how to structure a literature review

how to structure a literature review

How to Structure a Literature Review

1. Introduction

The literature review always comes after the introduction and before the method. An introduction is used to inform the reader that they are about to read an academic paper (and perhaps it will spark their curiosity, prompting them to go on to read the rest). This is a short segment that will clarify to the reader just what this piece is about. Say you were writing a literature review on the ethics of stem cell research, your introduction might detail how a greater understanding of certain issues regarding stem cell research can have far-reaching implications for humanity. In the latter part of your introduction, you should (if possible) detail the scope of your review – mentioning what areas you are covering and perhaps the limits of your paper, i.e. what you will not be discussing. Your body text should consist of a brief background on the topic. Think about what the reader is hoping to learn by reading your review. How can you relate the topic to some aspect of their life? This could be a personal experience or a key issue they are dealing with. After giving details on the background, you will then need to describe and evaluate the state of the art. This is the part of the paper where you can, as you are writing, constantly keep in mind that what you have written is so specific and accurate that it could only be about this one particular article and nothing else. Try to be as concise as possible, using indirect quotes or an alternative way of stating a certain issue. This is because you want to only point out the ideas being discussed, i.e. you are not actually discussing the article. This is also the segment where you may start to learn about the importance of a reference at the precise point of citation (directing the reader to an article from your indirect citation).

2. Defining the Research Question

The research question needs to do a few things. It needs to answer a real question and provide an explanation. It should be answerable and should provide an indication of what evidence needs to be found to provide that answer. It should be clear and specific and will generally be developed around one or more of the six C’s: causation, correlation, context, contingency, complexity, and change. It should also be focused, interesting, and manageable. It’s important to remember that it’s not the same as your dissertation title. Your title may be more general and may not fully explain what it is you hope to explore. The research question should be reflected in the title but should also be in your mind when you present your work to anybody and when you begin to write about it. An easy way to develop your research question is to consider what you need to know and why. Write your answer to this question, then ask ‘why?’ again. Keep going until you have a clear and concise answer.

The research question is one of the most important areas of the dissertation because it’s the foundation on which the rest of your work is built. The research question was considered a simple and clear task. However, with the developing popularity of qualitative research, case studies, evaluations, and mixed methods research, the simple one-sentence measure of what you need to discover has been found too limiting.

3. Conducting a Comprehensive Literature Search

Following this, a comprehensive literature search for information on the selected topic should be conducted. This can be divided into the following steps: finding information on the internet, finding information using online journal websites, and finding information in the library. Step one can be performed using internet search engines, which are of great help when looking for a varied range of information on something complex or specific. However, a common problem with using search engines is the vast amount of information found can lead to an information overload. This can be reduced by using more specific keywords and phrases. If available, an internet search can also be performed on a specific journal website. This will usually provide a range of reviewed articles on the topic. Any articles found can be noted, and if your institute’s library has a subscription to the journal, the article may be obtained from there. If the full article is not available on the internet, the abstract can be used to judge whether the article would contain relevant information. Step three is often the most effective way of finding information. It is useful when a varied range of information is required, and information obtained can be more detail-specific than that found on the internet. Any articles found can be kept for review.

First, the researcher must decide on the topic he/she wishes to research. It is important to have the topic very well defined in one’s mind (or on paper) before undertaking a literature search, as the topic selected will determine the depth in which the researcher will have to search for information. Too narrow a topic might not result in enough information being found, and too broad a topic will result in an enormous amount of information being found, which will be difficult to review. Once the topic has been decided, it is then possible to go on to the next step. This step involves a preliminary literature search to find out what has already been done on the topic and to find out whether there is any scope for further research. This can be done using internet search engines, online journal websites, and library catalogues, all of which are explained on the succeeding pages. At this stage, it is also important to make note of some specific keywords or phrases and related authors. These will be used (and possibly varied) when searching later.

4. Organizing and Summarizing the Literature

Another angle would be to find some published literature reviews on a similar topic and see how they are structured. See if you can use it as a way to complete your research and see if you can improve prior reviews. This may take a lot of time and a literature review, but it is worth it. The last thing you want is to receive the assignment and for the teacher to say, “I really wish you used the method of Z to structure this.” Time and dedication to your method will make sure you get it right.

There are many ways to organize the evaluation of the material in this part, and the structure of your review will depend on the method you use. Many of these will provide a detailed section on structuring a literature review. Discuss special techniques such as conducting a chronological review of the history of research on a topic, organizing material by topic or subtopic, creating a synthesis matrix to help summarize and compare sources, or using the narrative method, which builds a report of the findings of the literature review. These are all good ways to help you focus on the main idea of each section. With each way, you are required to identify and analyze the information or data related to that section and interpret it in a way that structures the literature review around the main idea.

5. Drawing Conclusions and Identifying Gaps

It is important that as one undertakes the review of identifying a research question, one keeps in mind that a question is formulated in order to identify a gap in the knowledge base. Upon identifying a research question one must then be sure one wants to answer the question. In other words, consciously determine if the research question is a good one, and worth pursuing. At this stage of the game it is often useful to try and rephrase the question into a hypothesis. This forces one to get very specific about what exactly it is one is trying to answer. It also gives one a clear statement to look for in trying to answer the question. A good hypothesis is testable, and it should be a testable question that is trying to get at a cause and effect relationship. This is important because experimental and quantitative research methods are shaped around trying to test hypotheses. A hypothesis is not the same as a research question, but it is often phrased in a form of a question. Both are used in qualitative research. Oftentimes in trying to pin down an answer to a research question/hypothesis one will attempt to compare old literature findings to new ones. This comparison is essentially trying to answer the question, and it is an important step in trying to draw some conclusions. One may find an answer, or one may find that there is no answer, or an inconclusive answer. Any of these are still findings! If one is left without an answer or with an inconclusive answer, this in and of itself identifies a gap in the knowledge base. One can then say that there was an attempt to answer the questions, but the data was insufficient. An attempt to test a hypothesis is the best way to identify a research question and try to answer it.

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