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Research assignments

This guide should help you regardless of your area of study. What is the most effective way of presenting the information? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc., that your paper needs to include? What order should you present them?

What is a literature review?

A literature review discusses and analyzes published information in a particular subject area. Sometimes the information covers a certain time period.

A literature review is more than a summary of the sources, it has an organizational pattern that combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

While the main focus of an academic research paper is to support your own argument, the focus of a literature review is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others. The academic research paper also covers a range of sources, but it is usually a select number of sources, because the emphasis is on the argument. Likewise, a literature review can also have an "argument," but it is not as important as covering a number of sources. In short, an academic research paper and a literature review contain some of the same elements. In fact, many academic research papers will contain a literature review section. What aspect of the study (either the argument or the sources) that is emphasized determines what type of document it is.

(from Literature Reviews - University of North Carolina Writing Center)

Why do we write literature reviews?

 •Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone.

•For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field.

•For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper's investigation.

Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

(from Literature Reviews - University of North Carolina Writing Center)

Sample annotation 

The citation goes first and is followed by the annotation. Make sure that you follow your faculty’s preferred citation style. The summary needs to be concise (please note the following example is entirely fictitious).

In the sample annotation below, each element is numbered (see Key).

(1) Trevor, C.O., Lansford, B. and Black, J.W., 2004, ‘Employee turnover and job performance: monitoring the influences of salary growth and promotion’, Journal of Armchair Psychology, vol 113, no.1, pp. 56-64.

(2) In this article Trevor et al. review the influences of pay and job opportunities in respect to job performance, turnover rates and employee motivation.(3) The authors use data gained through organisational surveys of blue-chip companies in Vancouver, Canada to try to identify the main causes of employee turnover and whether it is linked to salary growth.(4) Their research focuses on assessing a range of pay structures such as pay for performance and organisational reward schemes.(5) The article is useful to my research topic, as Trevor et al. suggest that there are numerous reasons for employee turnover and variances in employee motivation and performance.(6) The main limitation of the article is that the survey sample was restricted to mid-level management,(7) thus the authors indicate that further, more extensive, research needs to be undertaken to develop a more in-depth understanding of employee turnover and job performance.(8) This article will not form the basis of my research; however it will be useful supplementary information for my research on pay structures.

Key

(1) Citation

(2) Introduction 

(3) Aims & Research methods

(4) Scope

(5) Usefulness (to your research/ to a particular topic)

(6) Limitations

(7) Conclusions

(8) Reflection (explain how this work illuminates your topic or how it will fit in with your research)

Learn how to research, structure and write a literature review paper that synthesizes the key theories and results in your field of study.

From SJSU's King Library. Thank you!

Basic outline:

Just like most academic papers, literature reviews must contain at least three basic elements: an introduction or background information section; the body of the review containing the discussion of sources; and, finally, a conclusion and/or recommendations section to end the paper.

Introduction: Gives a quick idea of the topic of the literature review, such as the central theme or organizational pattern.

Body: Contains your discussion of sources and is organized either chronologically, thematically, or methodologically (see below for more information on each).

Conclusions/Recommendations: Discuss what you have drawn from reviewing the literature so far. Where might the discussion proceed?

(from Literature Reviews - University of North Carolina Writing Center)

Organizing the body: 

Once you have the basic categories in place, then you must consider how you will present the sources themselves within the body of your paper. Create an organizational method to focus this section even further.

To help you come up with an overall organizational framework for your review, consider the following scenario and then three typical ways of organizing the sources into a review:

You've decided to focus your literature review on materials dealing with sperm whales. This is because you've just finished reading Moby Dick, and you wonder if that whale's portrayal is really real. You start with some articles about the physiology of sperm whales in biology journals written in the 1980's. But these articles refer to some British biological studies performed on whales in the early 18th century. So you check those out. Then you look up a book written in 1968 with information on how sperm whales have been portrayed in other forms of art, such as in Alaskan poetry, in French painting, or on whale bone, as the whale hunters in the late 19th century used to do. This makes you wonder about American whaling methods during the time portrayed in Moby Dick, so you find some academic articles published in the last five years on how accurately Herman Melville portrayed the whaling scene in his novel.

Chronological

If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials above according to when they were published. For instance, first you would talk about the British biological studies of the 18th century, then about Moby Dick, published in 1851, then the book on sperm whales in other art (1968), and finally the biology articles (1980s) and the recent articles on American whaling of the 19th century. But there is relatively no continuity among subjects here. And notice that even though the sources on sperm whales in other art and on American whaling are written recently, they are about other subjects/objects that were created much earlier. Thus, the review loses its chronological focus.

By publication

Order your sources chronologically by publication if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on biological studies of sperm whales if the progression revealed a change in dissection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.

By trend

Another way to organize sources chronologically is to examine the sources under a trend, such as the history of whaling. Then your review would have subsections according to eras within this period. For instance, the review might examine whaling from pre-1600-1699, 1700-1799, and 1800-1899. Using this method, you would combine the recent studies on American whaling in the 19th century with Moby Dick itself in the 1800-1899 category, even though the authors wrote a century apart.

Thematic

Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For instance, the sperm whale review could focus on the development of the harpoon for whale hunting. While the study focuses on one topic, harpoon technology, it will still be organized chronologically. The only difference here between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: the development of the harpoon or the harpoon technology.

More authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. For instance, a thematic review of material on sperm whales might examine how they are portrayed as "evil" in cultural documents. The subsections might include how they are personified, how their proportions are exaggerated, and their behaviors misunderstood. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.

Methodological

A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the "methods" of the researcher or writer. For the sperm whale project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of whales in American, British, and French art work. Or the review might focus on the economic impact of whaling on a community. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

Once you've decided on the organizational method for the body of the review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out. They should arise out of your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period. A thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue.

(from Literature Reviews - University of North Carolina Writing Center)

Other sections to include:

Sometimes, though, you might need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. Put in only what is necessary. Here are a few other sections you might want to consider:

Current Situation: Information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.

History: The chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.

Methods and/or Standards: The criteria you used to select the sources in your literature review or the way in which you present your information. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.

Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

(from Literature Reviews - University of North Carolina Writing Center)

Composing your literature review:

Once you've settled on a general pattern of organization, you're ready to write each section. There are a few guidelines you should follow during the writing stage. Here is a sample paragraph from a literature review about sexism and language to illuminate the following discussion:

However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to fill in pronouns that agreed with gender-neutral antecedents such as "writer," "pedestrian," and "persons." The students were asked to describe any image they had when writing the sentence. Hamilton found that people imagined 3.3 men to each woman in the masculine "generic" condition and 1.5 men per woman in the unbiased condition. Thus, while ambient sexism accounted for some of the masculine bias, sexist language amplified the effect. (Source: Erika Falk and Jordan Mills, "Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense," Women and Language 19:2.

Use evidence

In the example above, the writers refer to several other sources when making their point. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.

Be selective

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review's focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.

Use quotes sparingly

Falk and Mills do not use any direct quotes. That is because the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Notice that Falk and Mills do quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. But if you find yourself wanting to put in more quotes, check with your instructor.

Summarize and synthesize

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. The authors here recapitulate important features of Hamilton's study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to their own work.

Keep your own voice

While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice (the writer's) should remain front and center. Notice that Falk and Mills weave references to other sources into their own text, but they still maintain their own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with their own ideas and their own words. The sources support what Falk and Mills are saying.

Use caution when paraphrasing

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. In the preceding example, Falk and Mills either directly refer in the text to the author of their source, such as Hamilton, or they provide ample notation in the text when the ideas they are mentioning are not their own, for example, Gastil's. For more information, please see our Research Guide on Citations.

(from Literature Reviews - University of North Carolina Writing Center)

Annotated bibliographies and literature reviews are both comprehensive collections of relevant sources, but that is where the similarity ends. Their purposes, structures, and components are very different.

  Annotated Bibliography Literature Review
Purpose Provides the reader with an ordered list of sources for additional reading. Usually also provides brief explanations of why each source is credible and relevant to the topic. Provides an overview of a particular topic or problem by summarizing and explaining the most significant sources in the field.
Structure Sources are separated from each other and are arranged alphabetically, so they will be easy to locate.   Sources are integrated into paragraphs based on the progression of the topical overview, and they may be mentioned more than once.
Components Each item in the list uses the formal citation style (usually APA, MLA, or Chicago) to cite a single source and includes a short paragraph with a summary explaining its credibility and relevancy. Uses an introduction to explain the topic, synthesizes sources progressively as the topic is explained through the body, and then concludes by summarizing the overall background presented.

Additional differences:

  • In the case of an annotated bibliography, there is a separate paragraph for each source cited. In a literature review, each body paragraph should include several sources, and sources may be repeated as necessary.
  • An annotated bibliography examines each source based on its relationship to the topic; a literature review draws together multiple sources to examine where they agree or disagree.
  • An annotated bibliography must organize sources alphabetically, but a literature review is likely to use problem/solution, cause/effect, comparison/contrast, classification/division, or process to organize sources.
  • An annotated bibliography allows the reader to choose whether to explore the available sources or not on their own while a literature review directs the reader to a particular understanding of the available sources;

The following illustration provides an example of the differences in layout between an annotated bibliography and a literature review. The sources that are arranged alphabetically in the annotated bibliography are integrated throughout the paragraphs of the literature review. The order of sources shown in the literature review is just an example; any appropriate sources can be used wherever they fit. 

 

Thank you to Cayla Buttram, David MacMillan III, & Dr. R.T. Koch, Jr. - UNA Center for Writing Excellence

Structure of Scientific Papers

Research papers generally follow a specific format. Here are the different parts of the scholarly article.

Abstract (Summary)

The abstract, generally written by the author(s) of the article, provides a concise summary of the whole article. Usually it highlights the focus, study results and conclusion(s) of the article. 

Introduction (Why)

In this section, the authors introduce their topic, explain the purpose of the study, and present why it is important, unique or how it adds to existing knowledge in their field. Look for the author's hypothesis or thesis here. 

Introduction - Literature Review (Who else)

Many scholarly articles include a summary of previous research or discussions published on this topic, called a "Literature Review".  This section outlines what others have found and what questions still remain.

Methodology / Materials and Methods (How) 

Find the details of how the study was performed in this section. There should be enough specifics so that you could repeat the study if you wanted. 

Results  (What happened)

This section includes the findings from the study. Look for the data and statistical results in the form of tables, charts, and graphs. Some papers include an analysis here.

Discussion / Analysis (What it means)

This section should tell you what the authors felt was significant about their results. The authors analyze their data and describe what they believe it means.

Conclusion (What was learned)

Here the authors offer their final thoughts and conclusions and may include: how the study addressed their hypothesis, how it contributes to the field, the strengths and weaknesses of the study, and recommendations for future research. Some papers combine the discussion and conclusion.

Reading a Scholarly Article

A scholarly paper can be difficult to read. Instead of reading straight through, try focusing on the different sections and asking specific questions at each point.

What is your research question? 

When you select an article to read for a project or class, focus on your topic. Look for information in the article that is relevant to your research question. 

Read the abstract first as it covers basics of the article. Questions to consider: 

  • What is this article about? What is the working hypothesis or thesis?
  • Is this related to my question or area of research?

Second: Read the introduction and discussion/conclusion. These sections offer the main argument and hypothesis of the article. Questions to consider for the introduction: 

  • What do we already know about this topic and what is left to discover?
  • What have other people done in regards to this topic?
  • How is this research unique?
  • Will this tell me anything new related to my research question?

Questions for the discussion and conclusion: 

  • What does the study mean and why is it important?
  • What are the weaknesses in their argument?
  • Is the conclusion valid?

Next: Read about the Methods/Methodology. If what you've read addresses your research question, this should be your next section. Questions to consider:

  • How did the author do the research? Is it a qualitative or quantitative project?
  • What data are the study based on?
  • Could I repeat their work? Is all the information present in order to repeat it?

Finally: Read the Results and Analysis. Now read the details of this research. What did the researchers learn? If graphs and statistics are confusing, focus on the explanations around them. Questions to consider: 

  • What did the author find and how did they find it?
  • Are the results presented in a factual and unbiased way?
  • Does their analysis agree with the data presented?
  • Is all the data present?
  • What conclusions do you formulate from this data? (And does it match with the Author's conclusions?)

Review the References (anytime): These give credit to other scientists and researchers and show you the basis the authors used to develop their research.  The list of references, or works cited, should include all of the materials the authors used in the article. The references list can be a good way to identify additional sources of information on the topic. Questions to ask:

  • What other articles should I read?
  • What other authors are respected in this field?
  • What other research should I explore?

Additional Reading Tips

When you read these scholarly articles, remember that you will be writing based on what you read.

While you are Reading:

  • Keep in mind your research question
  • Focus on the information in the article relevant to your question (feel free to skim over other parts)
  • Question everything you read - not everything is 100% true or performed effectively
  • Think critically about what you read and seek to build your own arguments
  • Read out of order! This isn't a mystery novel or movie, you want to start with the spoiler
  • Use any keywords printed by the journals as further clues about the article
  • Look up words you don't know

How to Take Notes on the Article

Try different ways, but use the one that fits you best. Below are some suggestions:

  • Print the article and highlight, circle and otherwise mark while you read (for a PDF, you can use the highlight text feature in Adobe Reader)
  • Take notes on the sections, for example in the margins (Adobe Reader offers pop-up sticky notes)
  • Highlight only very important quotes or terms - or highlight potential quotes in a different color
  • Summarize the main or key points

Reflect on what you have read - draw your own conclusions. As you read jot down questions that come to mind. These may be answered later on in the article or you may have found something that the authors did not consider. Here are a few questions that might be helpful:

  • Have I taken time to understand all the terminology?
  • Am I spending too much time on the less important parts of this article?
  • Do I have any reason to question the credibility of this research?
  • What specific problem does the research address and why is it important?
  • How do these results relate to my research interests or to other works which I have read?

Collecting resources

Sources for a Literature Review will come from a variety of places, including:

•Books
Use the Library Catalog to see what items McDermott Library has on your topic or if McDermott Library has a specific source you need. 
WorldCat : If no library in Maine owns the book, try searching the worldwide library catalog: WorldCat. Items found in WorldCat may be requested with Interlibrary Loan. This provides access to millions of items outside the state of Maine. Please plan ahead - shipments for items outside of Maine can be a week or more, depending on the location of the lending library.
First Time Users - Create an ILL Account
Go to our ILL System and click the link that says "Create an Account."

  • Enter all information requested.
  • Click “Submit Information” at the bottom of the page to complete your registration.

 

•Reference Materials
Reference Materials such as encyclopedias and dictionaries provide good overall views of topics and provide keyword hints for searching. Many will include lists of sources to consider for your literature review.

•Journals via Electronic Databases 
Journals are a major source of materials for a literature review. With the library's databases, you can search thousands of journals back a century or more.   

•Conference Papers
At conferences, professionals and scholars explore the latest trends, share new ideas, and present new research. Searching Conference papers allows you to see research before it is published and get a feel for what is going on in a particular organization or within a particular group. 

Many electronic databases include conference proceedings. This link will take you to several databases that specifically carry proceedings. 

•Internet
The general internet can be a valuable resource for information. However, it is largely unregulated. Be sure to critically evaluate internet sources. Look at Evaluating Information for suggestions on evaluating websites.

•Government Publications
The U.S. government produces a wide variety of information sources, from consumer brochures to congressional reports to large amounts of data to longitudinal studies. For the United States, firstgov and fedstats are good places to start. Official state websites can be helpful for individual state statistics and information. 

Lewis, C. (2018). The Open Access Citation Advantage: Does It Exist and What Does It Mean for Libraries? Information Technology & Libraries,

37(3), 50–65. https://doi-org.ursus-proxy-7.ursus.maine.edu/10.6017/ital.v37i3.10604

 

Festante, F., Antonelli, C., Chorna, O., Corsi, G., & Guzzetta, A. (2019). Parent-Infant Interaction during the First Year of Life in Infants at High Risk

for Cerebral Palsy: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Neural Plasticity, 1–19.

https://doi-org.ursus-proxy-7.ursus.maine.edu/10.1155/2019/5759694

 

McCarthy, Sarah. 2016. “The Therapeutic Power of Music: A Literature Review.” Journal of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society 22 (3):

154–60. https://search-ebscohost-com.ursus-proxy-7.ursus.maine.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=118335119&site=ehost-live.