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How write Literature review for Thesis
how to write a literature review master thesis and how to write literature review and methodology how to write a literature review for a thesis proposal
Writing a Literature
Student Learning Centre
University of Otago
This booklet is an introduction to some of the skills and strategies that will help
you successfully complete your studies at Otago.
Based on an original booklet developed by Dr Carol Bond and Carole Acheson for the Student
Learning Centre at the University of Otago.
Version 1.1 Revised 2016Introduction
Postgraduate students in many disciplines, especially Social Sciences and
Sciences, need to be able to write a literature review. Whether they are writing a
short review as part of an Honours assignment, or a full-length chapter in a PhD
thesis, students consistently find it a struggle to turn the mass of diverse material
found in a literature search into a well-organised critical discussion.
The literature on writing literature reviews is generally useful in three areas:
describing the aims of the review; suggesting how the literature might be
evaluated; and defining common faults in reviews.
When it comes to explaining how to go about actually planning and writing the
review, though, the literature tends to offer little guidance beyond vague advice,
for example, that there should be “some kind of structure to the chapter” (Oliver,
2004, p.109). One guide depressingly takes it for granted that writing a review
will be a messy, long-drawn-out and repetitive process: “Start the first draft of
your review early in your reading. Many more drafts will be required before you
have a coherent and ‘critical’ account” (Bell, 2005, p.111).
In response to all the students who wonder how to plan their literature review, or
who are bogged down in multiple drafts with no end in sight, this study guide
offers a practical, step-by-step approach to working efficiently and producing a
professional result. The steps outlined have been trialed on willing University of
Otago thesis students, and adapted according to their suggestions.
If you would like to offer feedback on this guide, especially good ideas to make
writing a literature review less effort, please feel free to contact the Student
Chapter 1: Functions of the Literature Review
What is a literature review?
A literature review has three key components:
1. A search of the literature available on a given subject area.
2. An evaluation of the literature, including its scope.
3. A well-structured and argued written account of the literature that provides
an overview and critique.
Types of literature review
A literature review could be:
• Part of an extended essay on a specific topic – to show a grasp of the
subject area and provide a context for discussion.
• Part of an assignment intended to teach research skills e.g. as part of a
hypothetical research proposal.
• A stand-alone essay, sometimes using material previously gathered for an
annotated bibliography, to present a structured argument critiquing the
literature on a particular subject.
The nature of the literature review depends on the academic discipline. If in
doubt, please check with your supervisors before starting the review. It is also
useful to look at some theses in your area (available in your department and
online at https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/) to get an overview of what is required.
Typical Arts approach
• Includes a substantial survey of the literature in the thesis proposal, to
demonstrate the need for the research.
• Generally reviews literature throughout the thesis as it becomes relevant to
the topic under discussion. Students will be familiar with this method
from their undergraduate degrees.
Typical Social Science and Science approaches
1. A complete chapter
• A common thesis structure is to have the following chapters: Introduction,
Literature Review, Method, Results, Discussion and Conclusion.
• The Discussion chapter refers frequently to the Literature Review to
consider the relationship between the literature and the research findings.
2. A series of separate reviews
• Each chapter begins with a literature review relating to the focus of the
chapter, so that the thesis is more like a series of essays developing the
3. Systematic reviews
• A systematic review, increasingly common in Health Sciences, is the
subject of the whole thesis. The purpose is to “appraise, summarise, and
communicate the results and implications of otherwise unmanageable
quantities of research” (Green, 2005, p. 270).
• Students undertaking a systematic review will probably be required to use
a specific methodology designed for health professionals, such as that
outlined by the Joanna Briggs Institute for Evidence Based Nursing and
Midwifery, or The Cochrane Collaboration. These methodologies are not
discussed in this study guide.
• The review might include a meta-analysis, a statistical synthesis of
findings. Statistical meta-analyses are not discussed in this study guide.
• The fundamental skills required for a systematic review, described by
Green above as being to “appraise, summarise, and communicate,” are
discussed in the following chapters.
The aims of a literature review for thesis writers, regardless of the type of
review, are outlined in Table 1 on the next page.
Table 1: Aims of the literature review for thesis writers
To show a thorough • Identifies the relevant literature
professional grasp of the • Identifies key ideas, schools of thought,
area debates and problems
• Shows understanding of main theories
in area, and how these are applied
• Evaluates previous research
• Helps avoid unintentional replication
of another study
• Identifies gaps in current knowledge
To justify your research
• Establishes the need for your research
• Helps define focus and boundaries of
To justify your approach • Discusses previous approaches to topic,
placing your study in context
• Explains your choice of theoretical
framework and methodology
To synthesise literature in • Provides a well-structured account that
the appropriate academic follows a logical progression
style • Provides a well-argued account that
supports your research question
• Provides a well-written account,
Table 1 shows that producing a literature review is a complex task requiring a
range of skills, from collecting material to writing a professional discussion of
what you have found.
Subsequent chapters focus on methods of organising your search and the
literature you find, to simplify and speed up the process of planning and writing
Although these chapters necessarily follow a logical order – the search, record-
keeping, making notes, planning the structure etc. - in practice, working
efficiently means that that some or all of these processes are on-going, as this
study guide explains.
Chapter 2: Finding Literature
Information regarding searching strategies, databases and referencing guides can
be found on the University Library website:
You may also wish to explore the information directly relating to your particular
subject area by accessing the relevant subject guide:
You could also ask your Subject Librarian for guidance. Go to the subject guides
on the library website (http://otago.libguides.com) and then click on the link to
your subject; you will see contact details for your Subject Librarian here:
Chapter 3: Keeping a Record and Evaluating the Literature
Recording full bibliographical details
For those writing an extended review, keeping a well-organised and full
bibliographical record is essential so that you can keep track of sources found,
whether or not you eventually include them. Much time can be wasted following
up the same promising source twice because inadequate or inconsistent details
were kept the first time. Problems often arise, for example, when deciding how
to reference sources like websites.
When you decide on the sources to be included in your literature review, you will
of course need their full bibliographical details for your bibliography or reference
list, as well as citations in your text.
It is now common for those writing a thesis to learn to use a bibliographic
software system like Endnote or Zotero to manage their references. Not only can
references often be copied electronically from databases or ‘scraped’ from the
Web, but lists of sources and in-text citations can be generated in the required
referencing style. Training in Endnote is readily available from university
Skim through the material you find to see whether the source is relevant before
you read it in detail, or print it out. Table 2 shows the key areas to check quickly.
Table 2. A guide to previewing sources
Abstract A summary available on electronic databases and
at the head of articles in most disciplines. A good
starting point, but sometimes too compressed to be
Preface and/or Should explain the author’s topic and argument. Gives
Headings and Can be a useful guide to the structure and content.
Topic/argument Read through the first sentence of each paragraph for a
sentences quick summary of the content.
This section in many science articles examines the
author’s findings in the context of previous research.
Conclusion Usually sums up the writer’s argument and comments
on its significance.
Keeping up with the reading
• It is never too soon to start reading. Don’t wait, for example, until you
have final ethical approval for your research.
• Don’t limit your reading to fixed study times, when it’s easy to lose
concentration after an hour or two; it’s useful to keep some material on
hand to read as a break from looking at a computer screen, or to make the
most of gaps during the day.
Managing hard copy
A cautionary note
It might seem efficient to print out relevant electronic articles as you find them,
but you will end up with a great deal of paper, often for the sake of a brief
reference in your review (see Chapter 4 on making notes).
Unread printed material also has a way of building up alarmingly, whereas the
process of previewing and evaluation should be on-going, so that you come to
each new source with increased knowledge of the field.
• Restrict collecting full articles for important items that you think you will
want to refer to frequently as you research and/or write.
• For minor references make notes or print out one or two key pages
(remembering to add full bibliographic details).
• If you obtain items on interloan it is helpful to keep a copy of key pages.
The library will advise about restrictions on the amount you are legally
permitted to copy.
Organising hard copy
The more material you collect, the more important it is to organise it efficiently.
The simplest method is to print the author and year on the top right and store
alphabetically in a ring binder.
Building your own database
It is extremely useful to build your own database from the start of your search so
that you keep a running record of key aspects of the material you find (see Table
3). (See also Chapter 4, Evaluation and Note-taking).
An adequate database can be constructed using the Table function in Word, as in
Table 3, or in Excel. Bibliographic software systems offer the facility to organise
a large database very quickly in conjunction with the bibliography/reference list.
These can obviously be decided and arranged to suit your thesis e.g. it might be
useful to have a separate date of publication column to arrange entries in
chronological order if you wanted to obtain a historical overview of how research
has developed in your area.
The headings used in Table 3, apart from the obvious Author and Title, serve the
Titles can be misleading, and it is useful to have a brief record of exactly what
the item focuses on. If the material is irrelevant, make a note of why, but there is
no need for further evaluation.
Defining the item’s argument/conclusion is an important part of your evaluation.
Assessing relevance to your topic.
Assessing the strengths/weaknesses and overall significance of the item.
Evaluation is discussed more fully in Chapter 4.
Table 3. Example of a basic database
Topic: Academic skills training for adults returning to university for postgraduate
professional development (PD).
Chapter 4: Evaluating the Literature and Making Notes
It is very easy to waste time by reading all sources with equal care, and making
detailed notes that will never be used in the review.
• How relevant and significant is the source?
• How much space (if any) will it warrant in your review?
These criteria determine how detailed or extensive should your notes be.
A simple scale, as in Table 4, is a useful tool for assessing the relevance of the
sources you find.
See Table 3 for examples of comments accompanying evaluation.
Table 4. Evaluation for relevance
• Directly relevant to the topic.
• Key work frequently cited.
• Established basis for future research.
• Will need adequate notes (in database or separately) for
discussion in review.
• Needs to be included, but probably brief reference.
• Useful for background material.
• Similar to other studies – can include in grouped references.
• Brief notes in database with page refs for quick check on
original if required.
• Somewhat peripheral – might be worth including.
• Potential relevance, depending on research findings.
• Unlikely to need more information than database notes.
• Useful to have record in case later research findings mean
material now definitely relevant
• Promising title or abstract, but content too distant from your
Dating the assessment is useful, especially for thesis writers, because you might
change your mind about relevance later, for example:
• You realise that an aspect of the topic you had not considered before
should now be included.
• You discover as you read more widely that a source was a significant
influence on other essential sources, and this must be discussed e.g.
Cervero (2000) in Table 3.
• The focus of your argument changes in the light of your research findings,
so that what originally seemed less relevant material becomes more
Dated notes leave a clear record of when and why your thinking changed. When
research takes several years, as it does for a PhD, it is very easy to forget why
you made certain decisions. Revisiting an efficient record can save time on
further literature searches with a slightly different focus.
2. Strengths and weaknesses
Remember you are writing a literature review: you are expected to assess the
quality of the material you include and comment where appropriate.
Undergraduate and Honours students are often set assignments requiring them
to critique some literature, perhaps in considerable detail, and guidance is
generally given about how to do that.
• The approach to a critique varies between disciplines, and it is important
for you to be clear about what is required in your discipline before you
• A typical history critique, for example, would consider an author’s
interpretation of historical evidence, and how well the conclusions are
• A typical social science or science critique would consider whether the
chosen method or theoretical basis is appropriate, whether the limitations
of the study are discussed, and whether the conclusions are valid.
Research students sometimes find it difficult to evaluate the literature on a
larger scale, where they need to consider not only individual items but the way
the literature has developed e.g. which aspects of the subject are well-established,
which are open to question and why, and which have not been considered
adequately, if at all.
It is helpful to consider:
• Other people’s literature reviews in the literature you read. What do they
think about sources you have read? Do you agree?
• How different approaches, groupings, themes etc. are building up on your
database, and where there seem to be gaps. Using the database to identify
these aspects of your review is discussed in Chapter Five.
As you read more widely, and develop expertise in the area you are reviewing, it
becomes easier to draw conclusions about the literature in this area as a whole.
Making notes and the conventions of literature reviews
If you look at the literature review in an article, book or thesis you will see that:
• very few sources are described using more than a paragraph
• often a source is described and discussed in only one or two sentences
• it is common for several sources to be grouped together to support a point
without there being any additional information about each one.
These conventions allow the writer to cover a good deal of ground very
concisely. Making extensive notes, even on sources you think are very
important, may therefore be inefficient. Consider the management of sources in
the following excerpts from an article by Nowaczek and Smale (2010) on
ecotourism called “Exploring the predisposition of travellers to qualify as
Example 1: Introductory survey
Studies of ecotourists typically have identified them based on the destinations they go
to (e.g. National Parks), the behaviours in which they engage (e.g. wildlife
viewing), the tours that they take (e.g. safaris), or in a few cases, self-identification
by the travellers themselves (Ballantine & Eagles, 1994; Fennell, 1999; Saleh &
Karwacki, 1996; Wight, 1996, 2001). On very few occasions and only recently,
studies have begun to identify ecotourists based on their psycho-social personal
makeup (Lemelin & Smale, 2007) of more stable and deeply ingrained character
traits responsible for directing visitor motivations and behaviours (Ajzen, 1991;
Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Lewis & Haviland-Jones, 2000)…. However, the way
in which ecotourists have been typically identified in the bulk of the literature is
limited by relying too heavily on superficial markers of behaviour, destination, and/or
circumstance (Nowaczek & Smale, 2010, pp. 45- 46).
• The opening sentences of this article provide background and context by
giving a short survey of how ecotourists are ‘typically’ defined in the
literature, with the only detail given being brief examples, like their
destinations (‘e.g. National Parks’).
• In just over 8 lines, the authors have cited 9 references. As everyone who
has conducted a literature search knows, these citations are likely to be a
modest proportion of the amount of literature found, checked for
relevance, read and evaluated.
• References supporting the same point have been grouped together instead
of being discussed individually.
• The authors of this article needed to give only a very small amount of key
information from each source to provide a basis for the final sentence,
which argues that previous definitions are inadequate.
• Considering the space finally given to each source, if the authors had made
pages of notes on every one, they would have wasted a good deal of time.
What they needed for this paragraph was an overview of definitions of
ecotourists to provide the context for their own research and discussion.
Example 2: Narrowing the focus
In many early typologies, ecotourists were classified on the basis of setting, activity-
based experiences, and group dynamics (Fennell, 1999). Laarman and Durst’s
(1987) study divided ecotourists along a continuum that measured the level of
interest in natural history from dedicated to casual, and the level of physical rigour
associated with the experience from difficult to easy. In another example, Kusler
(1991) used their activities, settings, and group dynamics to typify ecotourists as do-
it-yourself ecotourists, ecotourists on tours, school groups, and scientific groups.
(Nowaczek & Smale, 2010, p. 47).
In Example 2, the authors go into more detail about typologies of ecotourists.
• Some detail is given about each of these sources to illustrate the nature of
early typologies, but even so, the three examples above are discussed in
only one sentence each.
Example 3: Justifying the need for future research
Juric, Cornwell, and Mather (2002) developed an Ecotourism Interest Scale with a
focus on visitors’ activity interests. Although exploratory in nature, the scale is
used to identify tourists’ desire for eco-friendly activities (i.e. a measure of
ecotourism interest) and to predict their participation in selected tourist activities. By
segmenting tourists based on their level of interest, different travel products could be
created based on the level of interest they reported; as such, Juric, Cornwell, and
Mather’s scale is product-oriented and potentially reflects a view of, and orientation
towards, ecotourism as a form of mass tourism (Weaver, 2001b) or simply a business
opportunity (McKercher, 2001). (Nowaczek & Smale, 2010, p. 48).
In Example 3, the authors devote a paragraph to discussing one source.
• It is clearly important for them to critique Juric, Cornwell and Mather’s
(2002) ecotourist scale before going on to describe their own scale, which
they argue resolves the issues they have raised in their literature review.
• Even this focus on one source shows a very limited need for note-taking.
Before making notes, stop and think:
How much space (if any) will this source warrant in my review?
Alternatives to traditional note-taking
As you will often need only very brief notes, consider these alternatives:
• Use the database alone for brief comments about
subject/argument/relevance (see Table 3).
• Note in the database when you have additional information stored, to refer
to when you write about that source.
• With hard copy, highlight material you want to use and note points in a
few words on a sticky marker, used to mark the page. This is a quick way
of retrieving larger chunks of information.
Using a skeleton plan
Drawing up a skeleton plan of your review at an early stage can reduce note-
making and sort material efficiently (see Table 5).
Use the headings in the plan to:
• Put notes directly into the appropriate section, so that your material is
sorted thematically as you go.
Use different coloured highlighting as a quick sorting tool e.g.,
• Background/context material in the database - green
• Green page stickers can mark relevant sections in hard copy, so you can
quickly retrieve all the material for that area.
Chapter 5: Structuring an Outline of the Review as you
Many students do not think about planning and organising their literature review
until they have finished their research. This approach creates the horrific task of
eventually confronting a large amount of very mixed material, and trying to turn
it into a concise and well-structured piece of writing.
A far more efficient and less nerve-wracking alternative is to plan the structure of
your review as far as you can right at the beginning of your research, and extend
the plan as you work. This process is described below, with an example in Table
The skeleton plan
The ideas you have and the key words defined before starting a literature search
provide a useful skeleton structure for organising the material you find.
• Before starting the search, list likely headings and subheadings in a logical
order. This will be your master list.
• Copy the list into another document that will be a working draft of the
Expanding the plan
• Add notes and references under appropriate headings so that material is
sorted as you research.
• Update the master list regularly as you change or sub-divide headings.
Maintaining this overview of the structure keeps the structure under
control and is also a good way to see the emergence of themes.
• Because material is being placed under the appropriate headings of the
working draft, it is much easier to grasp and synthesise what the literature
says about any specific area, and the topic as a whole.
• It is also much easier to critique the literature in each section, that is,
consider how well the literature deals with each specific area, and with the
topic as a whole.
• Without this overview, your literature review runs a greater risk of
consisting of a collection of comments about individual sources, rather
than integrating the material into well-argued critical analysis and
Typical questions to ask about each section and of the literature as a whole are:
• Is there a clear line of development, or does the research branch off in
• Is there conflicting evidence? What do you think about that?
• Are there gaps in the literature? Why?
• If you are writing a thesis, how does your research contribute to the area?
Your conclusions will form the basis of the introduction to your review, and the
introduction to each section.
Table 5. Example of developing a literature review plan for a thesis
Topic: Post-discharge coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery: Self-
reported outcomes (Caldwell, 2011).
Stage 1: Listing and sorting Skeleton plan e.g.
• List key words for literature CABG surgery
search 1. Definition
• List areas you think will need 2. Why common
to be included 3. Early discharge trends
• Sort headings into logical 4. Problems with recovery at home
order Development of hospital telephone
1. Use of phone call after discharge
for patient support
2. Patient feed-back:
- physical recovery (pain etc.)
- psychological recovery
Stage 2: Sorting material Expanding plan e.g.
• Develop more headings and
subheadings as required • Timing – how long after
discharge patients phoned (NB
• Add in brief notes and
references under appropriate varied timing affects comparison
• Note issues/themes emerging • Frequency of calls – patient
• Problems contacting patients
• Recording patient feedback
Stage 3: Analysis
• Develop overview, argument List in best order:
& discussion for each section • Each heading &
and then for whole review overview/argument/discussion
• Points to be made under headings
& supporting references grouped
The writing plan
It is well worth taking some time to refine the final writing plan, because it is
much easier to do this than spend many hours cutting and pasting to change the
order, only to find that some rewriting is necessary to avoid awkward
Some general planning principles:
• Move from the broad (e.g. background material, general surveys) to the
particular (e.g. sources discussed in detail, case studies).This progression is
demonstrated in Examples 1-3 in Chapter 4.
• Move from earlier to later material so that there is a clear sense of
development in any specific area.
• There is sometimes conflict between these two principles: decide what will
be clearest for the reader.
• Usually only one or two paragraphs, unless (depending on the size and
nature of the literature review) the introduction also includes substantial
• In an extended literature review there is usually some explanation of the
focus and boundaries of the literature search.
• Offers a concise synthesis, or overview, of the literature, summing up
what you have found and commenting on the conclusions reached
(argument/discussion). In the introduction quoted in Example 4, overview
comments have been put in bold.
Example 4: Introductory paragraph
Much of the current literature agrees that plagiarism is an increasing issue in
higher education (Brimble & Stevenson-Clarke, 2005; Dawson & Overfield, 2006;
Pittam et al., 2009; Youmans, 2011), and this is commonly attributed to the
increasingly diverse student population as a consequence of the massification of higher
education (Dawson & Overfield, 2006). Because much of the data collected on the
prevalence of plagiarism is student self- reported, there is no clear agreement as to
how frequently plagiarism actually occurs. Despite this… undergraduate students
are reportedly more likely to plagiarise than postgraduate students (Franklyn-
Stokes & Newstead, 1995; Johnson & Clerehan, 2005; Perry, 2010; Power, 2009)…
(Adam, 2011, p. 2).
• Sections and sub-sections are arranged logically.
• Each new section has a brief critical overview of the literature.
• Sources are cited to support a point, not merely listed or described without
comment. Much of a literature review is factual, but it should be framed
• Avoid repetition and verbosity by grouping sources that have similar
Conclusion or summary:
• Concluding paragraph reiterates overall assessment of the literature.
• In a thesis, should discuss the gap or shortcomings in research that the
thesis is intended to satisfy.