Reviewing literature for the research proposal


Introduction

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. 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 what it means to write a 'critical' literature review, 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.

What is a 'critical' literature review?

Writing a critical literature review is not about finding fault with what you are reading, but 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. When supervisors say that a literature review is 'descriptive' or 'not critical', they usually mean that the review does not adequately synthesise existing research, and does not show the significance or importance of your own research in doing so.

A descriptive literature review, as opposed to a critical literature review, provides information about the topic area. A critical literature review provides a systematic report of previous research in the discipline or sub-discipline.

Example of descriptive writing in a literature review 

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).

This might be considered descriptive writing in the sense that it describes the problem or context or provides general knowledge about it. This kind of writing would be appropriate in the introduction of the research proposal to introduce the research problem, but not 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.

Example of critical writing 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 can be considered to be 'critical' writing in the literature review because the writing makes it clear that the review is a report of findings and key shifts in the field of research.

Situating your research within the discipline

In preparing to write a critical literature review it can be useful to clarify 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 problem or topic area; but it is not a discipline. 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.

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 very different from the way that sociologists, philosophers or educators would 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 the discipline, and they will make an assessment of whether your proposed research will make a meaningful contribution to the discipline. 

This is why research must be 'new' not simply in a particular region of the world (Australia or India say), but to a globally held body of discipline knowledge. This is not to say that you cannot do research that is only relevant to the context of one or more regions or countries, but the research on those regions should contribute new insights. The research should not reproduce what is already known about the region within the discipline. And research on a specific context should consider how existing discipline knowledge may or may not shed light on that context. And in turn, research on specific contexts should consider whether there are implications of the research findings for assumptions the discipline makes about other contexts.

For the most part, your literature review should be confined to reviewing academic literature in your discipline. The research proposal literature review is a review of academic research, and should not draw too heavily on government or institutional reports or on other types of literature either. Although you might choose to situate your review at the border of two or more disciplines, 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, and think about how the discipline shapes the approach taken.

If you will review research and scholarship in other disciplines, be  sure to explain how the review of these disciplines is intended to contribute to your own discipline. Try to make a disctinction between discipline/s you may choose to draw 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 inspiration from a wide net of often very different disciplines, but they do not aim to publish within, and they will not be examined by those disciplines.  

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 not only to clarify which discipline you belong to, but to learn more about its shared concerns and approaches.

Questions for situating your research

  1. What discipline is your research situated within?
  2. Is it a multi-disciplinary area?
  3. If you are working within a multi-disciplinary area, what discipline/s are represented, and what disciplines inform research in your topic area?
  4. What, if any are the sub-disciplines within your discipline? What sub-discipline are you working within?
  5. Does your research pertain to more than one disciplinary or multi-disciplinary area?
  6. What are the main topic areas within your discipline or sub-discipline?

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.

There's nothing written on my topic so what can I write about?

There is often little written on the focus of  a particular research area because the precise topic focus is a novel one in the field. This should not be a cause for concern. It is expected that you will review research and scholarship which is generally relevant, but perhaps not immediately related to 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 following questions may be useful in doing this:

  • How have scholars in your field or in other fields thought about this problem?
  • Given approaches within the field to date on related aspects of your focus, how is the problem likely to be understood, conceptualised, 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?

It is in answering questions of this kind that you can review other research and lead up to your focus. This type of writing situates your topic within the discipline and highlights the significance of your focus for the discipline.

The literature review and the research question

At the beginning of the research process, unless your topic has already been clearly defined, it can be a good idea to keep your mind open about the possible lines of investigation you will adopt. This is because your understanding of the field will develop as you continue to read in your discipline. The research focus or aim is often shaped within the process of reading for and writing the literature review, and cannot be evaluated independently from the literature review. That is to say, a research question is 'significant' when it grows out of a credible gap or unanswered question or conundrum within the field. For this reason, research questions can and do change or become more focused as you become more familiar with the literature.

The literature review is, in a sense, the foundation upon which the research project is based because it substantiates and frames the research question. The question provides the point of reference for the research design or practice. The research question also anchors the data analysis or argumentation process presented in the middle chapters of the thesis because data analysis, in the simplest sense, means reading data or creating work to answer or reflect insights about the question. For this reason researchers take the time to carefully read and understand literature within their fields.

Reading for the literature review

The central purpose in reading for the research proposal literature review is to summarise and synthesise empirical findings or arguments, and the perspectives, assumptions, theories and methodologies adopted within previous research and scholarship. 

Reading for research purposes focuses upon:   

  1. research outcomes─focus on central findings, central arguments or for central themes expressed within artefacts, 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;
  2. 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 accepted knowledge or approaches and to signal emerging or divergent findings or approaches in the field;
  3. research implications─focus on the implications arising from the central finding or argument for the field of practice, policy, methodology, theory or future research, may be used to draw conclusions about the efficacy of an approach and to frame the originality of the proposed research;
  4. 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;
  5. 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;
  6. 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 two foci are the basis for all literature review writing. All researchers read to ascertain the key finding or argument, and its similarity or difference with other research and scholarship in the discipline in relation to some important foci. Research implications, methodology, theory or a practical application may also be referred to in substantiating the newness of the proposed research, but this is discretional and will depend on the project. The methodological approach adopted in previous research will be discussed, for instance, to argue that previous methodological approaches failed 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:

  • What is the stated aim, purpose or argument of the text?
  • What are the central findings?
  • What does the work contribute to our understanding of the problem space?
  • What aspect of your topic or problem space is spoken about in the article?
  • What position is taken (theoretical, methodological, epistemological, underlying assumptions)?
  • How does the text compare with other perspectives/findings on the topic or problem space?
  • What broad areas of agreement are there among texts on the topic or problem space?
  • What broad areas of disagreement are there among texts on the topic or problem space?
  • What implications are drawn from the findings or argument for the field of practice, policy, methodology, theory or future research?
  • What further research or scholarship is required to contribute to improving the discipline's understanding of the research focus?
Thinking outside the box

Writing 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 patterning, 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 can only be comprehended once existing approaches and findings are reviewed. Towards the end of the review, the discussion gradually narrows down to the statement of the research question or aim.

Lit review structure

Language use within the literature review

Some typical 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, 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 ... . 

Constructing the story line within the literature review

There are also 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 establish gaps in 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:

  • Incomplete
    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.
  • Inadequate
    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.
  • Incommensurate
    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.

Examples of gap statements

Synthesised coherence/incomplete
Sociological insights about how culture interferes with 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.  

Non coherence/inadequate
Ongoing questions about quality intensive care within the health care literature need to be extended beyond the biomedical model and an emphasis on saving life, to include, not just 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 the intensive care context would change existing nursing practice.

Structure of the literature review

The introduction

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 (references), 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 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
Topic 1
- Report research findings and central arguments or approaches
- Draw any conclusions about what remains uncertain or debatable (that you will investigate)
Topic 2
- Report research findings and central arguments or approaches
- Draw any conclusions about what remains uncertain or debatable (that you will investigate)
Concluding paragraph
- 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).

Authorial voice

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:

Author integral
According to Brown (1999), the sky is blue.

Information prominent (author non-integral)
The sky is blue (Brown, 1999).

The main ideas within 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.

Example 1

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.

Example 2

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.   

Citation verb tense

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.

Discipline differences in citation patterns

There are four general citation patterns:

  1. direct sentence quotation;
  2. block quotation of 40 or more words, or more than four sentences;
  3. paraphrasing (putting the source information into your own words);
  4. 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.

Discipline Quotation Block quotation Summary/paraphrase Generalisation

Biology

Physics

Electrical engineering

Mechanical engineering

Medicine

Marketing

Education

Applied linguistics

Sociology

Philosophy

0

0

0

0

0

3

20

8

8

2

0

0

0

0

0

2

1

2

5

1

72

68

66

67

61

68

55

67

69

89

38

32

34

33

37

27

20

23

18

8

Reporting verbs and discipline differences

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
Rank 1 2 3 4 5 6

Biology

Physics

Electrical engineering

Mechanical engineering

Epidemiology

Nursing

Medicine

Marketing

Applied linguistics

Psychology

Sociology

Education

Philosophy

describe

develop

propose

describe

find

find

show

suggest

suggest

find

argue

find

say

find

report

use

show

describe

suggest

report

argue

argue

show

suggest

suggest

suggest

report

study

describe

report

suggest

report

demonstrate

find

show

suggest

describe

note

argue

show

find

show

discuss

report

identify

observe

demonstrate

explain

report

note

report

claim

suggest

expand

publish

give

examine

indicate

find

propose

find

demonstrate

analyse

demonstrate

point out

observe

 

develop

develop

show

show

suggest

show

point out

focus

discuss

provide

 think

Getting started on the literature review 

The steps outlined below are, in essence, the steps researchers and scholars follow in writing the literature review and in framing the research question, aim or central focus. The finished product that emerges from the completion of each step also forms part of the sequential content of the story line of the 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. Make sure that the papers or books you have chosen are on the problem or focus area of your research or practice (but perhaps not on the precise area of your topic). Before you start, also check that the papers and books you have chosen are in your field area. Try using one each of the sentence stems below, as is appropriate in your field or discipline area, to summarise 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 …

Step 3. Write a sentence that points to the fact that your focus has received less attention, has been investigated from a particular perspective, or remains 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.

Step 4. Now 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 ...
  • The study by .... showed that ... .
  • 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 5. Write a sentence or two that points to the fact that your question area has been under investigated within the field using a sentence stem appropriate for your discipline or field area below, or one like it.

  • 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).

Step 6. 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 ...

To write your literature review, keep repeating the steps above and reviewing what you have written as you read more literature (and, for fine arts, review more 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, two and four 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 four is the most likely part of the review to report on single studies and books. This is because it is here that literature reviews typically 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.

Steps three, five and six take up less content in the review, but they are the critical linking and concluding sentences or paragraphs within the review. They should be preceded and supported by descriptions of findings or arguments in journal articles and books. For this reason they are usually found at the end of paragraphs and sections within the review. Step six should be one of the last sentences in the literature review.

Conclusion

Questions to assess your literature review

  • Do you need to clearly signal 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? 

Questions that may be helpful in writing your literature review

  1. What are the central concerns of scholars in my discipline? What are the major lines of research in my discipline?
  2. What major turns or discoveries have marked literature in my discipline or sub-discipline or on my topic area?
  3. Within my research area, what is considered to be well-accepted knowledge?
  4. Within my research area, what are the main findings or approaches to the topic area?
  5. 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?
  6. What underlying conceptual assumptions underpin research and scholarship in my research area?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. What remains unclear or questionable about my research focus within my discipline?
  10. 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?

References

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.

Last modified: Friday, 22 September 2017, 8:51 AM