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How to Write a Proper Literature Review

A literature review is a genre closely associated with scientific research and is often part of a research paper. One can even say that a literature review tends to be a part of a research paper or project. Such review is usually one of the initial (introducing) sections in a research paper where the authors characterize the sources on which they rely on in their work. Literature review as a genre is an illustration of the common statement that “researchers stand on the shoulders of their predecessors”.

Indeed science is successive, especially modern science. In order to make a step forward, researchers need to assimilate all that has been achieved before in their respective areas. And it is only on the completion of this assimilation, that a next step can be made. Such is the algorithm of modern science, except for very rare major discoveries. Such discoveries are more independent and they usually challenge or even disprove the previous concepts instead of following them.

Characteristic of the genre

A literature review differs from a book review or an annotated bibliography. The latter case comprises brief summaries of each source. The author says that “Book … by … edited by … has been published by … The author tackles the problem of … etc.” In the former case, that is, in a literature review,  the author says that “The problem of … has been investigated by Author A and Author B. Author A in his work on … focuses on … Author B’s contribution consists in …”. In other words, a literature review emphasizes a topic and its aspects rather than on particular source.

Literature reviews are clearly divided into two types (as was briefly mentioned above). One type includes literature reviews as stand-alone papers, and the other one – reviews as parts of research studies in which they represent a theoretical framework. Reviews of the first group are usually published in academic journals and are considered as very useful research guidelines. As regards reviews serving as constituent parts of research works, they are practically indispensable in such papers as theses and dissertations.

Stages in the preparation of a literature review

As to the writing algorithm of a literature review, some of its elements are largely determined by the fact that, unlike other review types, such a review represents a kind of “source of sources”.

As a first step, it is usually recommended to review the standards of the APA style. The choice of the first step is due to the fact that literature reviews, as mentioned above, are usually closely related to scientific research. In this context, getting better acquainted with the most important modern source of academic style guidance (unless the author already masters its rules) looks quite logical.

As a next step, the author should decide on the review topic, which is certainly one of the steps not specifically related to the genre, but one common for any written work. The topic may be determined either by the author’s personal research preferences or by the objectives of a larger project or both.

The third step is clearly connected with the peculiarities of the genre. It comprises identifying relevant databases for the author’s field of study (or for the objectives of a common project). Among recommended search engines are both general ones (like Google Scholar), and less open ones depending on personal membership, like, for example, Furl.

The author should get acquainted with the most important online databases like UDM  and make use of such reference importation sites as RefWorks. On the whole, like any major undertaking aimed at the creation of a big overview of sources, the writing of a literature review involves intensive searching efforts as an essential element of the entire job.

Next comes the analysis of the gathered literature. The process is aimed at the creation of a coherent text logically divided by topics and subtopics of the available sources. Here the authors should naturally begin with an overview of the sources, then pass to the stage of grouping when they divide the sources into logical groups and subgroups. Inside the groups and subgroups, a chronological order is established.

Recommendations on the above steps like those on the next ones are definitely not genre-dependent. That is, they may well be applied to any written job (at least, in the research realm).

As the next steps in compiling a literature review, the guides usually suggest such common procedures as choosing the appropriate format, the organization of the terminology and quotations including foot and end notes, and identifying the review’s strengths and weaknesses.

In the process, the authors should identify the existing gaps in the available literature of the subject, and the relationship between different sources. Also is recommended to make sure that the review keeps focused on the selected topic and evaluate the references by coverage and currency. Technically, it may help if the author summarizes the sources in a table or concept map.

And, as one of the final steps, it is recommended to streamline the draft of your review prior to writing the final version. The process includes organization of the text towards a logical and smooth delivery of the collected sources with a proper emphasis on the main ideas.

This point too as well as the following procedures of the writing itself and necessary revision of the paper are quite standard and don’t reflect any particular flavor of the genre of literature review (although they are certainly necessary and helpful).

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