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Literature Review: Overview


A lit review, or a review of the literature, is a critical analysis of the existing body of scholarship on a particular topic. The literature review does in part summarize, but more importantly compares, contrasts, analyzes, explores relationships and connections, and synthesizes.

It can be a stand-alone article, a selective introduction to an article length paper, or serve as a comprehensive introduction to a more in-depth research paper, thesis, or dissertation.


What is the purpose of a literature review?

The lit review can:

  • Establish the background and the rationale for why further research is warranted.
  • Trace the historical evolution of thought on a topic.
  • Identify significant theoretical frameworks, trends, themes, methodologies, and frames of analysis.
  • Recognize areas of consensus and dissent, strength and weakness.
  • Locate gaps in the research.
  • Detect new problems and potential questions.
  • Illuminate the major debates, controversies, and conclusions within the discipline.


This allows you to:

  • Avoid redundancy.
  • Place your research in context and in dialog with the work of other scholars.
  • Establish why your topic is important and why your contribution is valuable.
  • Provide the foundation upon which you posit your original argument.
  • Assess if your original research question is apt or justified.


Some questions to ask of the literature you are reviewing 

  • What is the research question and thesis put forward by the author(s), what is the purpose (to critique, to solve a problem, to clarify an issue, etc.)?
  • What methodologies were employed?
  • Were all assumptions backed by evidence, were there unanswered questions?
  • Are there conflicting studies, research, or theories? Why?
  • Has the author or study been cited? How is it and/or the researcher viewed in their field? Who are the experts in the field?
  • What entity funded the research and could that influence the findings?


A Lit Review Is Not:


  • An annotated bibliography, which lists and summarizes books, articles, and other works germane to a topic.
  • A book review, which critiques a single work for merits or weaknesses.


Literature reviews may be selective or comprehensive, however most JSOU assignments will require a brief lit review that serves as an overview which sets the stage for your research paper. To achieve this you will need to be selective in the number of sources you include.

Begin broad and narrow your focus. A good comprehensive understanding is vital, but from there you will need to home in on those articles and books which most directly relate to the well-defined research question you intend to address.


The importance of currency (or timeliness) can vary by discipline and the parameters of your assignment/research goal. Keeping apprised of the most current research findings is particularly important in the sciences and medicine, while the social sciences and humanities may benefit from a longer, more historically inclusive approach. Regardless of discipline however, it is always wise to keep current in your field of expertise.


Types of Lit Reviews

There are several types of lit reviews. However, this guide addresses the narrative or traditional review as it is the one required in JSOU courses.

The narrative or traditional literature review provides summary, critique, and draws conclusions about a body of literature on a particular topic. These are common in academic assignments as it is beneficial in getting an overview of existing knowledge, highlighting inconsistencies or gaps, and bringing to light new research possibilities. This can also be a helpful exercise in focusing a topic and refining your research question.


Additional Resources

Pautasso M (2013) Ten simple rules for writing a literature review. PLoS Comput Biol, 9(7): e1003149. Retrieved from

OWL Purdue: Writing a Literature Review

UNC Writing Center Handout