Reviewing literature for the research proposal
- Situating your research within the discipline
- Reading for the literature review
- Writing the literature review
- Language use in the literature review
- Constructing the story line
- Structure of the literature review
- Authorial voice
- Citation verb tense
- Discipline differences in citations
- Reporting verbs and discipline differences
- Steps for writing the literature review
- Questions to assess your literature review
- Questions that may be helpful in writing your literature review
This resource focuses on the second major section within the research proposal, the literature review. The purpose of the literature review within a research proposal is to summarise what is known, or to describe the kinds of approaches that have been taken in relation to the problem area, in the discipline to date. This is done in order to lead up to your question, or to show that your work will contribute something new to a disciplinary field of knowledge. A research question is said to be 'significant' when it grows out of a credible gap or unanswered question or conundrum within the field. The literature review is, in a sense, the foundation upon which the 'significance' of the research project is based because it substantiates and frames the research question. The question then provides the point of reference for the research design or practice.
Writing a critical literature review involves accurate reporting of the central findings and arguments of other researchers and scholars in your discipline. It also involves offering an assessment about the extent to which existing research and scholarship addresses your research problem or focus. It is only in reviewing what has gone before that the significance of your own work emerges. In other words, in order to think outside the box, it is necessary to first provide a review of the contents of the box!
This resource considers the importance of the discipline within which the research is situated, how to read for and write the literature review, and how to adopt an assertive voice in relation to literature. It also looks at citation verb tense, use of reporting verbs in different disciplines, and explains how to get started on the literature review.
In preparing to write a research literature review it is important to be clear about the discipline your research is situated within. The guidelines for the examination of the PhD stipulate that the candidate must make 'an original contribution to a field of knowledge'. The 'field' of research refers to the discipline, sub-discipline or multi-discipline area within which the research or creative practice is situated. Examples of disciplines are psychology, sociology, visual arts, history, geography, women's studies, media studies, area studies, education.
A discipline is not simply a group of scholars working on the same problem or topic area. Racial discrimination, for instance, is a topic area within a number of disciplines; it is not a single discipline area. A discipline is a global branch of knowledge taught and assessed within higher education, usually defined by shared journals, conferences and sometimes academic schools and publishers. Disciplines often share common approaches to problems, theories, methods and styles of writing. Some disciplines are well-established, others are emerging. Very large disciplines, like psychology, may be comprised of many recognised sub-disciplines. Cognitive psychology for instance, is a sub-discipline within psychology.
Some 'disciplines' are in fact multi-disciplinary areas of scholarship which bring together scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds to a study of the same foci. For example, education is a professional discipline concerned with how people learn and develop, bringing together scholars working from psychological, sociological, philosophical and other discipline perspectives. Scholars working within a multi-disciplinary area often share a border with a second discipline. For example, within the discipline of higher education, educational theorists are often knowledgeable in philosophical debates about learning and perception; sociologists are knowledgeable in debates about the role of education in society. These scholars may publish in philosophical or sociological journals, as well as in education journals. Sometimes two discipline areas of scholarship are brought together in specific journals, for example the journal of Educational Philosophy or the British Journal of Educational Sociology.
When reading and writing your literature review it is important to be aware of discipline. This is because each discipline tends to define, measure, conceptualise and problematise its objects of thought in shared and distinctive ways. For example, cognitive psychology is not simply a body of knowledge about the brain or about how people think, but a branch of knowledge concerned with mental processes including attention, memory, language use, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking. Cognitive psychologists use similar kinds of tests, experiments, theories and philosophical assumptions in their definition and exploration of these mental processes. The way that cognitive psychologists understand mental processes is different from the way that sociologists, philosophers or educators define, conceptualise and approach the subject of thinking. Cognitive psychologists submit their work to global academic journals and conferences in cognitive psychology, attended by other cognitive psychologists, and they submit their research theses to cognitive psychologists. Thesis examiners must be drawn from the discipline the thesis is situated within, and, because disciplines are global collectives of scholars and researchers, your examiner may be located anywhere in the world. Your examiner and your research proposal panel will read your literature review to determine whether it adequately situates your research within your discipline, and they will make an assessment of whether your proposed research will make a meaningful contribution to your discipline.
This is why research is said to be 'new', not simply in a particular region of the world (Australia or India say), but within a globally held body of discipline knowledge. Of course much research is relevant to the context of one or more regions or countries, but the research on those regions also contributes new insights to the study of similar problems elsewhere. And research on a specific context takes into consideration how existing discipline knowledge may or may not shed light on that context. Research on specific contexts considers whether there are implications of the research findings for assumptions the discipline makes about other contexts.
Although your literature review will focus on reviewing academic literature in your own discipline, some literature reviews are situated at the border of two or more disciplines. If this is the case for you, try to make a disctinction between discipline/s drawn upon in your research, and the discipline you are situated within, and to which you aim to make a contribution. The field you will contribute to is your audience. Your examiner will be drawn from this field. If you publish, it will be in journals that publish research and scholarship of interest to this field. For instance, the fine arts commonly draw from a wide net of scholarship, but they will be examined by and publish in the visual arts. When reading and writing for the literature review, Try to remain mindful of the discipline informing what you are reading; consider indicating the discipline when you report research or scholarship in your review if relevant; and think about how the discipline shapes the approach taken.
For a listing and description of current disciplines have a look at the wikipedia site (which links to different disciplines) at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_disciplines
This site may be helpful in clarifying the discipline and sub-discipline you are writing in, and in understanding its shared concerns and approaches.
Questions for situating your research in its discipline
- What discipline is your research situated within?
- What shared problem spaces, assumptions, questions, objectives, purposes or methodological approaches are distinctive to your discipline?
- Is yours a multi-disciplinary area?
- If you are working within a multi-disciplinary area, what discipline/s are represented, and what disciplines inform research in your topic area?
- What, if any, are the sub-disciplines within your discipline? What sub-discipline are you working within?
- Does your research pertain to more than one disciplinary or multi-disciplinary area? What are they?
- If you are working across disciplines, which one will you contribute to (be examined by/publish in)? And which will you draw upon? How does the discipline shape the perspective taken on your problem area? Do you need to comment on this in your review?
- What are the discipline backgrounds of your supervisors?
- If you have supervisors from different discipline backgrounds, is this reflected in their different roles in relation to your project?
Once you have clarified the discipline and sub-discipline you are working within, you are ready to begin organising and reading literature within your discipline.
From the above, you can see that reading is central to writing a good literature review. Reading for research purposes is different from reading for other degree purposes, such as answering essay questions or simply demonstrating knowledge of a subject.
Reading for research purposes focuses upon:
- research coverage─ topics, subject matter or foci of research in the field, often summarised to provide a map of the field, to locate your topic, and to indicate the relative novelty of your focus;
- 'what is known'─focus on central findings, central arguments or central themes, summarising the substance of papers, books and artefacts to provide an accurate representation of the ideas and approaches in the discipline, used to lead up to and frame the originality of the research;
- similarities and differences among approaches to the topic within the discipline─focus on whether this finding is similar to or different from other research and scholarship in the discipline, used to summarise and present an organised depiction of what is known or accepted and to signal emerging or divergent findings or approaches in the field;
- research implications─focus on the implications arising from central findings or arguments for the field of practice, policy, methodology, theory or future research, used to indicate what is at stake in the knowledge of the discipline or why it matters in relation to a given problem space; may also be used to draw conclusions about the efficacy of an approach and to frame the originality of the proposed research;
- research methods─focus on identifying variables, measures, methods, modes of analysis, may be used to identify strengths and weaknesses in findings and arguments, shifts in discipline approach, or to justify current approach;
- theories─focus on identifying and explaining theories, how they are used and how they have shaped approaches and findings in the field, may be used to identify theoretical limitations and the need for a new theoretical approach;
- practices and applications─focus on identifying how interventions are applied, or how practices occur, may be used to establish a practical need not being met.
The first four foci are commonly found in literature review writing. All researchers read to ascertain the foci of the field, the key findings or arguments, similarities and differences that organise or separate research and scholarship in the discipline, and to present the implications of the knowledge of the field. Research methodology, theory or a practical application may also be referred to in substantiating the newness of the proposed research, but this will depend on the project. The methodological approach adopted in previous research might be discussed, for instance, to argue that previous methodological approaches fail to capture some critical aspect of the subject that the proposed research aims to explicate by using a different methodological approach.
Useful questions when reading texts for the literature review:
Swales, J., 1984, Research into the structure of introductions to journal articles and its application to the teaching of academic writing, in Ray Williams, John Swales and John Kirkman, (eds.), Common Ground shared interests in ESP and communication studies, ELT Documents 117, Pergamon Press.
The literature review can be thought of as containing the following 'moves' or conceptual steps. These moves sometimes equate to the beginning, middle and end of a research literature review, or of sections and even paragraphs within literature reviews. In practice, literature review writing may not conform exactly to this pattern, but it can be useful to identify the moves and the order of moves to facilitate your thinking about how you will write your own literature review. The moves are:
1. Establish a research territory
Introduce and review items of previous research and scholarship in the area.
2. Establish a niche
Indicate a gap in the literature by raising a question about it.
3. Occupy the niche
Outline the purpose or state the nature of the present research or study.
This generic move pattern is often referred to as an 'upside-down triangle'. This is because the discussion moves from broad summaries of the field of literature, to literature on a specific focus area, and narrows progressively to the precise focus of the study. Accepted findings or conclusions are presented first, at the base of the triangle, or the beginning of the review, section or paragraph, with unresolved problems being raised towards the end. At the beginning of this move pattern, or the base of the triangle, general trends within the literature are summarised. As you move towards the end of the review, the discussion narrows down to discuss more recent, novel, radical or marginal trends, or specific research studies or books that are closer to your own focus of inquiry. This order is typical because the 'significance' or newness of the study is demonstrated by reviewing existing approaches and findings. Towards the end of the review, the discussion gradually narrows down to the statement of the research question or aim.
There's nothing written on my topic so what can I write about?
As you can see, much of the writing in the literature review is not directly on your topic area. To assist in deciding what to cover in your literature review, think about the ways in which the academic literature in your field can be used to frame, lead up to, or introduce your research. The first part of your literature review introduces research and scholarship which is generally relevant, but perhaps not immediately related to your topic area. The following questions may be useful in thinking about how to write your literature review:
- How have scholars in your field or in other fields thought about this problem in more general terms?
- Given approaches within the field to date on related aspects of your focus, how is the problem likely to be understood, conceptualised, theorised, measured, approached?
- Given approaches within the field to date on related aspects of your focus, what might we expect to find in relation to your topic or focus area?
- What foci have been dominant to date in your field; why has your topic not been given close consideration before?
- What previous research and scholarship led up to your question or problem focus?
Writing based on these questions will situate your topic within the discipline and highlight the significance of your focus for the discipline.
Some language forms within each of the moves within the literature review section of the research proposal are reproduced below. You would expect to see similar language patterns, as appropriate to your discipline and project, within your own research proposal.
Establish a research territory
1. Introduce and review items of previous research in the area:
- The theme of ... has been taken up in a varitey of ways within the field of ... . These include ... .
- Treatment of the subject of ... has revolved around ... .
- A central issue in the field of ... is … .
- The question of whether … has been extensively studied in recent years.
- Early studies suggest that ... .
- More recently, it has been argued that ... .
- Many recent studies show that ... .
As the review narrows, you would expect sentence stems that refer to a narrower range of studies which press more directly on the topic of the research.
- Of those studies which have looked directly at ... the focus has been on ... .
- The study by .... showed that ... .
- The methodology adopted in these studies led to more consideration given to ... than to ... .
- More recently artists working in the space of ... have sought to express ... .
Establish a niche
2. Indicate a 'gap' in previous research by raising a question about it, or extending previous knowledge in some way:
- The research has tended to focus on …, rather than on … .
- These studies have emphasised …, as opposed to … .
- Although considerable research has been devoted to …, rather less attention has been paid to … .
- Previous research has concentrated on … , rather than considering whether ... .
- Most studies have been content to … , and have not explained ... .
- So far, investigations have been confined to … , leaving the question of ... .
Establishing a research territory and a niche within the research are moves that take place throughout the literature reivew. That is, writing typically provides a summary of key research in the field, punctuated by relatively infrequent claims about the aspect of the research problem that remains uncertain. Such claims usually appear at the end of major sections or paragraphs within the reivew, and certainly at the end of the overall literature review.
Occupy the niche
3. Outline purpose or state the nature of the present research:
- The purpose of this research project is to … .
- The purpose of this investigation is to … .
- The aim of this research project is to … .
- This study is designed to … .
- This creative work and accompanying exegesis aims to ... .
Language use in the research problem and the literature review
All sections of the research proposal draw on literature, but they do so for different purposes. In the introduction, literature is used to set the context or to describe the problem area. In the literature review, literature is used to summarise what is known on a problem area. This difference in purpose is reflected in different language usage in different parts of the research proposal.
Example of literature use in problem statement
Elder abuse can take many forms including physical, emotional (eg Brown, 1980, Taylor, 1990), financial (eg Edwards, 1998; Singh, 2001) and social (eg Banks 2010; Nguyen 2010). Within contemporary Western societies, attitudes towards the elderly are influenced by negative social stereotypes (Lee 2016). Poor funding in aged care settings has also put pressure on the quality of care for elderly residents (Do 2015).
Here literature is used to describe the problem or context or to provide general knowledge about it. This kind of writing would be appropriate in the introduction of the research proposal to introduce the research problem, but it would not be as appropriate in the literature review. This is because, in the context of a literature review, it is unclear why the statements are provided, how they pertain to the field, or to your assessment of the literature. Contrast this with the rewritten version of the same paragraph below for the literature review.
Example of literature use in a literature review
Early research on elder abuse focused on understanding its different forms, with a range of studies pointing to its physical and emotional (eg Brown, 1980, Taylor, 1990), financial (eg Edwards, 1998; Singh, 2001) and social (eg Banks 2010; Nguyen 2010) dimensions. More recently, research has focused on the social and institutional conditions which exacerbate the prevalence of elder abuse. For instance, Lee's (2016) survey of social attitudes towards the elderly finds a direct link between negative stereotyping of the aged and elder abuse. Do's (2015) study of pre and post 1980s aged care homes suggests that funding and resource pressures are contributing factors in elder abuse within the institutional care setting.
This example is appropriate for the literature review because the bolded language added to the writing makes it clear that the review is a report of findings and key shifts in the field of research.
There are different types of narrative patterns within literature reviews. The review may tell the story of an already well-defined line of inquiry. More typically, it is necessary to organise, and possibly to reframe or reconceptualise, literature to establish your own research contribution. While each review is ultimately unique, some patterns across research literature reviews have been observed. These are described below.
Golden-Biddle and Lock (1997:26-35) summarise three major ways that researchers construct their fields of research:
- Synthesised coherence brings previously unrelated work together (possibly from two or more disciplines) highlighting points of agreement in order to demonstrate the need for further investigation within one discipline. In this mode the review highlights common concepts, methodologies, perspectives within apparently disparate fields of research and scholarship and sets its aim as bringing the insight from one field into another.
- Progressive coherence depicts the literature in terms of cumulative knowledge growth, consensus of perspectives and methods, and a well developed and focused line of inquiry. This is the pattern typically associated with the hard sciences, but it is also common in the social sciences. The current project is constructed as the next logical step in this collective and growing understanding of the topic.
- Noncoherence constructs the literature in terms of points of disagreement within a research program or body of practice. This way of constructing your contribution emphasises both the continuous nature of the field, but also competing explanations, disputes, debates, or contradictions in the methodological approaches, findings or concepts adopted. The study or practice situates itself within a contested field, and states its aims in terms of resolving or shedding light upon the debate.
Golden-Biddle and Lock (1997:26-35) also summarise some of the different ways that researchers and scholars problematise the literature:
The literature is portrayed as unfinished in a specific area. The author seeks to augment the field or fill a gap, rather than question its reigning paradigms in any significant way.
The literature is portrayed as excluding alternative perspectives. The research aims to contribute by bringing this oversight into view and introducing different views and frameworks. Existing paradigms are not so much questioned as extended and improved.
Existing research and scholarship is portrayed as not simply incomplete, but wrong or misguided in some way. The existing research or body of work seeks to overthrow existing views or paradigms in the field and to posit an alternative.
Example gap statements
Sociological insights about how culture interprets or constructs meaning and how this influences information exchange across contexts provides useful insights for conceptualising the relay of information within public health cross-cultural communication models (suggests that an outside discipline, sociology, has something to contribute to the research discipline, public health). This study aims to understand how health information framed in Western contexts is received and understood within the context of Papua New Guinea, and how information exchange might need to be adapted to maximise communication efficacy.
Questions about quality intensive care within the health care literature have not been extended beyond the biomedical model and an emphasis on saving life, to include not only the preservation of life, but the value of a peaceful and dignified death (points to competing perspectives, and aims to incorporate an excluded perspective). This research aims to understand how prioritising human dignity within end-of-life intensive care contexts would change existing nursing practice.
A useful way of opening the literature review section of the research proposal is to restate the problem or focus area, in as concise a manner as possible, within one of the opening sentences. For instance, an opening sentence within the literature review introductory paragraph might state ... 'Institutionalised child abuse (restatement of problem) has been approached within the field of social work from a variety of perspectives. These include ... '. The introduction of the literature review also provides a statement of the main point that will be developed in the literature review section of the proposal, and briefly states the main themes or topics that will be covered in the main body of the literature review section.
Example introductory paragraph of literature review research proposal
Poor outcomes for sustainable Aboriginal enterprises (refers to research problem or issue) has been explained by a range of structural, cultural, historical, geographic and social factors. Scholarship on indigenous enterprise and sustainability within business (topic and field of literature to be reviewed) points increasingly to the need for greater Aboriginal involvement in business. The research is split however between an emphasis upon the need to relinquish cultural values and practices in order to ensure commercial success, and the insistence that the mingling of the two is the only basis for business success (the main point of the review, an unresolved controversy that will be discussed in the review). There is also concern about the role of indigenous self-rule and communal ownership of land for commercial enterprise (the main point of the review, another unresolved controversy that will be discussed in the review). This research seeks to contribute to these debates by drawing conclusions about the necessary conditions for sustainable enterprise on remote Aboriginal freehold land in the Northern Territory (main point of the review, the focus of the research).
Example introductory paragraph/s of literature review book chapter
Ekins, R 1997, Male femaling, Routledge, London.
As I have intimated in the introduction, cross-dressing and sex-changing in contemporary advanced industrialised societies are variously considered as shocking, a media spectacle of prurient and endless fascination, a medical problem to be understood, managed and treated …
Refers back to the central problem or concern of the research.
Each aspect has generated its own literature in terms of curiosity and sensationalism in the popular press, specialist texts on ‘transvestism’, ‘transsexuality’ and ‘gender dysphoria’ in the psychiatric-psychological-medical arena (references), and in terms of world-wide information networks for cross-dressers and sex changers themselves (references).
Provides further contextualisation for the research, and introduces one body of literature.
Infrequently, social scientists have attended to the area, most typically from the specialist standpoints of ethnomethodology, the sociology of deviance, the medicalisation of gender roles, or feminism. Studies such as these have invariably underplayed the erotic, in both its subjective and social features.
Signals the field area (sub-fields within sociology and women's studies) that the research is grounded in. Summarises the main point of the review─there is a 'gap' in these literatures (the erotic).
A widespread questioning of gender role stereotypes has led many commentators to touch on ‘transsexuals’ and ‘transvestites’ as part of a general consideration of contemporary gender options. These writers suggest that cross-dressers and sex-changers may have a lot to teach us all about the most fundamental questions of our natures, as being variously sexed and gendered. … Such studies, for the most part, however, remain at the level of textual analysis and evidence a lack of intimate and wide-ranging knowledge of the experiences of cross-dressers and sex-changers themselves.
Points to the implications of research in the area─better understanding of mainstream sexuality and gender. Points to a 'gap' within this literature arising from methodological approaches to the question to date─lack of attention to lived experience.
What remains to be addressed, then, is a consideration of cross-dressing and sex-changing from the standpoint of a systematic and empirical exploration of the interrelations between sex, sexuality and gender. …
Summarises a 'gap' or 'establishes a niche'─the need for a systematic, empirical exploration that includes the lived experience of sex, gender, sexuality.
It is instructive to distinguish the grounded theory approach from others used in the psychiatric and social scientific literature.
Introduces the alternative methodological approach that will be adopted─grounded theory.
The following review will serve as both a summary of the cognate work and an introduction to the research methodology which generated this study.
Outlines what will be covered in the chapter.
Section structure of the literature review
Headings within the literature review should be used sparingly, and only to indicate major shifts in the discussion. Headings may signal, for instance:
- historical evolutions in the pattern of ideas,
- moves in the conceptual threads of debate (issues, questions, themes),
- different theoretical and methodological positions within the field.
Introduction to the literature review
- Link briefly to problem or focus area of the research
- Summarise the main point of the review
- Refer briefly, one sentence or two, to the major topics in the section
The main body of the literature review
- Report research findings and central arguments or approaches
- Draw any conclusions about what remains uncertain or debatable (that you will investigate)
- Report research findings and central arguments or approaches
- Draw any conclusions about what remains uncertain or debatable (that you will investigate)
- From each of the section summaries, highlight the most relevant areas of uncertainty that you will investigate in your research or explore in your practice
- State the research aims
- Point to implications for the research design or body of work to link to the next section on methodology (as relevant).
When reporting the findings of other authors, it is sometimes difficult to ensure that one's own point of view is not lost within the literature review. One way of achieving an assertive stance and of foregrounding your voice when discussing the ideas of others is to use specific kinds of citation patterns. There are two central citation patterns:
According to Brown (1999), the sky is blue.
Information prominent (author non-integral)
The sky is blue (Brown, 1999).
In the first example, it is unclear whether the writer agrees with author being cited. In the second, it is clear that the author agrees with the author being cited. Texts that rely heavily on author integral citation patterns can often be unclear because the author's voice is drowned out by the literature. The examples below attempt to illustrate this in a more complex example.
The paragraph below is author integral:
Dimopoulos (2010) and Kaspiew et al. (2009) state that the new Family Relationship Centres encourage separated parents to remain child-focused and to reach agreements to assist parents to avoid the involvement of the family court system. Petridis and Hannan (2011) identify the importance of the role of the FRC for parents and children to discuss parenting arrangements and confirm a parenting plan. Baker and Bishop (2005, p.212) found school personnel need to be included in FRC meetings with families and agency staff from the outset to ensure the agreements hold. This study further explores the importance of parent-school partnerships in establishing effective parenting agreements.
In this paragraph, every sentence, except for the last, opens with a reference. As a result it is difficult to determine where the author stands in relation to the statements being made. It also appears that the findings reported in the first and second sentences are similar and could be combined into one sentence with one reference bracket. The paragraph below attempts to remedy this.
There is emerging evidence that Family Relationsip Centres can play an effective role in facilitating a discussion of parenting arrangements and in confirming a suitable parenting plan enabling parents to avoid the family court system (Dimopoulos 2010; Kaspiew et al. 2009; Petridis and Hannan, 2011). There is however also evidence that school personnel need to be included in Family Relationship Centre meetings with families and agency staff from the outset to ensure that agreements hold (Baker and Bishop 2005, p.212). This study further explores the importance of parent-school partnerships in establishing effective parenting agreements.
This rewrite combines similar findings into one sentence, and places the key finding before the authors of the finding, who are acknowledged at the end of the sentence in the reference bracket. This makes it clear where the author stands in relation to existing research.
Compare the first, author integral paragraph toward the end of a literature review with the second, information prominent version that follows:
- Despite decades of research, some authors still claim that the burden of family care is not well understood. Hoenig and Hilton (2014:20) claim that most studies focus on the carer’s subjective perception of caring, and objective factors like the social and economic costs of caring to the carer. Yamashita (1998:12) comments that only a few studies consider the health of the family unit, the strengths that families bring to caring, and the family caregiver’s expertise as manager of their relatives care.
In this paragraph, the first sentence foregrounds 'some authors', the second 'Hoenig and Hamilton', and the third 'Yamashita'. The author's voice is drowned out by the claims of other writers. This makes it difficult to determine the main point of the paragraph.
In the next paragraph, the writer's voice is given priority:
- Despite decades of research, the burden of family care is still not well understood. Most studies focus on the carer’s subjective perception of caring, and objective factors like the social and economic costs of caring to the carer. Little attention has been given to the health of the family unit, the strengths that families bring to caring, and of the family caregiver’s expertise as manager of their relatives care.
In the first sentence 'some authors' has been removed. In the second and third sentences, the claim is made directly and the reference is removed altogether. Given that this is an end paragraph in the review, the claims can be made without references because the preceding review supports them. It is not then necessary, or adequate, to provide sources to support claims about an existing gap in the literature. The literature gap must be demonstrated throughout your review by reviewing what has been done and suggesting at different points in the discussion that a specific angle, that you will address, has not been given sufficient attention, or has not been explored from a more novel angle. Support from other authors can be provided, but this will only be offered to note in passing that others agree with your assessment.
If you examine the citation patterns used in research literature reviews you will notice not only that information prominent citations dominate, but also that author integral citations appear more frequently towards the end of the literature review. This is because the first part of the literature review summarises wide bodies of literature, and gradually narrows to a smaller range of studies that focus directly on the topic area where the authors of studies become more salient and worth direct mention.
Choice of tense when citing research in English is subtle and flexible, however there are some general guidelines.
About two-thirds of all citation statements are of one of the following three kinds (Feak and Swales, 2009:52).
1. Past tense−often author integral single study
Brown (2013) demonstrated the negative impact of retirement upon mental health.
The negative impact of retirement upon mental health was evidenced by Brown (2013).
Retirement was shown to have a potential negative impact upon mental health (Brown, 2013).
2. Present perfect−often non-author integral multiple studies
The potential for volunteer work to diminish the risk of poor mental health following retirement has been widely reported (James, 2000; Gordon, 2012; Banerjee, 2013).
There have been several studies that suggest that volunteer work diminishes the risk of poor mental health following retirement (James, 2000; Gordon, 2012; Banerjee, 2013).
Many researchers have reported the positive impact of volunteer work on mental health following retirement (James, 2000; Gordon, 2012; Banerjee, 2013).
3. Present−often to generally accepted field knowledge
Studies show that volunteer work positively impacts upon post retirement mental health (James, 2000; Gordon, 2012; Banerjee, 2013).
There are also observable tense patterns in the use of reporting verbs, or the words used to report the key findings or arguments of articles and books. Present tense tends to be used for argument verbs; words like argue, suggest, claim or maintain, for example. Past tense is more common for verbs related to presenting findings, such as: found, identified, revealed or indicated.
There are four general citation patterns:
- direct sentence quotation;
- block quotation of 40 or more words, or more than four sentences;
- paraphrasing (putting the source information into your own words);
- and one sentence general summary of several sources.
The table below extracted from Hyland (1999) shows that disciplines differ in their citation patterns. It is important to be sensitive to these discipline differences in citation patterns in your own writing.
The table below from Swales and Feak (2004) shows that the type and frequency of reporting verb differs across the disciplines.
|Discipline||Verbs and frequency|
Once you have undertaken literature searches of data bases and begun to locate literature to include in your literature review, you can begin the process of reviewing and writing about your literature. The five steps outlined below aim to capture the key strategies or steps that researchers and scholars use to write the literature review. They are written as a series of suggestions for writing your literature review.
Step 1. Summarise the main point, argument or finding, and its implications for the problem or focus area of your study or practice for five papers within your field. Ensure that the papers or books chosen are on the problem or focus area of your research or practice (but perhaps not on the precise area of your topic). Try using one each of the sentence stems below, or other language appropriate in your field or discipline area in summarising each paper or book:
- The study concludes/shows that …
- The key finding of the research is …
- The authors propose/argue that …
- (the key finding that) … has implications for …
- The implications of the main finding is …
- This suggests/implies that ...
Step 2. Summarise your summaries. Write one, two or more sentences that tell the reader what people in the field have found or argued on the broad focus area of your research or practice focus. To do so, check for areas of overlap and divergences in the key findings or arguments of papers and books, and of the implications drawn from them. Write one or more sentences for each distinct type of finding or argument and implication, then reference the appropriate authors for that finding in the appropriate part of the sentence. You might use sentence stems like those below in doing so:
- Numerous studies (see for example, reference, reference, reference) have shown that … (key finding).
- It is now well accepted that …. (key finding) (reference, reference, reference).
- The conclusion that …. (key findings) … has led to an approach in which … (implications).
- Artistic representations of ... (central theme) ... revolve around ... (main argument).
- Literary treatment of ... (central theme) ... have centred on ... (main argument).
Introductory or overview sentences for paragraphs growing out of this step might take the following form:
- The increasing interest in … by (field of scholarship) has heightened the need for …
- Of particular interest to (field of scholarship) is …
- Recently, there has been growing interest in the field of … in …
- The development of … has led … to the hope that …
- … has become a favourite topic of analysis in the field/s of …
- The study of … has become an important aspect of …
- A central issue in (field of scholarship) is …
- The question of … has been extensively studied in recent years.
- Many recent studies have focused on …
To write your literature review, keep repeating the steps above and reviewing what you have written as you read more literature (and/or cultural artefacts) to add depth to your review. You might observe in this process that much of step one, or summaries of individual papers and books in the first part of the review, will be superseded by step two, or reports of groups of studies and books. This is a good sign, suggesting your review is taking on greater depth showing a good grasp of literature in your area.
The writing generated by steps one and two will comprise the majority of content in the literature review providing detail about central findings or arguments and the implications of those findings and arguments for the problem or focus area reported in the literature. Step one, or reports of single studies and books (and artefacts), will gradually be replaced by writing that describes groups of studies and books.
Step 3. Write a sentence that contrasts the focus in the literature with your own lesser studied focus, or explain how your approach is otherwise different from existing perspectives, or how perspectives in the field are contested or uncertain in some way. You might use one of the (field appropriate) sentence stems below:
- While (the focus of existing research and scholarship in the field) … has been widely examined, less attention has been given to … (my topic area)
- It is now clear that (overall findings or arguments of the field in relation to the problem area or foucs) … but questions about … (my topic area) remain.
- So far, investigations have been confined to … (general field areas)
- The field is divided between … (general field areas) and … (general field areas).
- However, little research has been done on … (focus of your research question).
- Few studies have looked at … (focus of your research question).
- The research has tended to focus on … (general field areas), rather than on … (focus of your research question).
- These studies have emphasised …, as opposed to … (focus of your research question).
- Although considerable research has been devoted to … (general field areas), rather less attention has been paid to … (focus of your research question).
Steps three takes up less content in the review, but provides critical linking and concluding sentences or paragraphs within the review. These sentences should be preceded and supported by descriptions of findings or arguments in journal articles and books. For this reason step four writing is usually found at the end of paragraphs and sections within the review.
Step 4. Summarise the main point of at least three papers or books on the precise area of your topic. Try using one of the sentence stems below, relevant to your discipline or field, or one like it:
- Of those studies which have looked directly at ... the focus has been on ... (see for example reference, reference, reference).
- The study by .... showed that ... (reference).
- The methodology adopted in these studies led to more consideration given to ... than to ... .
- When artists/writers have explored ... it has been represented in terms of ... .
Step four reports on single studies and books. Literature reviews often narrow down to a smaller set of focused papers or books on the precise focus of the research, each of which often deserves separate summary sentences.
Step 5. Write a statement of your question or aim using the sentence stems below or ones like them:
- This research will …
- The aim of this study is to …
- My work will explore ...
Step five is typically located at the end of the review.
- If your research spans discipline areas, have you signalled the discipline your research or practice is situated within?
- Is your literature review comprised mainly of a review of scholarly texts published in academic journals and books in your discipline?
- Have you mainly reported the main finding or central argument of books and journal articles (or central themes for reporting artefacts)?
- Have you included page numbers where you have borrowed an idea that is not the main finding or argument?
- Have you used the appropriate research language?
- Have you explained how your research or practice will contribute to literature in your discipline area?
- Have you used an appropriate blend of information and author prominent citations?
- Does the introduction contain the main point of the literature review, as well as introduce the topics that will be covered?
- What are the central concerns of scholars in my discipline? What are the major lines of research in my discipline?
- What major turns or discoveries have marked literature in my discipline or sub-discipline or on my topic area?
- Within my research area, what is considered to be well-accepted knowledge?
- Within my research area, what are the main findings or approaches to the topic area?
- What are the implications of existing findings or approaches for related practice, policy, methodology or theory? What do scholars in my field advocate in the way of solutions to the problems, controversies or conundrums the discipline is concerned with?
- What underlying conceptual assumptions underpin research and scholarship in my research area?
- Within my research area, are there any divergences in how problems and research foci are understood, in their conceptual underpinnings, or in the implications drawn from findings?
- Do underpinning conceptual assumptions, ways of understanding the solution or approach to the problem, or methodological approaches adopted produce limitations in our knowledge of the subject? If so, how do existing approaches shape and delimit what we understand in my area?
- What remains unclear or questionable about my research focus within my discipline?
- What research question, aim, objective or hypothesis grows out of this 'gap' in knowledge? What will I contribute that will be of interest to other scholars writing within my discipline?
Golden-Biddle, K and Locke, K. 1997. Composing Qualitative Research. Sage: Thousand Oaks.
Hyland, K. 1999. Academic attribution: Citation and the construction of discipline knowledge, Applied Linguistics 20, 341-367.
Swales, J. M. AND C. B. Feak. 2004. Academic writing for graduate students: Essential skills and tasks, 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
This resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich.