Literature Reviews


  • What do we already know about the topic?
  • What do you have to say critically about what is already known?
  • Has anyone else ever done anything exactly the same?
  • Has anyone else done anything that is related?
  • Where does your work fit in with what has gone before?
  • Why is your research worth doing in the light of what has already been done?

This means that you should always approach any publication or website with a set of questions, for instance:

  • What are the relevant findings?
  • What are the relevant methodologies?
  • What are the relevant theories?
  • What are the relevant hypotheses?
  • What are the relevant samples?
  • What is the relevance to how I now see my research problem?
  • What possible new directions for my research are implied?

For a very helpful 15-minute talk on writing a literature review go to:

Zina O’Leary talks about common problems in writing a literature review:

Dr. Eric Jensen, Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, and Dr. Charles Laurie, Director of Research at Verisk Maplecroft, explain how to write a literature review, and why researchers need to do so. Literature reviews can be stand-alone research or part of a larger project. They communicate the state of academic knowledge on a given topic, specifically detailing what is still unknown:

Case study

In the passage below, one of my research students, Geraldine Leydon, explains how, after she had completed her research, she was able to write a lively literature review:

Telling my research story

A step-by-step appraisal of the broad literature read during the course of study carried a risk of providing an unnecessarily protracted read. In place of the conventional literature review chapter, I opted to tell the story of the research and in so doing describe some of the literature that left an impression on me – good and bad – and which encouraged me to ask the questions that I eventually came to ask. To impose a structured description of my literature retrospectively would have failed to capture adequately a more ‘honest’ and oftentimes-chaotic journey toward achieving a coherent topic and analytic approach, and in being able to nest the problem in an apposite literature.

As well as situating the research in a broader context, I attempt to situate myself as an audience of the literature and explain how my reading of ‘it’ led to the work reported on the following pages. In so doing, the constraints or limitations imposed by alternative analytic approaches are raised. The resulting critique is intended not to attack the utility of work already undertaken in the broad research domain of cancer, information and communication, but to demonstrate my rationale for choosing one way over another.

In providing a natural history chapter in place of a literature review, the insights and influences of other literatures are still drawn on at relevant points. Moreover, in line with a qualitative approach to data analysis, reference to the literature occurs throughout the data chapters to augment and illuminate the points conveyed. In short, the thesis engages with relevant literatures throughout, and not in a single chapter. [Geraldine Leydon, Sociology, Goldsmiths]


  • Does your literature contain an argument or does it just list a set of writings?
  • Does it explain the rationale for your research?
  • Have you [rightly] delayed writing it up or are you writing it too early?