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How to write a Literature Review: Literature review process

A guide to writing a literature review.

Step 1: Select a topic

  • Select a topic you can manage in the time frame you have to complete your project.
  • Establish your research questions and organize your literature into logical categories around the subject/ topic areas of your questions. Your research questions must be specific enough to guide you to the relevant literature.
  • Make sure you understand the concept of ‘broader’ and ‘narrower’ terms.  The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the literature.

Step 2: Identify the most relevant sources on your topic

Use a variety of resources - locate books, journals, and documents that contain useful information and ideas on your topic. Internet sites, theses & dissertations, conference papers, ePrints and government or industry reports can also be included. Do not rely solely on electronic full-text material which is more easily available. Reference sources such as dictionaries can assist in defining terminology, and encyclopaedias may provide useful introductions to your topic by experts in the field and will list key references.

Step 3 : Search and refine

  • Unisa has a number of databases that provide full text access to articles, that allow you to refine your search to ‘peer reviewed’ journals.  These are scholarly journals which go through a rigorous process of quality assessment by several researchers or subject specialists in the academic community before they are accepted for publication. 
  • Use the And, Or, Not operators, Wildcards and Logical Brackets when searching in the databases.  For instance, you can use And to narrow your search while the operator OR expands your search.  Not, on the other hand, helps to exclude irrelevant information from your search results.  Please click here for more information on searching.

Literature review process - an overview

Step 3: Search and refine

  • Unisa has a number of databases that provide full text access to articles, that allow you to refine your search to ‘peer reviewed’ journals.  These are scholarly journals which go through a rigorous process of quality assessment by several researchers or subject specialists in the academic community before they are accepted for publication. 
  • Use the And, Or, Not operators, Wildcards and Logical Brackets when searching in the databases.  For instance, you can use And to narrow your search while the operator OR expands your search.  Not, on the other hand, helps to exclude irrelevant information from your search results.  Please click here for more information on searching.

How do I write a literature review

See the chapter below for a helpful overview of the literature review process, especially the sections on how to analyse the literature you have gathered and how to write up your literature review:

Literature Reviews and Bibliographic Searches. 2006. In V. Desai, & R. Potter (Eds.), Doing Development Research. (pp. 209-222). London, England: SAGE Publications, Ltd. Available at: http://0-dx.doi.org.oasis.unisa.ac.za/10.4135/9781849208925.n22   (A student will be prompted at some stage for his/ her student number and myUnisa password. A staff member will be prompted at some stage for his/ her Unisa Network username and login password).

This book is available in the Sage Research Methods Online database.

Step 4: Read and analyse

Group the sources into the themes and sub-themes of your topic.  As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider what themes or issues connect your sources together.

  • Do they present one or different solutions?
  • Is there an aspect of the field that is missing?
  • How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory?
  • Do they reveal a trend in the field?
  • A raging debate?
  • Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.

Step 5: Write the literature review

You can organize the review in many ways; for example, you can center the review historically (how the topic has been dealt with over time); or center it on the theoretical positions surrounding your topic (those for a position vs. those against, for example); or you can focus on how each of your sources contributes to your understanding of your project.

Your literature review should include:

  • an introduction which explains how your review is organized.
  • body which contains the headings and subheadings that provide a map to show the various perspectives of your argument. In other words the body contains the evaluation of the materials you want to include on your topic.
  • summary.

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