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What is a Literature Review?

Scholars and researchers do literature reviews when creating a research document.

Literature reviews can be independent documents. There are books of literature reviews that come out every year or every other year, identifying and describing publications in a particular field.  These often have titles such as "The Year's Work in .....,"  Or "Annual Review of....."

They can be part of the kind of research activity that might be published in a professional journal.  Usually, literature reviews are among the first elements of such documents, following the introduction and the hypothesis.

They can be part of a document being submitted for funding, such as a grant proposal.

Literature reviews should examine and compare different theories, find connections and conflicts both current and historic, using the lense of a particular point of view.  The compiler should explore a variety of tools to collect major research content on a topic.  Wesleyan University says that "The specific organization of a literature review depends on the type and purpose of the review, as well as on the specific field or topic being reviewed." Literature reviews can be organized by concept, theory or process, depending on the topic. If earlier work on the same topic is missing one or more elements, a literature review can point those out.

Literature reviews mainly serve two purposes:

  1. They exist to summarize and evaluate the existing knowledge on a particular topic; or
  2. They hope to identify a research problem for further study.

Conducting a literature review will help you define your hypothesis by narrowing your focus and make your hypothesis more specific.

By reviewing the research that has already been done, you will be able to determine how to make your subject fit in with other concepts in the field. Ideally, this will make it easier for you to select and discard items you identify through your research effort.


Library. Wesleyan University. "What is a Literature Review?" n.d. Retrieved 31 Mar. 2009.

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What a Literature Review is NOT:


  • It is NOT A book review, which is understood to be an evaluation and discussion about qualities and worth of a specific (and generally recently) published book that may appear in a periodical, online or, sometimes, is assigned as schoolwork.

  • It is NOT a literary review, which some folks confuse with a book review. A LITERARY Review examines the values/technique/ the book offers, analyzing and critiqueing the content, style and so on.

  • It is NOT an annotated bibliography, which is generally an organized list of source citations in a specific bibliographic style compiled on a single topic. Following every citation an annotation between 100-200 words is included.  Annotated bibliographies are selective, so that not every item on a single topic is included by the compiler. The compiler's annotations should discuss the quality and importance of these items. 



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Barbara Wurtzel
Springfield Technical Community College
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Springfield MA 01102-9000
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