Writing a dissertation literature review
A literature review is a discussion and evaluation of information on a topic and will account for approximately 10-15% of a dissertation involving primary research – although some research projects may be literature based instead of being empirical in nature, and so will require a more extensive literature review. A good literature review involves utilising a variety of high-quality sources to develop an in-depth discussion. It aims to evaluate the existing research and develop key themes for your own research, often finding a ‘gap’ in current knowledge. A literature review is a great opportunity to demonstrate your critical analysis and writing skills and will establish how your work will link to the research of existing academics.
When preparing for your literature review, use a variety of sources to develop your ideas. Books and journal articles will all have a ‘references’ section, and you should use these to ‘snowball’ your sources and track down even more reading.
Stay organised whilst checking out your sources and write your references as you go, you don’t want to be scrambling to find a piece of research later down the line! It’s a great idea to have a place to write your notes on the ideas theorists are discussing, and your views on them. Critical reading is key to gaining high marks. When reading, ask yourself:
- What assumptions are being made from the research?
- What are the methodologies being used? Is there anything wrong about this research method type?
- Are they an expert in the field? Has anyone contradicted their research?
- What is the purpose of the research? Is there any researcher bias?
- How up-to-date is the research?
- What are their findings? Do you agree with them?
Keep these notes even after doing your literature review. You might need to come back to them later!
Structure of the literature review
The structure of a literature review is crucial – it needs to have a logical flow that will organise your information in a succinct manner. Many literature reviews use headings and subheadings to develop a structure. They typically involve:
Your introduction will reiterate the aims and objectives of the study and give a short summary of your literature review. It should discuss what the scope of the review will be, how you selected your literature, and what will be discussed in the following chapter. It’s best to write this part after you’ve finished writing the main body of text because you will have a better idea of how to introduce the chapter.
The main text will discuss what you have read and how it relates to your research. It’s important to not just describe the literature but to critically evaluate your sources, considering the strengths and weaknesses of the previous research. Use the notes you made earlier to develop a review that is in-depth and informative.
You may wish to use headings or subheadings to develop your body of text. Depending on your subject choice, this may be done:
- Chronologically – where the flow shows the history of your subject
- By theme – a structure based on the main ideas and concepts you have found from doing your reading
- By sector – this could be by a certain division within a subject, such as a scientific or political viewpoint
- By the development of ideas – this is often done when there have been notable areas of idea development
The main body will summarise, evaluate and critique the current knowledge in the field, comparing research results, methodologies, and the major themes you have identified. Make sure the most important studies are being given their own extensive space for critique and evaluation, rather than only giving them the same amount of attention as less relevant studies. Your literature review will help you to find a gap in the knowledge and will form a justification for your research.
The conclusion needs to summarise your main points and the most important findings from your literature review. It will also highlight the gaps in the literature or flaws in the existing research. Use these to link your research to the current knowledge base. Don’t bring anything new into this section, as it will be confusing and illogical!
It’s important to make sure your sources are well-referenced throughout your dissertation. Plagiarism is a serious offence and could result in you failing your assignment or even your degree. Different subjects will require different referencing types, so it’s a good idea to check with your tutor or course guide about which one you should be using.
Proofreading your literature review
Proofreading is vital to gaining extra marks. When you have finished writing your review, print out a copy and read it out loud – it will help you to hear it differently, understand if it flows well and see areas of concern. It’s also a great idea to get people to check your work over, they’ll spot mistakes that you won’t! Compare your work to your original aims and see if you have achieved them. When you are checking the work over, ask yourself:
- How balanced am I between description and evaluation?
- Have I missed out a key piece of literature?
- Is the structure logical?
- Have I referenced and evidenced my key points?
- Is there any information that is unnecessary?
- How well have I justified my research?
Often, the first draft of the literature review is completely different from the finished result. You may find yourself cutting out whole paragraphs, restructuring and re-writing sections. Don’t panic too much though, as everyone does this! Keeping within the specified word count can be difficult too, but as you write your dissertation you will come to understand the parts that will be most integral to your work.
As an additional check it may be worth getting your literature review proofread by a professional.