When Is a Literature Review a Literature Review? -->

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When Is a Literature Review a Literature Review?

17 comments
By Jamie Patterson, Dissertation Editor

The hardest chapter or section to write for any doctoral student is the literature review. In your studies you won’t have written anything quite like it, which makes it difficult to write and difficult to successfully complete. As a dissertation editor I read about four dissertations per week and of those four, usually only one will have a true literature review.

A true literature review is text that synthesizes and analyzes all the available current research from peer-reviewed sources. Seems pretty straightforward, so why is it so hard to write? Let’s talk about all the things that the literature review will or will not include, and you'll start to see the difficulties.

First, your literature review will not include dissertations or theses—these documents would not be considered peer reviewed. Your literature review will include sources that have been published within the last 5 years. The majority of these sources will be articles retrieved from an online database.

Second, your literature review will not be ordered according to researcher or research study. Your literature review will be ordered according to major themes that emerge from the research and clearly show—by using many sources in a single paragraph—how researchers or research studies are similar or dissimilar.

Third, your literature review will not have a minimum or maximum page count. It will, however, have a suggested minimum number of sources—for most schools the minimum sources required in the literature review is 75, 80% of which must come from a peer-reviewed source.

So what else will a true literature review have? Most schools require writers to include their research strategy, which is generally a good idea even if it isn’t a rubric-required element. When describing your research strategy, include the names of the databases searched, the key search terms, and how you determined which articles to use of those that emerged. Most schools also require a separate literature review that will come just before your summary section related to the methodology used in the study. This means conducting a literature review on case studies, archival data, or whatever specific methodology (more specific than qualitative or quantitative) you will use in your study. The goal of this section of your literature review is to show how that methodology is currently being used by the academic community.

As with many things in academic writing, the literature review is as much what it must include as it is what it must not include, and the best way to get to a true literature review is an ongoing revision process. Not to fear! There are a lot of resources available to you. We suggest beginning with a literature review consultation with librarians to ensure that you reach saturation of the literature. From there, the Writing Center provides resources including a course, webinars, and other web resources on our website. And, of course, your Walden dissertation editors are available any time for questions: editor@waldenu.edu

17 comments :

  1. Jamie,
    You are far much better than the instructions who hold sessions with students in residencies. I wish the writing center would actually teach chapters 1-5 from day one of PhD studies. The outcome would be much better for students and the University as a whole.
    Thank you for the brilliant guidance.
    Ben

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    1. Thanks, Ben! Students can learn from us as they write by attending our live webinars. We hold webinars regularly on each of the dissertation chapters. See upcoming offerings here: http://writingcenter.waldenu.edu/415.htm Hope to see you at one!

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    2. Ben,

      I am in total agreement with you. This is the kind of information that should have been taught to us from the beginning of our program. If I had this knowledge at the beginning, I would not be 'struggling' now to understand what is/is not a literature review and what is required to put one together.

      Karen

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  2. The explanation on Literature review was helpful and clarified what a literature review is not. I appreciated the second point that said: Second, your literature review will not be ordered according to researcher or research study. Your literature review will be ordered according to major themes that emerge from the research and clearly show—by using many sources in a single paragraph—how researchers or research studies are similar or dissimilar.

    I have learned to analysis my literature according to major themes.
    Thank you for the information.
    Terence

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    1. Terence,

      The idea of ordering by theme is such an important point to learn. Glad you are getting more comfortable with the literature review!

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  3. Jamie & Writing Center,

    The explanation presented is very helpful. Thank you again for grounding the literature review to its most basic components. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday.

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  4. Thank you for the specific introduction! When I was working on my lit review, it's always hard to find sufficient articles/papers that are up to date and trustful enough. What is your search strategy? Thank you!

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    1. Yuming,

      Check with the Walden University librarians for search strategies (keywords, databases, etc.). They are the experts! library@waldenu.edu. Good luck!

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  5. Thanks for sharing. The information is new and important

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  6. Seems I am on time since just about starting my literature review. The information wouldn't be more timely and useful; I don't have to scout around for what and what's not appropriate lit review. I am grateful for that important information.

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  7. Tom, in addition to the resources Jamie mentioned near the end of her post, you might find our resource on synthesis helpful as you begin your literature review: http://writingcenter.waldenu.edu/synthesis.htm

    Good luck, and thanks for the comment!

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  8. Thank you for this, writing my literature review and found this very helpful to structure my search and prevent waffling

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    1. You're welcome! We're so glad you found the post helpful. Good luck as you work on your literature review!

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  9. I'm late in here. However, I have a question regarding to the dates of the references. How does the five years work? for example, if I graduate in 2017, is it okay to have references from 2012 (2012 + 5 = 2017)?

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  10. it a good and helpful knowledge to writers.

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