Tense




Past Tense

A Single Study or Event

McFly (1989) investigated the usefulness of hoverboards in a chase.

Present Tense

Generally Accepted Knowledge of the Field

One of the most promising areas of hoverboard technology is the use of electromagnets (Allain, 2015).

Present Perfect Tense

An Area of Inquiry

The usefulness of skateboards in a chase has been widely researched (McFly, 1985; McFly, 1989; McFly, 1990).

The Real Last Step: Revise (and Revise and Revise)

Fantastic BYU Family Science professor Julie Haupt offers the following suggestions for doing four purposeful revisions–two global and two local.


Level 1: structural review (global).

Purpose: The structural review examines the document as a whole to see if all requirements are met and the document’s organization is sound.

Meet Assignment Requirements. Ask yourself if your paper meets all the requirements of the assignment? Look at your structure and make sure you have all necessary sections such as the following:

  • Introduction (with Thesis Statement and/or Organizing Statement)

Body with Headings


Include a Thesis and an Organizing Statement. Does the current version of the thesis statement match the tone, scope, and organization of the body text? Does an organizing statement after the thesis introduce the major topics and the order they will appear in the body (e.g., “This review will first discuss . . . then . . . and finally . . .)

Use Headings. Is the body text subdivided in a logical way with evidence-based information located in appropriate sections? Are the major sections roughly symmetrical (in terms of length)? Are the headings brief, yet descriptive? If subheadings are used, does the major section contain at least two? Are all levels of headings separated by text?

Level 2 (Global): Paragraph/Logic Review

Purpose: The Paragraph/Logic Review is designed to review each paragraph for cohesion and compliance to the CEC (Claim/Evidence/Commentary) format.

Sequence Paragraphs Effectively. When reading only the first sentence of each paragraph, does the logical pattern of the paper emerge? Do the claims made in these topic sentences coordinate well with the thesis of the paper?

Check Topic Sentences and Cohesion. Does the topic sentence or claim provide an effective overview of the information that is located in the paragraph? Is the claim supported by several points of synthesized evidence, rather than a single study? Does each paragraph seem well directed and cohesive? Do the sentences build one upon another within the paragraph in a logical way?

Evaluate Paragraph Length. Are any paragraphs too long (longer than approximately ½ page)? Are any paragraphs too short (approximately three sentences or less)? Do paragraphs transition well from one to the next and use transitional words to connect ideas?


Level 3 (local): apa formatting review.

Purpose: The APA Formatting Review is designed to make sure all APA conventions are explicitly followed to help the paper reflect a high level of professionalism.

Check Document Formatting. Do the body text and reference page appear in the correct page formatting as required? (Use the APA Manual if you have questions.)

Examine the Reference List Closely. Are all references in the reference list ordered alphabetically? Is the reference list double spaced entirely (with no extra gaps between paragraphs)? Are all references (e.g., journal articles, internet resources, or books) listed in the correct format? Is every reference on the reference list cited at least once in the body and does each in-text citation have a corresponding reference in the reference list?

Make a Final Check of the In-Text Citations. Is all information properly cited with an in-text citation when needed? Do all in-text citations include the year next to the author(s)? When more than one citation is listed within parentheses are they separated by semi-colons and ordered alphabetically by first author’s last name? If included in parentheses, do studies with multiple authors use ampersands (“&” rather than the word “and”) before listing the last author?

Level 4 (Local): Finishing Review

Purpose: The Finishing Review is an opportunity to look closely at sentence construction, language, hedging , and grammar/punctuation.

Review Phrasing with a Read-Aloud Session. Since having to read a sentence twice to get its meaning or “tripping over” phrasing can be an indication of awkward construction, are all sentences easily read aloud? Are any sentences so long that they have become difficult to comprehend, but could be split without changing the meaning?

Use Non-Biased, Non-Absolute Language. Do all references to people comply with the “people first” designation and avoid inappropriate uses of terms for various groups? Are the findings and summary statements in the review properly “ Hedged ”?

Check Punctuation and Grammar. Are all commas, semicolons, colons, hyphens, and other punctuation used correctly throughout the document (including the reference page)? Are common grammar mistakes, such as parallelism, subject-verb agreement, incorrect misuse of pronouns, and other grammatical issues corrected?

*Bonus Video

If you’re still confused or would like more guidance on writing a literature review, here is an optional 25-minute video that thoroughly goes through the entire process of writing a literature review. As an extra bonus, it’s made by Michael Paye from the University of Dublin who has an awesome Irish accent. Enjoy!

Image preview of a YouTube video

Charles, C.C. (2020). How to write a literature review. In C.C. Charles (ed.), Writing in the Social Sciences. Edtech books. https://edtechbooks.org/writing/literature_review_2

Writing and the Sciences: An Anthology Copyright © 2020 by Sara Rufner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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University of Houston Libraries

What is a literature review.

Brought to you by the University of Houston Libraries.

As part of your dissertation, thesis, or research paper, you may be asked to include a “review of the literature” or “literature review.” You may even be asked to write a literature review as a standalone assignment. But what exactly does that mean? To answer that question, let’s first talk about what we mean by “The literature.”

“The literature” refers to a published collection of written knowledge on or related to a particular subject. This may include things like scholarly articles, books, reports, or other types of written works. Their format all depends on the topic of your paper, dissertation, or thesis.

A literature review is not just a summary of these writings; it’s also a critical analysis of the state of research on your chosen topic. A good literature review provides context for your own research. It summarizes the state of existing research on your topic; helps identify gaps in the literature; provides a theoretical foundation for your research; and situates your own work within the existing body of written knowledge. It helps readers and other scholars understand why your research matters. To create a good literature review, you’ll need to determine its scope. Consider the concepts, theories, and studies you’ll want to include. You can search different library and non-library resources to find written works to include in your literature review, focusing on the key concepts, theories, and authors important to your research.

As you research, you’ll eventually reach a point where you start seeing the same articles, books, or other sources showing up again and again in your search results or in the works cited sections of sources you read. This is usually a good sign! It means you’ve likely reached a point where you can stop actively searching for new material and start constructing your review.

You’ll need to read and evaluate all of your sources to determine whether or not to include them in your literature review. When including them, think beyond just summarizing to synthesizing what you’ve learned. How do these sources fit together? Do any contradict one another? Do certain studies build on others? How are they setting a path forward for your own research?

Considering all of these questions will help you create a literature review that situates your own research within the scholarly conversation of your subject area.

Remember that help is always available for you as you work on your literature review. You can contact the UH Libraries for research help or the UH Writing Center for writing help

  • What is a Literature Review transcript

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Literature Reviews, Systematic Reviews & More for Health Sciences

  • Books & Videos on Writing a Literature Review

Lit Reviews & Meta-Analysis

  • Systematic/Scoping Reviews & Tools
  • Finding a Journal to Publish In

This video from North Carolina State University Libraries give an overview of the Literature Review process. (about 9 1/2 minutes)

This video from the University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries is directed at Psychology students, but gives some examples of how to organize & present the results of a literature review. (about 4 minutes)

  • << Previous: Literature Reviews
  • Next: Systematic/Scoping Reviews & Tools >>
  • Last Updated: Jun 18, 2024 4:33 PM
  • URL: https://guides.library.umass.edu/hsreviews

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What Will You Do Differently?

Please help your librarians by filling out this two-minute survey of today's class session..

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Literature reviews take time. here is some general information to know before you start.  .

  •  VIDEO -- This video is a great overview of the entire process.  (2020; North Carolina State University Libraries) --The transcript is included --This is for everyone; ignore the mention of "graduate students" --9.5 minutes, and every second is important  
  • OVERVIEW -- Read this page from Purdue's OWL. It's not long, and gives some tips to fill in what you just learned from the video.  
  • NOT A RESEARCH ARTICLE -- A literature review follows a different style, format, and structure from a research article.  
Reports on the work of others. Reports on original research.
To examine and evaluate previous literature.

To test a hypothesis and/or make an argument.

May include a short literature review to introduce the subject.

Steps to Completing a Literature Review

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Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

Marco pautasso.

1 Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE), CNRS, Montpellier, France

2 Centre for Biodiversity Synthesis and Analysis (CESAB), FRB, Aix-en-Provence, France

Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-increasing output of scientific publications [1] . For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three, eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and biodiversity, respectively [2] . Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to examine in detail every single new paper relevant to their interests [3] . Thus, it is both advantageous and necessary to rely on regular summaries of the recent literature. Although recognition for scientists mainly comes from primary research, timely literature reviews can lead to new synthetic insights and are often widely read [4] . For such summaries to be useful, however, they need to be compiled in a professional way [5] .

When starting from scratch, reviewing the literature can require a titanic amount of work. That is why researchers who have spent their career working on a certain research issue are in a perfect position to review that literature. Some graduate schools are now offering courses in reviewing the literature, given that most research students start their project by producing an overview of what has already been done on their research issue [6] . However, it is likely that most scientists have not thought in detail about how to approach and carry out a literature review.

Reviewing the literature requires the ability to juggle multiple tasks, from finding and evaluating relevant material to synthesising information from various sources, from critical thinking to paraphrasing, evaluating, and citation skills [7] . In this contribution, I share ten simple rules I learned working on about 25 literature reviews as a PhD and postdoctoral student. Ideas and insights also come from discussions with coauthors and colleagues, as well as feedback from reviewers and editors.

Rule 1: Define a Topic and Audience

How to choose which topic to review? There are so many issues in contemporary science that you could spend a lifetime of attending conferences and reading the literature just pondering what to review. On the one hand, if you take several years to choose, several other people may have had the same idea in the meantime. On the other hand, only a well-considered topic is likely to lead to a brilliant literature review [8] . The topic must at least be:

  • interesting to you (ideally, you should have come across a series of recent papers related to your line of work that call for a critical summary),
  • an important aspect of the field (so that many readers will be interested in the review and there will be enough material to write it), and
  • a well-defined issue (otherwise you could potentially include thousands of publications, which would make the review unhelpful).

Ideas for potential reviews may come from papers providing lists of key research questions to be answered [9] , but also from serendipitous moments during desultory reading and discussions. In addition to choosing your topic, you should also select a target audience. In many cases, the topic (e.g., web services in computational biology) will automatically define an audience (e.g., computational biologists), but that same topic may also be of interest to neighbouring fields (e.g., computer science, biology, etc.).

Rule 2: Search and Re-search the Literature

After having chosen your topic and audience, start by checking the literature and downloading relevant papers. Five pieces of advice here:

  • keep track of the search items you use (so that your search can be replicated [10] ),
  • keep a list of papers whose pdfs you cannot access immediately (so as to retrieve them later with alternative strategies),
  • use a paper management system (e.g., Mendeley, Papers, Qiqqa, Sente),
  • define early in the process some criteria for exclusion of irrelevant papers (these criteria can then be described in the review to help define its scope), and
  • do not just look for research papers in the area you wish to review, but also seek previous reviews.

The chances are high that someone will already have published a literature review ( Figure 1 ), if not exactly on the issue you are planning to tackle, at least on a related topic. If there are already a few or several reviews of the literature on your issue, my advice is not to give up, but to carry on with your own literature review,

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The bottom-right situation (many literature reviews but few research papers) is not just a theoretical situation; it applies, for example, to the study of the impacts of climate change on plant diseases, where there appear to be more literature reviews than research studies [33] .

  • discussing in your review the approaches, limitations, and conclusions of past reviews,
  • trying to find a new angle that has not been covered adequately in the previous reviews, and
  • incorporating new material that has inevitably accumulated since their appearance.

When searching the literature for pertinent papers and reviews, the usual rules apply:

  • be thorough,
  • use different keywords and database sources (e.g., DBLP, Google Scholar, ISI Proceedings, JSTOR Search, Medline, Scopus, Web of Science), and
  • look at who has cited past relevant papers and book chapters.

Rule 3: Take Notes While Reading

If you read the papers first, and only afterwards start writing the review, you will need a very good memory to remember who wrote what, and what your impressions and associations were while reading each single paper. My advice is, while reading, to start writing down interesting pieces of information, insights about how to organize the review, and thoughts on what to write. This way, by the time you have read the literature you selected, you will already have a rough draft of the review.

Of course, this draft will still need much rewriting, restructuring, and rethinking to obtain a text with a coherent argument [11] , but you will have avoided the danger posed by staring at a blank document. Be careful when taking notes to use quotation marks if you are provisionally copying verbatim from the literature. It is advisable then to reformulate such quotes with your own words in the final draft. It is important to be careful in noting the references already at this stage, so as to avoid misattributions. Using referencing software from the very beginning of your endeavour will save you time.

Rule 4: Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write

After having taken notes while reading the literature, you will have a rough idea of the amount of material available for the review. This is probably a good time to decide whether to go for a mini- or a full review. Some journals are now favouring the publication of rather short reviews focusing on the last few years, with a limit on the number of words and citations. A mini-review is not necessarily a minor review: it may well attract more attention from busy readers, although it will inevitably simplify some issues and leave out some relevant material due to space limitations. A full review will have the advantage of more freedom to cover in detail the complexities of a particular scientific development, but may then be left in the pile of the very important papers “to be read” by readers with little time to spare for major monographs.

There is probably a continuum between mini- and full reviews. The same point applies to the dichotomy of descriptive vs. integrative reviews. While descriptive reviews focus on the methodology, findings, and interpretation of each reviewed study, integrative reviews attempt to find common ideas and concepts from the reviewed material [12] . A similar distinction exists between narrative and systematic reviews: while narrative reviews are qualitative, systematic reviews attempt to test a hypothesis based on the published evidence, which is gathered using a predefined protocol to reduce bias [13] , [14] . When systematic reviews analyse quantitative results in a quantitative way, they become meta-analyses. The choice between different review types will have to be made on a case-by-case basis, depending not just on the nature of the material found and the preferences of the target journal(s), but also on the time available to write the review and the number of coauthors [15] .

Rule 5: Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest

Whether your plan is to write a mini- or a full review, it is good advice to keep it focused 16 , 17 . Including material just for the sake of it can easily lead to reviews that are trying to do too many things at once. The need to keep a review focused can be problematic for interdisciplinary reviews, where the aim is to bridge the gap between fields [18] . If you are writing a review on, for example, how epidemiological approaches are used in modelling the spread of ideas, you may be inclined to include material from both parent fields, epidemiology and the study of cultural diffusion. This may be necessary to some extent, but in this case a focused review would only deal in detail with those studies at the interface between epidemiology and the spread of ideas.

While focus is an important feature of a successful review, this requirement has to be balanced with the need to make the review relevant to a broad audience. This square may be circled by discussing the wider implications of the reviewed topic for other disciplines.

Rule 6: Be Critical and Consistent

Reviewing the literature is not stamp collecting. A good review does not just summarize the literature, but discusses it critically, identifies methodological problems, and points out research gaps [19] . After having read a review of the literature, a reader should have a rough idea of:

  • the major achievements in the reviewed field,
  • the main areas of debate, and
  • the outstanding research questions.

It is challenging to achieve a successful review on all these fronts. A solution can be to involve a set of complementary coauthors: some people are excellent at mapping what has been achieved, some others are very good at identifying dark clouds on the horizon, and some have instead a knack at predicting where solutions are going to come from. If your journal club has exactly this sort of team, then you should definitely write a review of the literature! In addition to critical thinking, a literature review needs consistency, for example in the choice of passive vs. active voice and present vs. past tense.

Rule 7: Find a Logical Structure

Like a well-baked cake, a good review has a number of telling features: it is worth the reader's time, timely, systematic, well written, focused, and critical. It also needs a good structure. With reviews, the usual subdivision of research papers into introduction, methods, results, and discussion does not work or is rarely used. However, a general introduction of the context and, toward the end, a recapitulation of the main points covered and take-home messages make sense also in the case of reviews. For systematic reviews, there is a trend towards including information about how the literature was searched (database, keywords, time limits) [20] .

How can you organize the flow of the main body of the review so that the reader will be drawn into and guided through it? It is generally helpful to draw a conceptual scheme of the review, e.g., with mind-mapping techniques. Such diagrams can help recognize a logical way to order and link the various sections of a review [21] . This is the case not just at the writing stage, but also for readers if the diagram is included in the review as a figure. A careful selection of diagrams and figures relevant to the reviewed topic can be very helpful to structure the text too [22] .

Rule 8: Make Use of Feedback

Reviews of the literature are normally peer-reviewed in the same way as research papers, and rightly so [23] . As a rule, incorporating feedback from reviewers greatly helps improve a review draft. Having read the review with a fresh mind, reviewers may spot inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and ambiguities that had not been noticed by the writers due to rereading the typescript too many times. It is however advisable to reread the draft one more time before submission, as a last-minute correction of typos, leaps, and muddled sentences may enable the reviewers to focus on providing advice on the content rather than the form.

Feedback is vital to writing a good review, and should be sought from a variety of colleagues, so as to obtain a diversity of views on the draft. This may lead in some cases to conflicting views on the merits of the paper, and on how to improve it, but such a situation is better than the absence of feedback. A diversity of feedback perspectives on a literature review can help identify where the consensus view stands in the landscape of the current scientific understanding of an issue [24] .

Rule 9: Include Your Own Relevant Research, but Be Objective

In many cases, reviewers of the literature will have published studies relevant to the review they are writing. This could create a conflict of interest: how can reviewers report objectively on their own work [25] ? Some scientists may be overly enthusiastic about what they have published, and thus risk giving too much importance to their own findings in the review. However, bias could also occur in the other direction: some scientists may be unduly dismissive of their own achievements, so that they will tend to downplay their contribution (if any) to a field when reviewing it.

In general, a review of the literature should neither be a public relations brochure nor an exercise in competitive self-denial. If a reviewer is up to the job of producing a well-organized and methodical review, which flows well and provides a service to the readership, then it should be possible to be objective in reviewing one's own relevant findings. In reviews written by multiple authors, this may be achieved by assigning the review of the results of a coauthor to different coauthors.

Rule 10: Be Up-to-Date, but Do Not Forget Older Studies

Given the progressive acceleration in the publication of scientific papers, today's reviews of the literature need awareness not just of the overall direction and achievements of a field of inquiry, but also of the latest studies, so as not to become out-of-date before they have been published. Ideally, a literature review should not identify as a major research gap an issue that has just been addressed in a series of papers in press (the same applies, of course, to older, overlooked studies (“sleeping beauties” [26] )). This implies that literature reviewers would do well to keep an eye on electronic lists of papers in press, given that it can take months before these appear in scientific databases. Some reviews declare that they have scanned the literature up to a certain point in time, but given that peer review can be a rather lengthy process, a full search for newly appeared literature at the revision stage may be worthwhile. Assessing the contribution of papers that have just appeared is particularly challenging, because there is little perspective with which to gauge their significance and impact on further research and society.

Inevitably, new papers on the reviewed topic (including independently written literature reviews) will appear from all quarters after the review has been published, so that there may soon be the need for an updated review. But this is the nature of science [27] – [32] . I wish everybody good luck with writing a review of the literature.


Many thanks to M. Barbosa, K. Dehnen-Schmutz, T. Döring, D. Fontaneto, M. Garbelotto, O. Holdenrieder, M. Jeger, D. Lonsdale, A. MacLeod, P. Mills, M. Moslonka-Lefebvre, G. Stancanelli, P. Weisberg, and X. Xu for insights and discussions, and to P. Bourne, T. Matoni, and D. Smith for helpful comments on a previous draft.

Funding Statement

This work was funded by the French Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) through its Centre for Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity data (CESAB), as part of the NETSEED research project. The funders had no role in the preparation of the manuscript.

How to Write a Literature Review

  • Writing a Review of Literature Superb introduction from the University of Wisconsin at Madison
  • Outline for Comprehensive Science Literature Reviews Written by a librarian, so the focus is on efficient searching. From Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship . For further details, see the full document .
  • Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students From North Carolina State University Libraries
  • Tips on Conducting the Literature Review From the Health Sciences Writing Centre at the University of Toronto
  • Literature Review Demystified From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library. Overview of the literature review including its purpose, research strategies, help for keeping track of your work, examples of published lit reviews, and books on graduate-level (and beyond) writing.

Academia Insider

Literature Synthesis: Guide To Synthesise & Write Literature Review

Literature synthesis is a crucial skill for researchers and scholars, allowing them to integrate findings from multiple sources into a coherent analysis. Mastering literature synthesis will enhance your research and writing skills. 

This guide will walk you through the process of synthesising and writing a literature review, providing practical steps and insider tips. Learn how to:

  • organise your sources,
  • identify key themes, and
  • create a cohesive narrative that highlights both agreements and disagreements within the existing literature.

Literature Synthesis vs Literature Review

You may be familiar with literature review, and the term literature synthesis may throw you off a bit. Are they a similar thing, or something different from each other?

If you are still unsure about how literature synthesis is different from literature review, here are a couple of points to think about: 

synthesize literature

Approach To Sources

One difference is the approach to sources. In a literature review, you might describe each source separately, detailing its findings and contributions.

With synthesis, you combine the ideas from multiple sources to highlight relationships and gaps.

One example would be you may find that several studies agree on a particular theme but use different methodologies to reach their conclusions.


A second difference is the organization. Literature reviews typically follow a structured format, summarizing each source in a new paragraph.

In contrast, synthesis requires organising sources around key themes or topics. This might involve using a synthesis matrix to align findings and theories from different sources into a cohesive analysis.

How To Evaluate Literature

Evaluating the literature also differs. When you write a literature review, you summarise and describe the existing research. Synthesis goes further by:

  • critically evaluating the sources,
  • identifying points of agreement and disagreement, and
  • assessing the overall state of knowledge.

You need to address the methodological approaches used and how they relate to your research questions.

In terms of purpose, a literature review provides an overview of what’s known about a topic. It sets the stage for your research by summarising existing knowledge.

Synthesis, meanwhile, aims to create new insights by combining and contrasting different sources. This process helps you identify research gaps and questions that need further investigation.

Writing Process

Finally, the writing process differs. A literature review involves compiling summaries, often following a step-by-step guide.

With synthesis, you need to integrate:

  • theories, and
  • methodologies from various sources.

This involves weaving together different perspectives into a single, cohesive narrative that supports your research aims.

How To Perform Literature Synthesis?

Performing literature synthesis can be daunting, but by breaking it down step by step, you can create a comprehensive and coherent analysis of your topic.

Here’s a guide to help you through the process, with insider details and practical examples that will make your task easier.

Organise Your Sources

First, you need to gather and organise your sources. Start by conducting a thorough search of the existing literature on your topic, using

  • research guides,
  • library databases, and
  • academic journals to find relevant sources.

There are plenty of AI tools that can help with process as well – make sure you check out my guide on best AI tools for literature review.

Record the main points of each source in a summary table. This table should include columns for:

  • the author,
  • publication year,
  • key points,
  • methodologies used, and

By organising your sources in this way, you’ll have a clear overview of the existing literature.

Identify Themes

Once you have your sources organised, it’s time to start synthesising the literature. This means combining the ideas and findings from multiple sources to create a cohesive analysis.

Begin by identifying the key themes that emerge from your sources. These themes will form the basis of your synthesis.

synthesize literature

Suppose you are you’re researching job satisfaction, In this case, you might find recurring themes such as work-life balance, salary, and workplace environment.

Create A Synthesis Matrix

Next, create a synthesis matrix. This tool helps you organize the key points from each source under the identified themes.

Each row in the matrix represents a source, and each column represents a theme.

By filling in the matrix, you can see how different sources relate to each theme. This will help you identify similarities and differences between the sources.

Write Your Literature Synthesis

With your synthesis matrix in hand, you can start writing your literature synthesis.

Begin each paragraph with a clear topic sentence that identifies the theme you’re discussing. Then, weave together the findings from different sources, highlighting points of agreement and disagreement.

One way you may write this include: “While Franz (2008) found that salary is a major factor in job satisfaction, Goldstein (2012) argued that work-life balance plays a more significant role.”

Critically Evaluate Your Sources

Be sure to critically evaluate the sources as you synthesize the literature. This means assessing the methodologies used in each study and considering their impact on the findings.

Let’s say you found that most studies on job satisfaction used qualitative methods , you might question whether the findings would differ if quantitative methods were used. Addressing these methodological differences can help you identify research gaps and areas for further study.

writing literature review youtube

Don’t Just Summarise

As you write your paragraphs, avoid simply summarising each source. Instead, combine the key points from multiple sources to create a more comprehensive analysis.

If we reuse Franz (2008) as example, rather than describing Franz’s study in one paragraph and Goldstein’s study in another, integrate their findings to show how they relate to each other.

This approach will make your synthesis more cohesive and easier to follow.

Address The Broader Context Of The Topic

To create a strong synthesis, you also need to address the broader context of your research. This means considering the theoretical frameworks and empirical evidence that underpin your topic.

If you’re researching job satisfaction, you might discuss how different theories of motivation relate to your findings. By integrating these broader perspectives, you can provide a more comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge.

Keep Questioning Yourself

Throughout the writing process, keep the five key questions in mind:

  • What’s broadly agreed upon within the current research?
  • Where do the disagreements lie?
  • Which theories are central to your research topic?
  • Which contexts have been covered, and which haven’t?
  • What types of research methodologies have been used?

Addressing these questions will help you create a more thorough and insightful synthesis.

Revise & Edit

Finally, revise and edit your work. This means checking for clarity, coherence, and logical flow. Make sure each paragraph has a clear topic sentence and that all sentences within the paragraph relate to that topic.

Remove any unnecessary information and ensure that your synthesis is well-organised and easy to follow.

writing literature review youtube

Your Guide To Synthesise Literature

Performing literature synthesis may seem overwhelming, but by following this step-by-step guide, you can create a comprehensive and cohesive analysis of your topic.

Use tools like summary tables and synthesis matrices to organise your sources, and focus on combining the key points from multiple sources to create a strong synthesis.

With careful planning and critical evaluation, you can produce a literature synthesis that provides valuable insights into your field of study.

writing literature review youtube

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.

Thank you for visiting Academia Insider.

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writing literature review youtube


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