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Public Policy 8500: Research Design: Literature Review Basics

What is a Literature Review?

Many students struggle with literature reviews, especially when writing theses or dissertations.  This guide along with the corresponding lecture is meant to alleviate these difficulties while helping learn to produce quality literature reviews in an efficient manner.

So what is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly articles, books, or other sources that pertain to a specific topic, area of research, or theory. The literature review offers brief descriptions, summaries, and critical evaluations of each work, and does so in the form of a well-organized essay. The goal is to summarize, synthesize, and critique arguments and ideas of others, and point to gaps in the current literature.

A well written literature review will:

  • demonstrate the writer has a solid foundation,
  • add to the credibility of the research question,
  • demonstrate how the research topic fits into the discipline(s) holistically, and
  • help make the case for why this research is needed (e.g. what gap in the literature does your research question fill?).

Note that literature reviews differ greatly depending upon the format and discipline, so you will want to defer to your specific requirements as outlined by your professor and / or on the syllabus. Generally, however, literature reviews will encompass the following parts:


  • Defines and identifies the topic and establishes the reason for the literature review.
  • Points to general trends in what has already been published on the topic.
  • Explains the criteria used in analyzing and comparing articles (especially vital for "systematic reviews").


  • Groups articles into thematic clusters, or subtopics. Clusters may be grouped together chronologically, thematically, or methodologically.
  • Proceeds in a logical order from cluster to cluster.
  • Emphasizes the main findings or arguments of the articles in your own words. KEEP DIRECT QUOTATIONS FROM SOURCES TO AN ABSOLUTE MINIMUM.


  • Summarizes main themes that emerged in the review and identifies areas of conflict or controversy in the literature.
  • Pinpoints strengths and weaknesses among the articles (innovative methods used, gaps, problems with theoretical frameworks, etc).
  • Concludes by formulating questions that need further research within the topic, and provides some insight into the relationship between that topic and the larger field of study or discipline.


Literature Review: Relational Words and Phrases