What is a literature review?

A literature review is a summary of the current state of knowledge on a certain topic or field and/or what theories/arguments exist in relation to that topic or field. 

What do we mean by literature? In a literature review, the literature usually consists of scholarly material that comes from:Orange illustration of books

  • journal articles
  • books
  • government documents
  • reports
  • dissertations
  • and more

Purpose of a Literature Review

So, why do a literature review? The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • help you understand the current state of the researcher/knowledge on your topic
  • show your reader how your topic adds to the current research/knowledge on your topic
  • help you show how your research compares to other research on your topic
  • describe trends and themes in the current research on your topic
  • introduce the theoretical foundation for your topic/field
  • identify gaps in the research
  • show how the research in your topic has changed over time
  • point the way for further research

What should be included in a literature review?

One of the hardest parts about a literature review is determining the scope of your literature review. That is: What will you include in your literature review? This is one of the reasons having a specific enough research question is very important: it can help you set the scope of your literature review. 

You'll want to think of the literature you should include in your literature review as a sort of pyramid. 

  • Grounding your literature review will be the theoretical foundations and most important works in your topic
  • Next, you will explore other literature that are related to your research that can help you provide context and history for your topic
  • Then, you will look at literature that is most like yours. This can help you compare your research to other research like it.
  • Finally, you will show how your research fits into the current state of the literature.


Examples of Literature Reviews

The scope of a literature review will depend on your topic, but the following are examples of what might be covered in a literature review.

A literature review on the COVID-19 vaccine distribution could cover:

  • how the vaccine was created and approved
  • what types of people/areas are receiving the vaccine
  • issues/successes with distribution
  • different theories on who should receive vaccines in what order
  • peoples' hesitation or interest in receiving the vaccine
  • how the COVID-19 vaccine distribution compares to other vaccines created under similar circumstances

A literature review on the federal government's role in regulating power grids could cover:

  • the history of regulations in this industry
  • theories on whether or not the federal government should regulate power companies
  • how the federal government has regulated like industries
  • explorations of the success/failure of previous regulations