What is a Literature Review?

With each assignment that is expected within graduate school, one may forget the foundational basis for the work and research that goes along with it. In continuation with my series about revealing the hidden curriculum within graduate school through the different areas of a thesis or a literature review, this week I am going back to the basics. Today’s blog post focuses on the question of what is a literature review?

Within the book Conducting Research Literature Reviews- From the Internet to Paper a literature review is defined as “systematic, explicit, and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work produced by researchers, scholars, and practitioners.”  A literature review reaches its conclusion through the original work of scholars and researchers. The book states that “focusing on high-quality original research rather than on interpretations of the findings is the only guarantee you have that the results of the review will be under your supervision and accurate.” The definition previously referenced provides a framework for the different skills needed to research and write a literature review. Each of these skills, such as evaluation and synthetization, are applicable to the seven different tasks that a literature review can be divided into according to the book.

The first task is selecting research questions- a research question is defined as “a precisely stated question that guides the review.” After a research question has been identified, the next step is selecting researching and selecting your sources. The book recommends searching a bibliographic database, such as JSTOR, which contains a collection of articles, books, full reports, and original studies that can provide answers to the research question. Other sources for reviews include reference lists at the end of articles, experts in the field of interest, and the internet. The next task is choosing your search terms, which are the words and phrases used to get the appropriate articles, books, and reports. As we have all become accustomed with in both undergrad and graduate research, search terms can make or break the research for an assignment. You should base the search terms on the frame of the research question, and use particular grammar and logic to garner specific results. After deciding on your search terms, the next task is to apply practical screening criteria. Initial literature searchers provide many search results, but contain only a few relevant articles. Screening the literature allows you to discover the relevant articles by setting a criteria for what to include or exclude in the review. Practical screening includes criteria such as the date of publication, the language in which the article is printed, and the type of article it is.

After the sources are screened and analyzed, it is time to start doing the review. The book places an emphasis on using a standardized form for abstracting data or information from the articles. Abstracting is defined as “the process of reading and recording data from research articles and reports.” After this it is time for the final task which is synthesizing the results. I have already written two blog posts on synthesis and meta- synthesis, so go check those out for a more in-depth process! For a quick summary, the book describes a synthesis as “interpretations of the review’s findings based on the reviewers experience and the quality and content of the available literature.”