Referring to literature, business, social sciences, humanities

This resource is under construction.


This topic within the series of resources on thesis, exegesis and journal article writing in the social sciences, humanities and business builds on the literature review topic in the research proposal series of resources. The research proposal resource covers information about writing 'critical' literature reviews, situating your research within the discipline, structuring a research literature review, authorial voice, citation verb tense, use of reporting verbs, and the steps involved in writing the literature review and in framing the research aim. The topic on the literature review within the research proposal resource, linked above, is an important prerequisite to this topic.

Within a research thesis, exegesis or journal article, all chapters and sections refer to the work of other scholars, although they do so for different purposes. This resource focuses on these different purposes for referring to literature, and explains where and how to situate a discussion of literature within the thesis, exegesis or journal article. 

Reasons for referring to literature in research writing

The list below describes the main reasons researchers refer to literature, and where these different references to literature occur within theses, exegeses and journal articles.

  1. Literature is used within research writing to establish the research context or rationalize the significance of the topic or problem. This typically occurs within the introduction.
  2. Literature is used within research writing to establish a new line of inquiry, to introduce the field of the research, to situate the topic within the field of research, or to place the research in an historical overview of the field of research. This is what is usually meant by ‘literature review’, and this kind of writing occurs within literature review chapter/s or sections which follow the introduction.
  3. Literature is used within research writing to explain or support some aspect of the methodology. This occurs within methodology chapters or sections.
  4. Literature is used less frequently in results or argument development writing because this part of the text analyses the unique data of the study and is not attributable to another source. When references are used they typically assist in interpretation and analysis of results, or substantiation of argument. This occurs in the results or middle chapters and sections.
  5. Literature is used in discussion and conclusion writing to compare and contrast results with others' findings and approaches, and to explore the implications arising from the research, including the relationship between ideas and practice, and the extent to which new lines of inquiry are opened by the research. This occurs in the final one or two chapters or sections.
  6. Literature is also used within research writing to define key terms. This occurs in any chapter or section where the term is first introduced.

Decisions about where to discuss literature are made on the basis of the purpose of the discussion and the function of the chapter or section.

  1. In the introductory sections of theses, exegeses or journal articles, discuss literature to set up the context, provide a rationale for your research, and to show why the topic and the research is important.
  2. In the literature review chapter/s or section/s, discuss literature in your discipline area to summarise approaches that have been taken in relation to the problem or focus to date, and to explain what your research or creative work will contribute to the field.
  3. In the methods and methodology chapter/s or section/s, literature about methods, the methodological approach adopted to address your central research question or focus may be discussed.
  4. In the middle thesis or exegesis chapter/s or section/s, and/or the discussion, discuss literature in order to compare and contrast your results with past findings, to highlight the significance or limitations of the results, or to develop substantiation for your argument.
  5. In the discussion or conclusion chapter/s or section/s, you can discuss literature to show the broader significance of the results, or signal further questions or issues raised by the results or argument, or by your creative practice.

Research writing is different from undergraduate writing because its audience is expert discipline peers. Research writing is also unique in that it aims to contribute to a global scholarly debate among discipline peers about the problem space of the research. Research writing does not follow the style adopted in text books and undergraduate academic writing, in which the task is to teach a topic to a novice reader, or to demonstrate knowledge to a lecturer. Research writing aims to contribute new knowledge to an expert scholarly audience, among whom the author is, implicitly, a peer.

 Using literature in the introduction

In the opening paragraphs and sections of the thesis, exegesis or journal article, literature is used to substantiate claims about a problem, context, conundrum or issue that justifies or contextualises the research. It is the only part of research writing which uses literature purely to describe an aspect of the topic.

References are typically placed in brackets or footnotes within or at the end of sentences to substantiate the claims made by the author about the context. Sometimes sentences lead off with an author or author’s name (as in the first two examples below). While references provided in research introductions are usually academic and from the writer’s discipline, credible non-academic references can also be used to substantiate introductory claims (such as in the third example below which refers to a government report). This is less common in other parts of the thesis, exegesis or journal article because the main body of research writing is written to and for the discipline/s the research aims to contribute to.

Examples of reference use in introductory sections are provided from different disciplines below.

Michael Chaney, the chief executive officer of Wesfarmers, has observed that ‘it is just impractical for small companies with a limited number of directors to be engaged in some of the structural things that are in the new ASX best practice recommendations’ (reported in Buffini, 2003, p. 30).

Visual arts
In the words of the social archaeologist Denis Byrne (2003:169-193), in 1788, when the ships of the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove, the colonial cadastral grid made an instantaneous appearance in what was until then the Aboriginal landscape. As part of the imperial machinery, it assimilated colonial terrain to metropolitan terrain by imposing the same generic grid of counties, parishes, and rectangular ‘holdings’ onto it (Byrne 2003, pp. 169-193).

Social work and social policy
By the end of the 1960s, child abuse had emerged as a social problem in many parts of the world (Freeman, 2000). Forty million children aged 0-14 years around the world suffer from abuse and require health care and social services (McMenemy, 1999).

The PhD has in recent years been the subject of much attention following initiatives by research funding bodies to restructure doctoral programs (Burgess 1997), and to improve PhD completion rates (Booth and Stachell 1996; Collinson and Hockey 1995; Delanont, 1989; Hockey, 1991).

Health care
Breast cancer is currently reported as the largest cause of cancer death amongst women in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Australian Association of Cancer Registries, 2004).

In most of the sentences above, the reference is placed at the end of the sentence. This placement gives the writing an assertive tone, foregrounding the author's voice, rather than the author of another text, using the reference only as a back-up for the claims made.

Using literature in the literature review

The headings below describe the tasks and prototypical writing styles that occur within research literature reviews. Reference brackets have been placed in example sentences to indicate where the reference would typically be provided.   

1. Literature reviews provide an overview of research in the discipline or sub-discipline

Literature reviews provide overviews of research areas within your field to map where your research is located. Some examples of sentence forms for this task are provided below.

  • The field of … is divided between … (general field area) and … (general field area).
  • The field of … has been dominated by the study of … .
  • The study of … has been approached in several ways. These include … .

Sentences of this kind do not necessarily require a reference, and none have been provided in the examples above. This is because these observations are based on the author's observation, are commonly known by experts in the field, and are not the unique findings or argument of a single academic text.

2. Literature reviews summarise what is known

Literature reviews summarise common findings or arguments of books and papers on a problem area within the discipline, sub-discipline or topic area. Sentence forms used to do this are provided below:


  • Numerous studies (see for example, reference, reference, reference) have shown that … (key finding).
  • There is a long history of speculation that … is related to … .
  • Additional to … (aspect of the phenomenon under study), the ... (following factors) ... have been proposed as possible mechanisms of … (reference, reference).
  • It is now well accepted that …. (key finding) (reference, reference, reference).
  • It is well documented that … (reference, reference, reference).
  • Artistic representations of ... (central theme) ... revolve around the view that ... (main argument).
  • Literary treatment of ... (central theme) ... have centred on ... (main arguments) (see for example, reference, reference, reference).
  • ... has been widely noted as a contributing factor of … (reference, reference, reference).
  • Relationships between … and … have typically been discussed within the framework of … (see for examples, reference, reference).

Sentences of this kind are often followed with examples. In which case you might see sentence forms like those below:

  • For example, it has been observed that  … (reference/s).
  • For instance, ... has been shown to cause … (reference/s).
  • As (author) suggests … (reference).
  • (Authors) have recently provided a review of literature in the field of …, confirming that … (reference).
  • A salient proponent of … insists that … (reference).
  • For example, writers/artists including … (reference dates) ... have unmasked … (central themes in artists' work).
  • In a well-known article/artefact/text author/artist/writer name (reference) … takes issue with … .
  • According to author/writer/artist … .

Typically, sentences in the part of the literature review that summarise what is known are referenced, usually by texts that serve as examples of more widespread conclusions. References are provided for statements that refer to the key findings or arguments of papers and books. Because this part of the review aims to review existing overall findings, you would not expect to see as many references with page numbers in this part of the review as references with publication year alone.

3. Literature reviews summarise the implications of what is known

Literature reviews summarise the implications arising from key findings and arguments for theory, policy, popular conceptualisations of an issue, the field of practice, or for methodology in a problem area within the discipline, sub-discipline or topic area. Some examples of sentence types for this task:

  • The conclusion that …. (key finding) … has led to an approach in which … .
  • This suggests that …
  • This implies that … .
  • Within … theory the concept of … has seemed necessary to foster … .
  • Theorists in this field insist that it is inadequate to adopt an approach in which … because … .
  • The finding/argument that … promotes … (concept/approach/practice), and has led to … .

Sentences which summarise the implications of what is known are often not referenced. This is because these sentences reflect the author's conclusions, not the key findings or arguments or the points found within other people's work.

4. Literature reviews provide concise explanations of theory or conceptual assumptions within the discipline 

In reporting existing knowledge within the discipline, sub-discipline or topic area, literature reviews provide concise explanations of theory or conceptual assumptions underpinning existing conclusions and approaches. Sentences of this kind might be:

  • For the most part, … theory assumes that … (reference).
  • The theory of … is underpinned by the assumption that … (reference).
  • The approach embraces a … epistemology, endorsing the view that … (reference).
  • According to the theory, … can be explained by … (reference).
  • The framework encapsulates the factors involved in … (reference).
  • Theorists such as … argue that … (reference).

In these example sentences, references are included to indicate to the reader the source from which the theory was drawn. Because theoretical discussion draws from another theorists work, a reference is usually provided.

5. Literature reviews describe developments in knowledge within the discipline, sub-discipline or topic area

Literature reviews often describe developments in relation to knowledge and approaches on the topic area within the discipline or sub-discipline. Sentences used to do this might include:

  • Recently, the prevailing conception of the relation between … and … has come under challenge from … .
  • The question of … is no longer understood in … terms. The emerging view that ... led to a reconceptualisation of ... in which ... .
  • There is a great deal of material that now questions … .
  • The notion that … has been widely criticised in recent years. This has led to ... .
  • … was previously thought to be … , however more recent studies have found that … .
  • Over the past decade, the terms of the debate between … and … have become problematic. The inadequacy has been revealed in the findings that … .
  • As a consequence of the recognition that … writers/artists sought to … .

Sentences which refer to developments in knowledge within the field do not necessarily require a reference, and none have been provided in the examples above. This is because, as for point one above, they reflect the author's summation of developments in the field, rather than the key findings or arguments of writers or researchers in the field. Sentences of this kind may be followed by examples and more detailed explanation, within which references may be provided. Sentences of this kind would include references wherever the comments are drawn from another author's work, and the comment represents a unique perspective of that author, rather than a widely held and frequently remarked upon phenomenon. In the latter case a reference is not required.

6. Literature reviews summarise findings from specific articles and books

Literature reviews often narrow down to a more detailed summary of a small number of articles or books which are closely tied to your topic area. In doing so, they point to an aspect of the findings that remain ambivalent, inconclusive, or which require further investigation. This task might be undertaken using sentences of the following kind:

  • Of those studies which have looked directly at ... the focus has been on ... . Only one of the studies (reference) was a … design using … , and the study did not compare … and … .
  • A study by author (reference) looks at … . This study addresses … . This study is useful because … .
  • A study by … author (reference) … finds that … .
  • Author (reference)… argues that … . This suggests that ... .

Summaries of single sources often follow with, or incorporate, statements about unresolved questions:

  • The causal significance of … therefore remains to be confirmed.
  • While this suggests that … , the question of whether … remains unclear.
  • This raises the question … .
  • This leaves aside the an approach in which … . Such an approach would enable an understanding of ... .
  • The application of this in the context of … remains unclear.
  • Whether this explains … remains uncertain.

You will find that statements about unresolved questions that will be followed up in a research project are not referenced. This is because, the point is supported by the review and belongs to the author, and it does not refer to the key argument or conclusion of another author. Sometimes sentences of the above type are followed with sentences which explain that other authors have also observed the gap your review identifies, and particularly literature review articles which observe the same gap.

7. Literature reviews point to a gap in knowledge that the research will address 

Literature reviews highlight a gap in existing knowledge, or an aspect of a problem or phenomenon that remains contested or uncertain in some way within the discipline which the research will address. Literature reviews only observe gaps in knowledge that the current research will address. Try not to observe gaps in the field that your research will not address. This gives the reader a false impression of what your research will focus on. Gaps in existing knowledge may be observed by contrasting what is known with what remains to be investigated or explored. Sentence forms of this kind might be:

  • 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 therefore uncertain whether ... .
  • Of those studies which have looked directly at ... the focus has been on ... . Little consideration has been given to … .
  • 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.
  • 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 ... rather than … .
  • So far, investigations have been confined to … (general field areas), and have neglected to consider … . This makes it unclear whether ... .

Literature reviews may highlight a gap in knowledge by pointing to inconsistent findings. Sentences of this kind could include:

  • However, some studies did not confirm the finding that … (reference, reference, reference). The different result may be due to … . Many of the earlier studies on the question did not find … (see for examples, reference and reference).
  • There is fundamental disagreement within the field about … . Some argue … (reference, reference). Others depart from the view that … (reference).  

As for the above points, references are typically provided when the review summarises the core points of other people's work. References are not provided for general observations or conclusions drawn by the author.

8. Literature reviews end with a statement of the research aim 

Literature reviews end with a statement of the research aim/objective/central question flowing out of the statement of the gap. Sentence stems used in this task would typically look like the following:

  • This research will test the hypothesis that … .
  • The aim of this study is to examine the impact of … upon … .
  • This study aims to determine whether … explains … .
  • The study interrogates representations of … , and contrasts them with … .
  • The study aims to provide a rich description of … .
  • My work will explore … (central concept) within an artistic/literary practice including … (describe creative practice).

As a general rule, references are rarely provided in statements of the research aims. This is because, the research aim acts as the conclusion of the literature review. It is the conclusion of the author. The aim does not require substantiation from another source because the literature review substantiates it.

Literature reviews in journal articles

While it is expected that theses, exegeses and research proposals will contain long literature reviews, this is typically not possible, and is not expected, within journal articles which devote the majority of their space to results, presentation of evidence and argumentation. Editors and reviewers reject papers that are not considered to contribute to the discipline, rather than expect the contribution to be established within a literature review. In journal articles, the contribution the research makes to an established field may be summarised within a few sentences or paragraphs and included within the opening sections of the article.

There is one exception to this. Academic journals often publish stand-alone literature reviews which either review a discipline in order to argue for a new line of inquiry or approach, or to offer a synthesis of existing literature to gain a new understanding of the topic. The first is more typical of literature reviews within the research thesis or exegesis, with the implication that a very good thesis or exegesis literature review can be published.

Using literature in methodology writing

Methodology writing uses references to explain your approach

References are used within the research methodology to explain the use of a methodology within the discipline.


‘An ethnographic approach is not unusual in research on academic literacies (Lea and Street 1998; Lillis 2008; Stret 1984), since ethnography studies how people experience, participate in and understand their social world, all of which are also concerns for the researcher in relation to academic literacies and the social practices in which they are embedded. However, my approach is not ‘standard’ ethnography. Ethnographies usually include … . Furthermore, ethnographeis usually study … whereas my research looks at … ‘.

Literature is used in the methods and methodology section when borrowing an idea from another author to explain your methodological assumptions.


‘Standpoint denotes the “site” or point of view from which observation and analysis take place (Cain 1990)’.

‘My own and others research suggests that newspaper accounts of policing events can be highly unreliable (Grabosky and Wilson 1989: 29; Hatty 1991; McCulloch 1996)’.

Methodology writing uses references to explain that your approach is more suited to the question than another approach

Literature is used in the methods and methodology section when borrowing from another author to explain assumptions or approaches that are problematic, but possibly assumed within the literature, which you will not adopt. Literature is used to highlight why you will not be using another approach, one that might be expected in your field, or which has been dominant to date, but whose limitations you wish to avoid duplicating. This would be done to show not only that your methodology is suited to your question, but that it is novel and will produce insights that have been neglected in the past.


‘Current categories and classifications related to (aspect of your question) do not adequately deal with … (aspect of the problem) … and are not necessarily associated with (important facet of the problem that has been overlooked) (Parker 1994:310)’.

‘Altman (1992:44-45) writes that research on the subject of … has been heavily behavioural, giving little attention to cultural meanings and social representations. Dowsett (1992:75) cites the ongoing hegemony of medical and para-medical discourse in the field. The danger here is that (important feature of the problem that you will investigate) drops out of the picture’.

‘Dominant models such as … which suggests that … (Davies et al 1993:46) must be supplanted by richer understandings in order to … ‘.

Methodology writing uses references to summarise documents that will be analysed in data within document analysis

Literature is used in the methods and methodology section when providing references to documents that will be analysed as part of the data, and/or explaining why they were selected as sources of data


‘Extracts from the previously secret Australasian and South West Pacific Region Civil Disorder/Dissent Manual (1986) was particularly significant because it provides an insight into the way … ‘.

Using literature in discussion of results and development of argument

In empirical studies there may be few references within results sections which are confined mainly to describing the results arising from the present research. When references are found in discussions of results, whether within results or discussion sections, they are typically used in the ways described below.

Literature is used to support assumptions upon which interpretations of results are based


‘It has been shown that … (references). This perhaps explains the suggestion by the participants in the study that … ’.

‘The importance of … is highlighted by the majority of interviewees. This lends support to the view that … (reference)’.

Literature is used to contrast the results with the conclusions of others. This involves acknowledging similar conclusions, and highlighting how, and perhaps why, the reported findings or argument are different.


‘Other research (eg references) corroborates the finding that … . Similarly, y (publication year) found that … . Our finding that ... (new finding of the study) ... therefore suggests ... .'

‘In our sample we found that the … were consistent with mappings identified by author X (publication year). However, our results suggest ... (draw out the newness of the results). This discrepancy may be caused by ... .'

Literature is used to outline, develop and critique an author’s position


‘X does not simply emphasise … , she also privileges … . For her, the … is not merely … . Rather she conceives it in the traditional sense of the … . X describes … as  …’ (describes the authors approach).

‘I have suggested that … is problematic because … . While x notes the omission of … her account of … remains delimited in part by …. X is inclined to take for granted that … . Thus writers in this view seem to assume that … . This must be questioned in relation to … which raises the problem of … .While … perspective more fully integrates … the … remains untouched by reconsiderations of … . While … (authors) more fully integrate … into their frameworks, thus implying … , they too remain rather silent about … . Like X these authors seem basically to accept that … . On the other hand it must be noted that … their frameworks are likely to be restricted. This field undoubtedly required further investigation since it may … . It is perhaps understand that authors have not … , but other aspects of … are more problematic’ (highlights omissions and weaknesses in the approach).

Using literature in discussions and conclusions

In addition to comparing, contrasting and interpreting results, discussion, and/or conclusions, refer to literature to discuss the implications arising from the results, including possibly limitations of the study and suggestions for further research. In texts with a separate discussion and conclusion section, the conclusion often has no references.

Literature is used to support the implications drawn from the finding


‘There are ethical and economic implications of genetic screening (suggested implication) [40]. False-positive screening results can lead to additional diagnostic tests or cause unnecessary anxiety and thereby needless increase in health care use [41]. It is essential that genetic screening and its consequences are transparent and adequately understood by the target population [42, 43]. A serious critical ethical issue of genetic testing is the potential for discrimination and stigmatisation of individuals and groups. To assess genetic screening, economic evaluations need to be performed [44]’.

Literature is used in the discussion/conclusion to point to the need for further research


'The triple helix of universityindustrygovernment relations (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 2000) provides a useful model for thinking about partnership arrangements. However, additional theoretical and empirical work will be required if highly cooperative approaches to research, innovation and learning (refers to own results) are to deliver the outcomes required for changing economies and societies'.

Last modified: Wednesday, 22 May 2019, 11:49 AM