Literature review

During your course of studies at RMIT University, you will be required to meet certain assessment criteria. These might include written assignments, examinations, oral presentations, or a literature review.

A literature review may be defined as a search and evaluation of the available literature in a given subject area. It involves

  • surveying (searching and obtaining) the literature in your chosen area of study,
  • synthesising the information gathered into a summary,
  • critically analysing the information gathered to
    • identify areas of controversy,
    • formulate questions for further research,
  • and presenting the literature according to an organised style.

The process

Before writing a literature review, you will need to

  1. Define the topic, or research question (i.e. what are the key concepts?) and compile a list of the keywords (and synonyms). This will help in developing a search strategy.
  2. Identify and select relevant information sources to search for your literature, this may include:
    • library catalogues
    • databases
    • and the Internet
  3. Conduct searches
  4. Interpret and evaluate search results, and if required, modify search strategy
  5. Locate and obtain relevant references found in search results, this may require you to
    • search library catalogues
    • visit and use other libraries
    • borrow books from other Victorian tertiary libraries using a CAVAL card
    • place a request for selected references with Document Delivery Services

Reasons for conducting a literature review

Bourner (1996, p.8) states that prior to commencing a research project the first step is to review the field. He provides a number of reasons for conducting a literature review, including:

  • to identify gaps in current knowledge
  • to avoid reinventing the wheel (at the very least this will save time and it can stop you from making the same mistakes as others)
  • to carry on from where others have already reached (reviewing the field allows you to build on the platform of existing knowledge and ideas)
  • to identify other people working in the same and related fields (a researcher network is a valuable resource)
  • to increase your breadth of knowledge of your subject area
  • to identify the seminal works in your area
  • to provide the intellectual context for your own work, enabling you to position your project relative to other work
  • to identify opposing views
  • to put your own work in perspective
  • to demonstrate that you can access previous work in an area
  • to identify information and ideas that may be relevant to your project
  • to identify methods that could be relevant to your project

Bourner, T. 1996, 'The research process: four steps to success,' in Research methods: guidance for postgraduates, edited by T. Greenfield. Arnold: London, pp. 7-11.

Goals of a literature review

The Goals of a Literature Review have been defined by Neuman (2003, p. 96) as:

  1. To demonstrate a familiarity with a body of knowledge and establish credibility.
    A review tells a reader that the researcher knows the research in an area and knows the major issues. A good review increases the reader's confidence in the researcher's professional competence, ability, and background.
  2. To show the path of prior research and how a current project is linked to it.
    A review outlines the direction of research on a question and shows the development of knowledge. A good review places a research project in a context and demonstrates its relevance by making connections to a body of knowledge.
  3. To integrate and summarize what is known in an area.
    A review pulls together and synthesizes different results. A good review points out areas where prior studies agree, where they disagree, and where major questions remain. It collects what is known up to a point in time and indicates the direction for future research.
  4. To learn from others and stimulate new ideas.
    A review tells what others have found so that a researcher can benefit from the efforts of others. A good review identifies blind alleys and suggests hypotheses for replication. It divulges procedures, techniques, and research designs worth copying so that a researcher can better focus hypotheses and gain new insights.

Neuman, W. Lawrence. (2003). Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative approaches, 5th ed, Allyn and Bacon, Boston.

Contents of a literature review

A literature review may be:

  • a single entity - an end in itself (essay)
  • a preface to and rationale for engaging in research (thesis chapter)

Some points to remember as the writer of a literature review:

  • it is not a descriptive list of the information gathered
  • it is not a summary of one piece of literature after another
  • the review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g. essay question, research objective, etc.)
  • your purpose is to convey to the reader what knowledge and ideas have been
  • established on a topic - what are the strengths and weaknesses
  • organise the information gathered into sections that present themes.
  • do not attempt to list all published material, but rather synthesise and evaluate the literature according to your guiding concept

A literature review should contain: an introduction, a middle (body) and conclusion.

In the Introduction

  • define the topic, providing an appropriate context for reviewing the literature
  • establish writer's reasons (point of view) for reviewing the literature
  • explain the organisation of the review (sequence)
  • state what literature is and is not included (scope)

In the Body

  • group the literature according to common themes
  • provide insight into relationship between central topic and a larger area (i.e. discipline)
  • proceed from the general, wider view of the research under review to the specific problem

In the Conclusion

  • summarise major contributions of the literature
  • evaluate the current "state of the art" literature reviewed
  • point out major flaws, or gaps in research
  • outline issues pertinent to future study

Example of a good and bad review

Neuman (2000, p.113) provides an example of a good and bad review:

Bad review

Sexual harassment has many consequences. Adams, Kottke, and Padgitt (1983) found that some women students said they avoided taking a class or working with certain professors because of the risk of harassment. They also found that men and women students reacted differently. Their research was a survey of 1,000 men and women graduate and undergraduate students. Benson and Thomson's study in Social Problems (1982) lists many problems created by sexual harassment. In their excellent book, The Lecherous Professor, Dziech and Weiner (1990) give a long list of difficulties that victims have suffered.

Good review

The victims of sexual harassment suffer a range of consequences, from lowered self-esteem and loss of self-confidence to withdrawal from social interaction, changed career goals, and depression (Adams, Kottke, and Padgitt, 1983; Benson and Thomson, 1982; Dziech and Weiner, 1990). For example, Adams, Kottke, and Padgitt (1983) noted that 13 percent of women students said they avoided taking a class or working with certain professors because of the risk of harassment.

Neuman, W. Lawrence. (2003). Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative approaches, 5th ed, Allyn and Bacon, Boston.

Internet resources

Allen & Unwin. Welcome to eStudy Centre[Homepage of Allen & Unwin], [Online]. Available: [2001, July 27].


Some of the information contained herein has been adapted from the following:

  1. Deakin University Library (2001, April 26). The Literature review [Homepage of Deakin University Library], [Online]. Available: [2001, June 11].
  2. University Of Queensland. Literature review [Homepage of University of Queensland], [Online]. Available: [2001, June 11].
  3. University of Toronto, Writing Support (2000, December 22). The literature review: a few tips on conducting it [Homepage of University of Toronto, Writing support], [Online]. Available: [2001, June 11].
  4. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center (1997, November 1). Academic Writing: Reviews of Literature[Homepage of University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center], [Online]. Available: [2001, June 11].