How to write literature review for Thesis pdf

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
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Writing a Literature Review Student Learning Centre University of OtagoChapter 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 1. Coursework 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. 2. Theses 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 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 thesis topic. • 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 your research 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, meticulously referenced. 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 your review. 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 ( 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 librarians. Previewing sources 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 really helpful. Preface and/or Should explain the author’s topic and argument. Gives Introduction context. Headings and Can be a useful guide to the structure and content. Subheadings 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 Discussion 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. Headings 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 following purpose: 1. Subject 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. 2. Argument Defining the item’s argument/conclusion is an important part of your evaluation. 3. 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 Working efficiently 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. Always consider: • 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. Evaluating sources 1. Relevance 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 Important e.g. • Directly relevant to the topic. • Key work frequently cited. 1 • Established basis for future research. • Will need adequate notes (in database or separately) for discussion in review. Relevant e.g. • Needs to be included, but probably brief reference. • Useful for background material. 2 • Similar to other studies – can include in grouped references. • Brief notes in database with page refs for quick check on original if required. Borderline e.g. • Somewhat peripheral – might be worth including. • Potential relevance, depending on research findings. 3 • Unlikely to need more information than database notes. • Useful to have record in case later research findings mean material now definitely relevant Irrelevant e.g. • Promising title or abstract, but content too distant from your 4 topic. 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 important. 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 start. • A typical history critique, for example, would consider an author’s interpretation of historical evidence, and how well the conclusions are supported. • 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 ecotourists”: 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 Research 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 5. 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 review. 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 overview. • Final analysis 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 different directions? • 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. basics • 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 follow-up 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. Telephone follow-up • 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 headings studies) • Note issues/themes emerging • Frequency of calls – patient preference, practicality • Problems contacting patients • Recording patient feedback Writing plan 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 as appropriate 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 transitions. 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. Introduction: • Usually only one or two paragraphs, unless (depending on the size and nature of the literature review) the introduction also includes substantial background/context material. • 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). Body: • 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 by discussion. • Avoid repetition and verbosity by grouping sources that have similar findings. 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. Chapter 6: Writing the Literature Review With the detailed planning described in Chapter Five, drafting the literature review should be quite straightforward. Accordingly, this chapter focuses on some important aspects of writing a successful review. Starting a paragraph with an argument sentence This technique • Makes it clear to the reader what conclusion you have reached about the material in the paragraph • Reinforces the fact that you are presenting a review of the literature, not merely a factual report The argument sentence is then supported by the discussion of sources that follows. Consider the series of sentences in Example 5, from an article about suicide: • Each sentence quoted introduces a paragraph of literature review. • Each sentence sums up the literature about a specific issue affecting suicide, indicating where the evidence is strong (bolded words in sentences 1-3) or uncertain (bolded words in sentences 4-5). • Reading these opening sentences consecutively, there is a clear logical order to the review material, beginning with the most major and definite findings, then considering other possibilities. Example 5: Argument sentences 1. The most robust and compelling finding for men and women who commit suicide is the high prevalence of psychiatric illness. 2. Depression is highly prevalent among women who die by suicide. 3. Among women who die by suicide, alcohol abuse is also highly prevalent. 4. Whether the risk of suicide is affected by economic status is an area of extensive exploration 5. Specific types of employment may confer greater suicide risk. (Chaudron & Caine, 2004, pp. 128-129). Maintaining the argument Ideally, comment and discussion should be maintained in the paragraph so that it is clear how you reached the conclusion argued in the opening sentence. Without such comment you are merely describing the literature, not reviewing it. Students often feel there is nothing much to say about many sources beyond factual content. However, framing description or summary with a few words that indicate you have thought about a study not just as an individual publication, but assessed it in the context of other literature on the topic, makes a much stronger review. Some typical examples are listed below, but it is a good idea as you read the literature to note how other writers have maintained their argument – or whether they are simply listing summaries: Table 6. Examples of argument comments A limitation of… Green’s (2008) study confirms… This extensive survey… An exception to… There was little consensus Only one study deals with… between… The studies used different criteria Overall, the evidence suggests… to… This finding is consistent with… Neither study can explain why… These results contribute to the The validity of the data is flawed growing body of evidence that… because… Conversely, Bates (2009) found… A contrary position is taken by… This evidence challenges… Studies have documented a need for… Note that many of these examples involve the comparison of studies, rather than viewing each study in isolation. If you find fault with a study, it is expected that you will do so in a professional manner, explaining your reasons formally and objectively rather than using emotive or sarcastic language.

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