A literature review is a critical analysis of published sources within a specific field of study. A literature review may form part of a thesis or dissertation, or it may be a research project in itself, such as a peer-reviewed publication in a journal, or a report for a research funded project.

A literature review:

  • identifies, describes, evaluates and synthesises the relevant literature or current research on a topic
  • explains how the knowledge in a field developed, how it is understood and how it is evolving.

There are two common types of literature reviews: narrative and systematic.

A narrative literature review is an account of the relevant studies on a particular topic. Your narrative literature review positions your research within the field of study, so this tends to be the approach used when writing a thesis (PhD).

A systematic literature review involves drawing only on literature that meets a specific set of criteria to ensure it is trustworthy, reliable, and objective. The literature selected on this basis is treated as data to be analysed and evaluated. This approach is most common in medical and health research. Unlike a narrative literature review, a systematic literature review will include methodology, which outlines how you gathered your research. This allows a reader or fellow researcher to easily find the research you have cited.

Narrative literature review Systematic literature review
May have quite a broad scope within your field of study Responds to a very specific research question
Does not include methodology Includes methodology (how you gathered your research, including what search terms and databases you used)
General appraisal of the current literature and the lack thereof; suggests future research Comprehensive exploration of the current literature relevant to the research question

How to write a literature review

Literature review structure

  • introduces the topic and its importance
  • includes the scope of your research question
  • identifies the search criteria
  • is organised into sections (such as methodologies, theories, discussion)
  • demonstrates synthesis (shows how the sources are connected and contribute to themes)
  • summarises the main agreements and disagreements in the literature
  • identifies areas for further research
  • provides your overall perspective on the topic

Remember to:

Cite all of your sources, keeping your primary focus on the literature

Compare the arguments, theories, methodologies and approaches and findings – What do the authors agree on?

Contrast the various arguments, themes and approaches – What are the major areas of controversy or debate?

Critique the literature – What arguments are more persuasive? Why? Which methodologies or approaches are most valid, reliable or appropriate?

Connect the literature to your own area of research or investigation. How does the literature inform your own work?