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When doing a research project, dissertation or thesis, it is important that you know how to write an awesome literature review.

What is a literature review?

The literature review forms the basis of your research. It provides theoretical and conceptual underpinning and will often support the research rationale. The literature review is one of the first chapters that your supervisor will read and sets the scene for the data collection and analysis to come.

The literature review is an examination of background knowledge in relation to your research topic. You will need to read widely – textbooks and journal articles are particularly important but you may also use appropriate electronic sources too. For more on how to ensure you undertake effective reading, take a look at my posts ‘Reading Strategies for University Students and ‘Reading Strategies: Skimming and Scanning.

literature review

How do I write an awesome literature review?

In order to get top marks for your research project, dissertation or thesis, your literature review must be strong. There are several things that you can do to ensure that it is awesome.

#1 Define key or new terminology

At the beginning of your literature review, it is a good idea to include definitions of any new or key terms. For an example of how this can be done, visit my post ‘What is Airline Ancillary Revenue Management?’. Don’t use dictionaries, use academic or industry-based definitions from credible sources.

#2 Have a clear conceptual framework

Identify the main concepts that you will be looking at in your literature review. “A conceptual framework explains, either graphically or in narrative form, the main things to be studied – the key factors, constructs or variables – and the presumed relationships among them.” (Miles and Huberman, 1994, p.18).

Your conceptual framework might be based around broad concepts or theories or it could look at areas that are more specific. For example, a student of mine chose to do his aviation management research project on the public acceptance of pilotless aircraft in commercial aviation. To do this, he looked at the broad concepts of perception (the way that passengers view pilotless aircraft) and motivation (whether passengers would buy a ticket for a flight operated by a pilotless aircraft). He was able to apply the general theory in this area to his specific research project. He also looked at the concept of automation in transport, allowing him to assess areas such as military drones, driverless cars and automated trains.

literature review


#3 Critique the sources used

It is important that you use credible sources throughout your literature review. You should also consult a wide range of sources. This might include academic papers, books, websites, Government reports, conference presentations and more.

Alongside reviewing what it said in the literature, you should also pay reference to the source that is used. Is it outdated? Is it from a reliable author? Could the author be biased in any way? Ideally, if it isn’t the most credible source, you don’t use it. But there are times when there is no alternative. If this is the case then you should critically reflect on why the source might not be perfect, justifying why it should be included in your literature review nonetheless.

#4 Develop an analytical and critical argument

Many students fall down because they provide a descriptive account of the issue at hand in their literature review. This is not correct.

You need to produce an analytical and critical argument. Talk about the way that different authors might say different things. Maybe things have changed over time. Maybe some data is more credible than others. And maybe you look at some case-study examples with have contradictory findings. Think critically throughout. This is how you get the most marks for your literature review.

#5 Acknowledge gaps in research

It is likely that you have chosen your research project topic based on the fact that there is little existing research in the area. If there is a gap in knowledge then you should address this.

For example, when examining public acceptance of pilotless aircraft my student found that there were very few studies in this area. There were, however several critical studies on driverless cars. He used this literature to address the wider issue in his literature review and was then able to apply this to his own results to produce a strong discussion chapter.

#6 Keep it relevant

As I explained in my post ‘How to structure a research project’, all of the chapters need to flow and to be integrated. One of the biggest mistakes that you can make is to write the literature review in isolation.

Right from the start, think about what your expected research outcomes and findings are. In order to be able to bring the literature and the findings together in the discussion chapter, there needs to be some correlation between the two.  Therefore, the content of your literature review should inform your data collection (survey or interview script). This will enable you to collect data that marries up with your literature.

I often suggest to students that they keep a copy of the research project title in the header in a bright colour or large font. You will obviously delete this before you submit your work, but it acts as a constant reminder of what the focus of your research should be. This can be a very useful way to help you to stay on topic and prevent you from drifting off….

Presenting your literature review

Your literature review should be a systematic, up-to-date and fully referenced survey of available and relevant information. There is probably a great amount of literature on your topic; you must communicate relevant material from this into a coherent argument. But you should try to summarise points in your own words – paraphrase – and avoid excessive use of quotations.

You should proceed from the general to the specific, starting first with core texts in your subject area and moving from these to specialist subject texts written by experts in the field, and concluding with the most up-to-date information you can find. If appropriate, you may wish to include material such as diagrams of theoretical models or other relevant illustrations that relate to issues that you discuss.

Some things to think about when writing your literature review are:

  • What is the specific question, topic or focus?
  • What kind of material do I need? Theory? Methodology? Policy? Empirical data?
  • Has my search been wide enough to ensure I have identified all relevant material?
  • What type of literature is available (e.g. journals, books, government documents?)
  • Has the search been narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material?
  • Is there a good enough sample of literature for an MSc research project?
  • Have I considered as many alternative points of view as possible?
  • Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate and useful?

Remember that your findings are intended to build on what is already known – you are not expected to research into areas that have never previously been investigated. This means no personal opinions or content that is not backed up by a reference!

So, those are my top 6 tips for writing an awesome literature review. Do you have any other advice/tips? Please leave them below for your fellow students!

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