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ECS 4990 Special Topics for Upper Division Students

What is a Literature Review?

What is the Literature Review 

Created by Olivia Olivares, Social Sciences Team Librarian, University of Arizona Libraries

A literature review IS: 

  • select list of available resources and materials with a strong relation to the topic in question, accompanied by a description AND a critical evaluation and comparative analysis of each work.
    The literature review is not merely a list of every item and resource with any possible relation to your topic, no matter how tenuous. It focuses on those resources and materials that are directly relevant to the addressing of your topic, and as such, is highly selective.

    Each resource should be accompanied by a short description and a critical evaluation. 
  • Focused on a particular question or area of research.
    The literature review is not a widespread, comprehensive list of all materials pertaining to a particular discipline or field of inquiry. Rather, it's narrowly focused to concentrate only on truly relevant materials. For example, a literature review of materials on Margaret Sanger's role in the struggle to make contraception readily available to women in the United States, written for the Women's Studies department, will focus on Sanger's life, writings, works and activism, the historical and social setting of her life and works, and the various theoretical approaches to the study of her life and works. It will not include materials on the history of women's rights or feminism in the United States in general, unless those materials have strong relevance to Sanger's work. 
  • A select list of available, relevant resources and materials available in any and all formats.
    A good literature review is not limited to dissertations, books and journal articles, but may include web pages, film and video, maps (if applicable), United States and international government documents, photographs, book reviews, and materials in many other formats and categories. The material's relevance to your research question is what's important, not the format.

A literature review IS NOT: 

  • A summary of available materials without any critical description or component; or
  • An annotated bibliography.

The differences between an annotated bibliography and a literature review:

  • Differences in PURPOSE:

    • A literature review makes a case for further investigation and research, highlighting gaps in knowledge and asking questions that need to be answered for the betterment of the discipline; as such, its contents are selected to make the case.
    • An annotated bibliography is a list of what's available in a given field, accompanied by a short description. While it may feature a critical component, the criticism is generally directed at the quality of the work, rather than at its value in answering a particular question or buttressing an argument
    • IN SHORT: a literature review usually has a thesis or statement of purpose, stated or implied, at its core.
  • Differences in FORMAT:

    • A literature review is a prose document similar to a journal article or essay, not a list of citations and descriptions. Here at the University of Arizona, the literature review is generally presented to one's dissertation advisor/sponsor, and occasionally to the dissertation committee, as a precondition to departmental approval of one's research. Your advisor does not want to read a long list of book and article titles, and neither does the department committee. 

      It may help you and your advisor if you organize your writing into sections, each with a theme. For example, your literature review might include a section on resources that support your hypothesis, another section on resources that disprove or contradict your thesis, a section on resources that neither support nor disprove your thesis but raise additional questions, et c. See the section of this guide on components of the literature review for more guidance, and remember to speak with your dissertation/thesis advisor about the best possible formats for your literature review. 
    • An annotated bibliography is simply that: a bibliography (a list of works or resources), accompanied by annotations. The annotations are usually short descriptions and a brief critical assessment of each work. While annotated bibliographies are generally not acceptable as literature reviews written for departmental review and approval, they are valuable adjuncts to literature reviews. Indeed, the best literature reviews will be based on good, comprehensive annotated bibliographies; and many UA departments require that literature reviews written for departmental approval of research be accompanied by an annotated bibliography.