Guide to Writing a Good Dissertation Literature Review

Your tutor has asked you to write the literature review chapter for your dissertation. This endeavor is simple enough; just get out your textbooks, get a coffee, settle into a comfortable chair, and prepare to write short summaries of the material you read while you scan the books’ pages. Now your dissertation literature review is complete? Not entirely.

 

What Are Literature Reviews?

In simple terms, the literature review for a dissertation is a critical evaluation of any literature sources the writer has collected and read regarding their project’s subject. They also involve identifying any shortfall or gap in that material, which the writer will then try to address in their research. 

Writing a dissertation literature review is a process that frequently causes misunderstandings. Sometimes, this chapter can simply mean summarizing those sources that are most important but, mostly, the writer is required to critique each source and offer their opinion on it. How would you interpret a specific source? Is your interpretation of a given text significantly different from that of other experts? Engagement of this type is expected in a review of the literature. 

Compared to a summary, which is more likely to require a simple recapping of a source’s main arguments, a dissertation literature review expects much more. For example, it can offer a fresh perspective on existing research or it could consist of a combination of both existing and fresh interpretations (i.e. the “gap,” which will be covered in more detail later). Additionally, a review of the literature may outline is a critical and detailed term of any intellectual or scholarly developments related to a field where these are focused on debates of a major and sometimes polemical variety. Other types of literature reviews can also consist of source-based assessments and indicate to readers the relevance, pertinence and validity of a particular research topic. 

It is not unusual for literature reviews to get confused with other general academic papers, but these assignments are different. In broad terms, an academic paper has the aim of providing fresh research on a given subject while a literature review is often a component part of such an objective. As the foundation of the investigative work in most research papers, the literature review often serves the purpose of identifying gaps in existing research, which the writer then uses to support new insights or arguments. The aim of a literature review is to sum up and critically analyze the arguments from your reading materials while not contributing in any new way to the texts. This is why these chapters are called “reviews”.

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How to Write a Literature Review for a Dissertation

Because the following section in this article is relatively long, it has been broken down here into the main steps. We hope this makes it easier for you to follow if or when you have to write a literature review for a dissertation literature review chapter for your own dissertation.  Begin by locating suitable sources, which you should then read and read again. The next step is identifying gaps in the literature or research materials you have found. Your final task is to then write your literature review based on the prior preparation you have done and the data you have collected in the previous steps. 

Issue 1 Identifying Sources 

If the literature review for your dissertation is to be considered worthwhile, it is important you have some idea of the sources you will consider reviewing. If your course tutor has not provided a formal list of references, you should look back at the steps described earlier in this article. 

It is important you choose balanced sources; this should include a sufficient number of academic articles and books as well as any other works that have been published by respected scholars. To assist you in selecting appropriate sources, it can help to consider the objectives and parameters of your project. What is it you hope to discover? Are there any theoretical perspectives or issues you want to particularly address in your dissertation’s literature review? What methodology might you use – quantitative or qualitative methods or a combination of these? The answers to these questions can help you in choosing sources, and do not forget that a source’s abstract section can be extremely useful. Quickly scanning abstracts and the keywords within these chapters can often indicate if a source might be beneficial or not for your project. 

When you are selecting literature sources keep a list of these or otherwise you might lose track of them, especially when you consider the vastness of the Internet. There are tools available for maintaining references, such as Mendeley, which stores sources by way of a computer-based application or online. These tools are excellent for keeping a bibliography well organized. These tools also come with citation features that enable citations to be exported in your preferred format when you need to do so later. This should save many hours of your time as you try to correctly apply, say, the APA or Harvard citation styles. 

Issue 2 Read the Sources You Have Chosen 

Once your source materials are efficiently organized, read them. Although it may seem unnatural, the most effective way to do this is to arrange your reading in the stages described below: 

Begin by going through every text to gain an understanding of its overall content and its arguments. This should help you decide the sources you most want to include in your literature review. The next stage in the reading process involves looking more deeply and critically at chosen sources. Take plenty of notes, ask plenty of questions, and be quite critical. With your academic hat on, what do you think of a particular text? Is the hypothesis, chosen methodology or theoretical argument something you want to comment on? Make a note of these, not least because they will be useful for developing a dissertation literature review outline later. This thoroughness will help ensure your review is more than a mere summary of what you have read, and it will help you develop a clear argument that makes your paper coherent and logical. 

Issue 3 Look for Gaps in Your Readings and Research Materials 

A crucial thing to think about in the writing of a literature review for a dissertation is to identify any gap in existing research. This is especially important in the review for, say, a research proposal because it will draw attention to the significance of your chosen research – assuming your project aims to bridge such a gap. At other times, finding a gap can gain you a better score because it can indicate effective critical analysis. 

It is important when identifying a gap to understand the exact nature of such a “gap.” Essentially, a gap in research occurs when a particular problem, question or perspective has not been addressed in any literature that currently exists in a given field. Identifying gaps is very important for highlighting the fact your research is original; it shows you are not just regurgitating or rehashing research that already exists. Also, it demonstrates your awareness of the state of literature in the field you have chosen. In turn, this shows how much effort and investigation that has gone into your literature review. 

A lot of students, particularly post-graduate level students, struggle to identify gaps in existing research within their field of study. In post-graduate level research projects, identifying gaps in research and developing research questions to address such gaps is the basis of this type of paper. However, the identification of gaps need not be difficult because there are a number of ways to tackle such difficulties: 

Issue 4 Begin with Reading 

The simplest way to approach this is to read key parts of important research materials relating to your chosen field. The first thing to note is how necessary it is to scan numerous articles with the aim of selecting those that best suit your project. You could do a keyword search in Google Scholar as this often provides an overview of any relevant literature that is available. Databases like Wiley Online Library and JSTOR are also useful resources. It is then possible to locate additional materials by following links to ‘related articles’ or by looking for other research papers that your sources are cited in. 

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Abstract Chapters and Recommendation Sections 

Reading abstracts is very often an effective way of finding out what a paper or article is about. Examine also the introduction and conclusion sections of papers you think may be relevant because these almost always contain information regarding the research aims. Additionally, they usually describe the outcomes and any recommendations for further research or study. Typically, such recommendations offer some level of insight into any gaps in the existing literature. An additional method is to just read any material you can get on your subject while thinking about areas that the literature still needs to address – this generally draws attention to any gaps in existing research. 

  • Start Writing Your Literature Review 

By now, you should be well placed to start typing. Keep these pointers in mind: 

  1. Refer to sample dissertation literature reviews.
  2. Focus on simplicity
  3. Ensure your chosen sources are as up-to-date as possible
  4. Pay attention to how your written work is organized
  5. Write your paper’s body paragraphs
  6. Write your paper’s concluding chapter 
  • Do Not Merely Repeat Other Writers’ Opinions

Focus on analyzing and make sure you do this with a critical lens (have other researchers missed anything; how does your viewpoint fit with their opinions, and so on).

  • Use Different Techniques Available to Structure Your Argument(s) 

Structure your work according to themes, controversial questions/issues or important debates and in accordance with suitable methodologies. Be dynamic in the way you write your literature review, but also coherent. Do not forget to link gaps in the existing literature to your particular research. 

  • Do Not Be Sparse with Evidence 

This point is very important and is indeed the essence of a literature review. Refer to a variety of sources to make your point(s). Your interpretation and argument(s) relating to your topic need to be supported with evidence. Avoid making unsubstantiated claims because literature reviews are part of academic papers. They are not opinion pieces. 

  • Be Extremely Selective 

You do not have to review every item of research. If your aim is to demonstrate your familiarity with the literature that is available, consider these techniques in your writing: “There exists significant literature about the migration habits of refugees fleeing Syria. Works worthy of note are A (2016), B (2014), C (2017).” Once these works have been acknowledged, it is unnecessary to do a detailed review of them. Take a selective approach to the specific sources that will be discussed in your literature review. 

  • Do not Overly-Rely on Direct Quotations 

Use these only to underline particular points. Likewise, do not rely too much on one author’s work. Just indicate how important a particular author’s work is to your project before moving on. Only use them to emphasize a point. Should you find yourself needing to return to one author’s work, these discussions can be linked to the work you are doing. Do not just summarize the work of the author. Rather, say whether you agree or not with their work. Use a critical lens. 

  • Let Your Unique Voice be Heard 

Certainly, the entire objective of a literature review is to critically analyze and sum up existing viewpoints and also to ensure your own opinion concerning the literature is made known. You will note from existing sample reviews how skillful the writers are at blending their own opinions with source materials. Read sample papers to develop your own review writing skills.

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