Literature review: the process

You may have to write a literature review as part of a research project or as a standalone assignment. There is a lot involved in writing a literature review. So here are some general tips on the process. 

  • Search for relevant literature. You will need a clearly defined research question. Search for keywords and related terms in DiscoverEd, Google Scholar or other relevant databases to find literature. This could be journals, books, newspapers or government papers, but be sure to check what is appropriate for your subject. Similarly, check whether your literature has to be relatively recent (e.g. in Sustainable Development, a two-year-old paper might be considered out-of-date, but not in Politics). Read the abstract to see if they are relevant before reading in-depth. If they are, take note of the bibliographic information associated with them. It is also a good idea to read through the bibliography of sources you think are relevant: this will allow you to increase the breadth of your review.  
  • Evaluate sources. Make notes from readings as you go. Write summaries of the sources, and also document any strengths and weaknesses they have, with respect to both coherence of arguments and strength of evidence. 
  • Identify themes and gaps in the literatureIf you are looking at what causes individuals to vote in elections, for example, you might come across perspectives related to resources, rational choice and psychological disposition. Weigh up the arguments authors make from the different approaches and decide which you believe is most convincing, and why. This will help you to make your voice heard when you write your literature review. Identifying gaps in the literature shows what you are contributing to research: are you going to be using a different method for a question that has been looked at before, focusing on a new case or offering a new theory?  
  • Decide on your literature review’s structure. There are different ways to do this, and the approach you use will depend on your topic and questionIt could be chronological, tracing the development of a topic over time; thematic, dividing the literature into different perspectives; or methodological, grouping authors using quantitative methods together and then grouping those who using qualitative methods together.
  • Write the literature review. It could include an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. The introduction should signpost what will be discussed in the review. The main body should give an overview of the main arguments in the literatureIt is not just a list and summarisies of all the reading you have doneYour voice should be clearly ‘heard’: you should critique the coherence of the arguments portrayed in the literature and the evidence that supports/opposes them. You should also discuss the applicability of these arguments to the case you are going to investigate. The conclusion should outline the gap in the literature you are seeking to fill and outline your hypothesis/hypotheses. 

Different subjects and projects have different expectations and requirements of what a literature review is and should do. Remember to spend some time in understanding the purpose of yours and what it needs to do for you.

Further resources can be found on the Study Hub Learning Resources Literature review page. 



Atkins, L. and Wallace, S. (2012) Qualitative Research in Education. London: Sage Publications Ltd. ISBN: 9781446208076 (e-book). 

Aveyard, H. (2008) Doing a literature review in health and social care: A practical guide. Maidenhead: Open University Press. ISBN: 0335233848 (e-book). 

Halperin, S. and Heath, O. (2017) Political Research: Methods and Practical Skills: Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780198702740.