Reviewing Literature

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A literature review is an analysis, critical evaluation, and synthesis of existing knowledge relevant to your research problem, question, or the issue you are aiming to say something intelligent about. In your analysis, you select from different concepts, theories, arguments, and interpretations that seem relevant to the development of your work.

It is important to critically evaluate the concepts, arguments, and different interpretations others have made in the literature. In critically evaluating, you interrogate the work of others (regardless of their standing in the academic community), looking at the chain of reasoning an author has used and the evidence they have offered to support their argument. This is an important skill to develop because you need to be able to demonstrate you have the ability to deconstruct an argument made by someone else and are able to structure your own argument.

Finally, after much reading, note-taking, and organising concepts, arguments and different interpretations that other authors have made, you write your synthesis of the literature – your literature review. Being able to construct your own review of the literature is important because it shows you have a range of skills and have been able to apply them to your own research question.

In this Skill, Reviewing the Literature, you will learn about

  • What a literature review looks like
  • Why review of the literature on your topic is needed
  • What the literature is and how to distinguish between valid and not so valid sources of information
  • Why it is important to have the correct words and phrases to search for information
  • How to search more effectively and efficiently for sources
  • How to find out how to cite your sources (references)
  • The need to be systematic in searching for sources
  • The main types of literature review you can use
  • Questioning evidence in an argument
  • Using tools to help organise your information
  • Using different structures to write different kinds of literature review

What Does a Review of a Literature Look Like?

Figures 14 show some examples of literature reviews.

Figure 1 is an example of a bibliography, a list of academic sources (books and articles) arranged in alphabetical order. It is not a review of the literature, but a list of sources that could be used to write a review of the literature.

The figure shows bibliographical information that are as follows: Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., and Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row. American Education Research Association. (2006). 'Standards for reporting on empirical social science research in AERA publications'. Educational Researcher, 35(6):33-40. Afolabi, M. (1992). "The review of related literature in research’. International Journal of Information and Library Research, vol. 4(1):59-66. Anderson, R.J., Hughes, J.A. and Sharrock, W.W. (1985). The sociology game: an introduction to sociological reasoning. London: Longman. Archer, M. (1995). Realist social theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Asimov, I. (1963). The genetic code. New York: New American Library. Atkinson, J.M. (1982). Discovering suicide: studies in the social organisation of sudden death. London: Macmillan Press. Ayer, A.J. (1936/1946). Language, truth and logic. London: Victor Gollancz. Baake, K. (2003). Metaphor and knowledge: the challenges of writing science. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Figure 1. This Is Not a Literature Review – It Is a Bibliography (or Part of One)

A figure shows a bibliography (or part of one).

Figure 2 is an example of a section from a literature review. Note that it has a number of features such as the focus on one topic, the use of sources (citations) and quotations.

The literature review reads as follows: A strong finding from Franklin's (2004) study was the persistence of early behaviour: those who voted when they first could were more likely to repeat the behaviour, and those who did not vote were likely to not vote again. Surveys of non-voters consistently find that many are repeat nonvoters. In the New Zealand 2002 post-election survey a third of Mori and a fifth of non-Mori nonvoters said that they had not voted in the past either (Vowles et. al., 2004). Some writers suggest that political participation leaves a psychological imprint on those who act (Green & Shachar, 2000). More pragmatically, those who have voted are familiar with the process whilst for some who have not, there may be apprehension at what it entails (Horwitt, 1999) and embarrassment at admitting this lack of knowledge. Like internal efficacy, this orientation concerns one's selfconfidence in a political environment (Green & Shachar, 2000). In contrast, participation by providing familiarity with the process increases confidence and thus internal efficacy (Finkel, 1985). The idea that repetition creates familiarity and confidence is commonplace. There is also evidence that the practice of voting or not is passed across generations. Surveys in the UK and USA (Nestle, 2003; Horwitt, 1999) have found that non-voters are more likely to come from families of nonvoters and that those who vote at their first election have memories of their parents voting Discussion of politics at home also had an impact: "half of those who often talk to their parents about politics said they voted in 1998, compared to one quarter of those who talk to their parents about politics infrequently or never” (Horwitt, 1999). This study concludes that, voting is developed as a habit. Some young people may start voting primarily out of the idealistic sense that their vote makes a difference; after an election or two, they begin to view voting as a duty and are much more likely to turn out to vote primarily because they feel it is something they should do. In this way, “young people come to voting as a personal norm." (from Catt, H., & Hayward, B. (2005). "Now or Never: The Impact of Political Education on Civic Participation.” Australasian Political Studies Conference, Dunedin)

Figure 2. This Is a Literature Review

A figure shows a literature review.

Compare Figure 3 with Figure 2. What are the main differences?

The figure representing the question if it is a literature review, reads as follows: Simply put, fake news is false or misleading information. Whether you heard it from former President Donald Trump's coining of the term to describe negative press of himself or you saw it on social media, it's everywhere. It becomes especially prominent during times of division among Americans, like during election cycles. With the reappearance of fake news due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent election, who keeps posting fake news? Turns out there are troll farms, or businesses rather, that consist of writers who intentionally publish harmful social media posts in order to cause social division and/or spread propaganda. These troll farms have been found in Albania, the Philippines, and most importantly, Russia. In 2014, a Finnish journalist, Jessika Aro, started investigating a "troll farm" named Internet Research Agency (IRA) located in St. Petersburg, Russia. Aro interviewed those who were connected to the IRA and released an article about what she uncovered. It was titled, "Yle Kioski Traces the Origins of Russian Social Media Propaganda – Never-before-seen Material from the Troll Factory." In summary, the IRA hires copywriters and editors to manage social media accounts and spread fake news, whether it be locally or worldwide. One of the recruiters that Aro interviewed said that they primarily work in English.

Figure 3. Is This a Literature Review?

A figure shows a literature review.

The difference between Figure 2 and Figure 3 is that one is scholarly and the other opinion. Figure 2 uses scholarly (academic) conventions, whereas Figure 3 does not. These conventions include citing the sources of the claims that are being made so that the reader can check the validity of any claim (or interpretation) by looking at the original source.

Now consider Figure 4. This example will show you what is meant by scholarly (academic) conventions.

Figure 4 shows some of the elements that help to maintain the validity of what is said in academic writing such as the use of different definitions, citing reliable sources, and showing there are different perspectives on the topic.

The figure that represents the essential elements of a literature review, reads as follows: The term "fake news” refers to a range of information types, from low-impact, honest mistakes and satire content to high-impact manipulative techniques and malicious fabrications (HLEG, 2018). There are various definitions (e.g. Egelhofer and Lecheler, 2019) from where we conclude the absence of a universal agreement on the terminology used and the different types of false information. The definition proposed by Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) has been used in many recent studies as a navigator (Conroy et al., 2015; Potthast et al., 2018; Ruchansky et al., 2017; Shu et al., 2017; Wang et al., 2018). However, we deliberately avoid here the use of the term “fake news” as overloaded (Wardle and Derekshan, 2017) and inadequate to describe the complexity of the problem. Instead, we prefer the term “false information” as the broader concept that encompasses a wide spectrum of subtypes. page 1305 Extract from: Kapantai, E., Christopoulou, A., Berberidis, C., & Peristeras, V. (2021). A systematic literature review on disinformation: Toward a unified taxonomical framework. New Media & Society, 23(5), 13011326.

Figure 4. Essential Elements of a Literature Review

A figure shows the essential elements of a literature review.

Did You Know?

There’s a glossary of terms and concepts available for this entire Module in the Beginning Your Research Skill.

Suggested Readings

Aveyard, H. (2010). Doing a literature review in health and social care (Chapter 3). McGraw Hill.
Barnett-Page, E., & Thomas, J. (2009). Methods for the synthesis of qualitative research: A critical review. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 9, 59.
Booth, A., Papaioannou, D., & Sutton, A. (2012). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review. Sage.
Fisher, A. (1988). The logic of real arguments. Cambridge.
Hart, C. (2018). Doing a literature review. Releasing the research imagination (
2nd ed.
). Sage.
Karbach, J. (1987). Using Toulmin’s model of argumentation. Journal of Teaching Writing, 6(1), 8191.
Machi, L. A., & McEvoy, B. T. (2009). The literature review (pp. 81103). Corwin.
Ridley, D. (2008). The literature review. A step-by-step guide for students. Sage.
Silverman, D. (Academic). (2017). Top tip: balance your arguments with existing stances [Video]. SAGE Research Methods Video: Practical Research and Academic Skills.
Wallace, M., & Wray, A. (Academic). (2016). Mike Wallace & Alison Wray discuss critical reading [Video]. SAGE Research Methods Video: Practical Research and Academic Skills.