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How to do a literature review (Masters and PhD Level)

The literature you find and use in your review is evidence to support or oppose your hypothesis, which is set out in your research question. If you are building theory as you go instead of trying to prove or disprove a hypothesis, then the literature is evidence to help you build that theory.

Searching for literature

You can find literature in a number of ways, for example:

  • Using books, journals and websites with which you are already familiar
  • Using sources that your supervisor has recommended
  • Browsing the shelves in the library
  • Searching electronic databases in the library
  • Internet searching for reputable information

When searching in electronic resources, use keywords to narrow your search to your particular subject area. Combining keywords will help to narrow down the results. Here are some useful tips for keyword searching.

Use AND to combine keywords in a search – if you search for ‘bread’ you will get all the results that include the word ‘bread’. If you search for ‘bread AND cakes’ you will get all the results that include both words. This will narrow your search.

Use OR to widen your search – if you search for ‘bread OR cakes’ you will get all the results that include either of those words, leading to more results.

Use inverted commas to search for an exact phrase – if you search for ‘home baking’ using inverted commas you will get results where that phrase occurs. If you don’t use inverted commas you will get all the results where the words ‘home’ and ‘baking’ occur.

Use an asterisk to search for several versions of one word – if you’re searching for information about baking, you might want to search using the terms ‘baker’, ‘bakery’, ‘baking’ and ‘baked’. Rather than doing four separate searches, search for ‘bak*’ and the results will include all occurrences of words beginning with ‘bak’.

Search for keywords in the title and abstract (or just the abstract if the database won’t allow you to do both at once) so you can be sure that your keywords are being used in a meaningful context. If you search for keywords in the title only, you may get few results. If you search for keywords in the full text, you may get results that are not relevant.

Keep a record of the searches you do, so you don’t do the same search twice by mistake.

When you have finished your search of electronic sources, read the abstracts of journal articles before downloading or printing the full article – you may find that the abstract shows the article is not as appropriate or useful as you thought it might be from the title. If you’re still not sure if the whole article is worth reading, read the findings and conclusion sections to see if they give a better picture of what the article is about. Only download or print the full article once you are sure it is useful.

When reading books, check the contents list for main areas that might be useful and use the index to find keywords that are relevant to your research. Once you have identified the parts of the book that are relevant to your study, don’t feel that you have to read the rest of the book.

Look at the reference lists in the articles and books that you use – there may be some that you want to follow up and read in full.

Reading and reviewing

Read all the literature first and make sure you are familiar with it, so you can identify common themes and subjects that come up often.

Keep notes on the literature you read so you can refer back to them quickly, rather than having to read texts again at a later date.

Make sure you keep a record of the full reference for each piece of literature you use, together with the notes you have made – if you don’t do this, you could spend a lot of time later trying to find out which book or journal article your notes are based on.

When making notes, consider these points:

  • When was the literature published or when was the research conducted?
  • What was the research design, i.e. how was it done? Did the researcher use interviews, focus groups, online survey or something else?
  • What are the key findings?
  • What are the conclusions and recommendations?
  • What do you think of the research/literature?
  • How relevant is it to your research context?
  • Are there any really good quotes you could use from this piece of literature? If yes, make a note of the page number, as you’ll need to give that when you use the quote.

If you make a note of these points about every source you use, you will be able to see at a glance from your notes if there are any similarities or differences between what the sources say. For example, looking at all the conclusions and recommendations will show you if there is a consensus of opinion among researchers, theorists or practitioners.

Writing the review

Structure the review to have a clear introduction, followed by a discussion of the main points, then a short summary at the end. For example, you could start with a few sentences along the lines of:

This review considers a range of literature to determine [whatever your objective is for the literature review]. A number of themes emerged from the literature, including:

  • list whatever you’ve found in a bullet list
  • to make it quick for the reader to grasp
  • then use these bullet points as headings
  • in the literature review.

The rest of this chapter will consider each of these themes and examine how they relate to the research question. [Or, if there are too many themes for you to examine, say that the chapter will consider two or three of these in depth and explain why you have chosen those themes.]

Your literature review must describe, discuss and critically evaluate the evidence you have found. For example, you may have found that several authors of different textbooks or journal articles all recommend that it’s important to have a celebrity to launch a new product. You report this in your literature review by saying:

Smith (2009) and Jones (2007) both recommend that an organisation should enlist the support of a celebrity. They believe this is a good idea because… [explain how and why they have come to this conclusion].

Then make your own comment on the evidence, for example:

This idea clearly has some merits, for example [list the good things, with examples], but there are also some disadvantages, such as [list the disadvantages, with examples].

The examples you use could be from other literature, for example:

Company ABC used a sports celebrity to launch its range of healthy drinks and found this was very successful. Writing in Marketing Week, ABC’s Marketing Manager said, ‘Thank goodness we had a celebrity on board – without him our product would have failed’ (reference, date).

You may also want to comment on the research evidence you have found, for example to say that a particular piece of research is quite old now, or it was based on people in America so it might not be relevant, or that the research was done with a very small number of people so it might not be generalisable or applicable to your study. This way, you use a fact from the literature to illustrate a point then make your own points in addition.

Essentially, you have to construct an argument showing what the literature says, making links between different sources and making your own comment as you go along.

You must always support what you say with a reference. If you say that a particular company is the most successful in its sector, the reader will want to know the evidence on which you have based that statement.

You must use scholarly language when writing the review, so it is not appropriate to say what you think and feel about the subject in a subjective way. Here are some examples.

 

Wrong Right
I think this research is too old to be useful. Note that this research was conducted some time ago, and is now quite dated.
It’s obvious that celebrity endorsements help to sell products. It may be fair to assume that celebrity endorsements help to sell products and the literature supports this.
TV advertising is too expensive for most companies. Smith (2006) reports that the cost of TV advertising is beyond the reach of many companies.

 

At the end of the chapter, write a short summary to sum up what the literature has said and to show how the results of the review will inform what you decide to ask in the primary research phase. For example:

In summary, the literature suggests that the most important factors are [whatever you have found]. These have been discussed, and the disadvantages and advantages of each have been considered. The questions that arise from the review are:

  • list questions in a bullet list
  • to show how the results of the literature review
  • have led to specific lines of inquiry
  • for your primary research.

 

These questions will now be examined in the primary research.

The summary will lead the reader into the reporting, analysis and discussion of the results from your primary research.

Using references

When citing references in the text you must use the Harvard reference system. The library web pages can give you detailed information about how to use the Harvard system, but here are few key points.

To prove a point that you are making, use some research evidence and reference it like this (Smith, 2007). Always use a name and a date. Sometimes there are two names (Smith and Taylor, 2010) and sometimes there is no name, in which case you might use the publisher’s name or the name of the organisation that conducted the research (BBC, 2008). Another way to cite the reference is like this. Wallace (2004) said that it is a good idea to write clearly using short sentences and uncomplicated language. In this case, you only need to put the date in brackets, as you have mentioned the author’s name in the text already. If you want to mention more than one reference, separate them with a semi-colon like this (Crawley, 2001; Lawson and Yorke, 2009).

Make sure that all the references you use in the text are listed in the references list at the end of the dissertation, and vice versa. References must be listed in alphabetical order. For the paragraph above we would have to list:

 

BBC (2008) Book Title. London: BBC.

Crawley, H. (2001) ‘Article in a journal’, Journal Title, volume(number), pages.

Lawson, A. and Yorke, A. (eds) (2009) Book Title. Place of publication: Publisher’s name.

Smith, M. (2007) ‘Title of a conference paper’, Title of conference, specific date of conference.

Smith, P. and Taylor, J. (2010) Title of a book. Place: Publisher.

Wallace, D. (2004) Title of web page [online]. Available: web address, date accessed: date.

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