Literature Review - purpose

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Advice Leaflets

Advice leaflets originally produced for the Study Advice Service in the University of Hull, which holds the copyright:

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The essence of a Literature Review is a survey of what has been written in your topic area; as the Leeds University Library puts it, "a systematic review of the published work about the topic of your study". (On-line at [[1]].)

This has several main functions. It shows your reader how your writing fits into the established scholarship in the field. It acts as a guide and reference to further reading in the area, so that a reader may become as expert as you are - or more so. It should indicate alternative views, so that the reader realises that there are other ways of looking at your material. It may show why the writer of the Review is researching the precise topic chosen: "No analysis has yet been published of the trading figures in this industry for the latest financial year"; "No experiments have yet been published which apply [this technique] to [this species]"; or "It seemed interesting and worthwhile to examine the local dimensions of [this historical event], as this has not yet been done for [this particular area]".

For a student submitting work for assessment, of course, there is a secondary function: it is a way of claiming credit for what you have read, and showing that you understand the broad shape of your subject. It should validate the research you are doing, and show how it fits the work being done more widely in your subject area.

In order to show that you really deserve credit for your reading, the Literature Review is far more than a Book-list or Bibliography. It is a Review - in other words, a critical assessment of the relevant material printed, or at least as much of it as is appropriate to your level of study. (No one would expect an undergraduate to have read all the material that has been printed in the area covered by the current assignment. A candidate for a doctorate, on the other hand, is expected to be at least aware of all the important literature that is of current interest and importance in the (perhaps very small) field chosen for the Thesis.)

The important word in the above paragraph is critical. This is a word which can be misunderstood. In colloquial everyday English, it usually means 'finding fault with', or 'saying what is wrong'. In academic English, it is used more precisely. Good writers are aware that the word 'critic' is derived from the Greek word for 'judge' (κριτής, crit-es), and good academics are aware that judgement involves the use of evidence, weighing up its worth. In other words, a critical review, whether of a single book or a range of literature, is one in which the writer comes to a balanced judgement, with reasons, of its usefulness, or other qualities. So that if you say, for example, that this leaflet is "excellent" AND EXPLAIN WHY THAT IS YOUR OPINION, you are being critical. If I say that it is excellent "because I wrote it", I am being critical (I am making a judgement) - but in an academically incompetent way (because the evidence is not sound). However, my reader can detect my bias, and reject my review.


Literature reviews

Be sure what is meant by 'literature'

How to write a Literature Review

The structure of a Literature Review