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Literature Reviews: Planning Your Review

This guide is designed to offer guidance for completing a literature review, and will link you to resources, techniques, and advanced approaches to conducting and writing a literature review.

Planning Your Literature Review

Writing a literature review will take time to gather and analyze the research relevant to your topic, so it best to start early and give yourself enough time to gather and analyze your sources.  The process of writing a literature review usually covers the following steps:

  1. Define your Research question
  2. Plan your approach to your research and your review
  3. Search the Literature
  4. Analyze the material you’ve found
  5. Managing the results of your research
  6. Writing your Review

Defining Your Research Question

One of the hardest parts of a literature review is to develop a good research question.  You don't want a research question that is so broad it encompasses too many research areas, and can't be reasonably answered. 

Defining your topic may require an initial review of literature on your topic to get a sense of the scope about your topic.   Select a topic of interest, and do a preliminary search to see what kinds of research is being done and what is trending in that topic area.  This will give you a better sense of the topic, and help you focus your research question

In specifying your topic or research question, you should think about setting appropriate limitations on the research you are seeking. Limiting, for example, by time, personnel, gender, age, location, nationality etc. results in a more focused and meaningful topic. 

Using an example from the Duke University Writing Studio, you may start with a general question: 

Why did the chicken cross the road?  This question is so general that you could be gathering relevant research for days. 

A more precise research question might be: 

What are some of the environmental factors that occurred in Pittsburgh, PA between January and February 2015 that would cause a chicken to cross Forbes Avenue?  This research question is specific about a number of variables like time, geography, etc.  

Additional Help:

Questions to Ask

Some questions to think about as you develop your literature review:

  • What is known about the subject?
  • Are there any gaps in the knowledge of the subject?
  • Have areas of further study been identified by other researchers that you may want to consider?
  • Who are the significant research personalities in this area?
  • Is there consensus about the topic?
  • What aspects have generated significant debate on the topic?
  • What methods or problems were identified by others studying in the field and how might they impact your research?
  • What is the most productive methodology for your research based on the literature you have reviewed?
  • What is the current status of research in this area?
  • What sources of information or data were identified that might be useful to you?
  • How detailed? Will it be a review of ALL relevant material or will the scope be limited to more recent material, e.g., the last five years.
  • Are you focusing on methodological approaches; on theoretical issues; on qualitative or quantitative research?

Additional Help:

Books about Literature Reviews