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Writing Literature Reviews


The focus of a literature review is to provide an overview of sources explored while researching a particular topic. This is distinct from a standard research paper, whose purpose is to develop a new argument. The literature review may be incorporated into a larger research project, or it could be developed as a separate document.

Steps to Writing a Literature Review

See the Video Tutorials (in the next tab over) for a breakdown of the steps and process.

The following summary of steps is adapted from the OWL Social Work Literature Review Guidelines.

1. Gather

Cast a wide net to find a variety of articles loosely related to your subject. 

2. Select

Narrow your articles to those that are most relevant to your subject and purpose.

3. Examine

Critically evaluate the articles, looking at methodology, statistics, results, theoretical framework, author's purpose, etc.

4. Organize

Look for themes in the literature to organize the articles in a meaningful fashion. For example, group case studies together.

5. Assess

Offer a critical assessment of the literature that goes beyond a simple summary.

6. Develop

Suggest further areas for research that go beyond what you have reviewed. What new questions need to be explored?

Module 1 Topics: General Definitions and Purpose of a Literature Review. (2:19 minutes)

Module 2 Topics: Overview of the steps in the process and preparation, Cycle of finding sources and Citation chaining strategy, and Note-taking methods, creating topical categories, and using notes to begin paper writing. (8:24 minutes)

Module 3 Topics: Shows Judy’s Literature review, typed note-taking, and paper writing strategies process in detail. Also briefly highlights using APA Style writing resources and APA Style tools (*Other disciplines/fields of study may need a different citation style.) (17:20 minutes)

Module 4 Topics: Elizabeth’s differing approach with physical paper note-taking and color-coded strategies. (4:01 minutes)

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original works in a given field. In social and behavioral sciences, these are generally articles written with new data and findings. Literature reviews should focus heavily, if not exclusively, on primary sources.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources analyze primary sources. These are not sources of original research, but they will discuss original research that is presented elsewhere.

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are consolidated discussions of primary and secondary sources. While secondary sources directly discuss primary sources, tertiary sources summarize a wide variety of sources. The most common types of tertiary sources are encyclopedias and dictionaries.