Skip to Main Content

Cushing Library is now permanently closed. It was a pleasure serving you!

Literature Review

A guide to planning, researching and writing a literature review.

What Is a Literature Review?

"A literature review is a description of the literature relevant to a particular field or topic. It gives an overview of what has been said, who the key writers are, what are the prevailing theories and hypotheses, what questions are being asked, and what methods and methodologies are appropriate and useful."

- From What is a Literature Review, Emerald Publishing Group

This definition is one of the most succinct and accurate outlines of a literature review that you'll find around. However, it can be a big leap from understanding what a literature review is to knowing how to go about writing one. This tutorial will help you develop those skills. To do so, the tutorial borrows a central metaphor from a short book by Christine B. Feak and John M. Swales:

A literature review is a story

It's not a perfect metaphor, but it's useful for getting into the right frame of mind for creating your literature review.

Let's break this down a bit. What are some of the common characteristics of stories? Two things probably come to mind: 1) A plot with a beginning, middle, and end, and 2) Characters that drive the plot forward.

If we think of a literature review as a story, then

The plot is the research on a topic done over a period of time


the characters are the researchers who engaged in that work.

Okay, but what makes for a good story?

Keep these three elements in mind as we you proceed through this tutorial, as they'll come up repeatedly throughout.

Kinds of Literature Reviews

Before we dive too deeply into the nitty-gritty, it's important to know the various kinds of literature reviews you may encounter or be asked to write. Having a sense of this ahead of time will help guide your research process and, of course, provide a basic structure for you to work with when you're organizing and writing your literature review. Here are a few kinds:

Narrative Literature Review:  A narrative (or "basic") literature review is defined by Machi & McEvoy (2012) as a "written document that develops a case to establish a thesis" that "synthesizes current knowledge pertaining to the research question."  In other words, a basic literature review brings together the "conversation" that has occurred about a specific research area.  It does not present original research of the author.  

Advanced Literature Review:  An advanced literature review combines a basic review with original research.  An advanced review is defined as "a review that uses the work of the basic review to formulate and argue a question for original research" (Machi & McEvoy, 2012).

Systematic Review:  A systematic review is a specialized type of review that is common in the health sciences.  The Cochrane Library states that "a systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specificied eligibility criteria to answer a given research question."

This video provides a useful overview of a few types of literature reviews you'll encounter. It is focused on medical sciences, but its content is applicable to many fields.