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Graduate Student Services

Library services and resources for MSU graduate students

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a critical summary of what the scientific literature says about a specific topic or question. Often student research in APA fields falls into this category. Your professor might ask you to write this kind of paper to demonstrate your familiarity with work in the field pertinent to the research you hope to conduct.

A Literature Review...

  • Places each work in context of whole body of literature
  • Describes the relationships of each work to the other works
  • Identifies new ways to interpret previous research
  • Looks for areas needing further research
  • Places your work in the context of the existing literature
  • Applies the literature to practice.

A Literature Review is NOT...

  • An annotated bibliography in which you summarize each article that you have reviewed.  A literature review goes beyond basic summarizing to focus on the critical analysis of the reviewed works and their relationship to your research question.
  • A research paper where you select resources to support one side of an issue versus another.  A literature review should explain and consider all sides of an argument in order to avoid bias, and areas of agreement and disagreement should be highlighted.


What is "the literature"?

When asked to do a literature review, you may find yourself wondering what "the literature" is that you need to find.

The literature is a collection of all the scholarly writings on a topic, including scholarly articles, books, and other works. This may seem like a mountain of information to work through, but in almost every field of research the literature can be seen as a series of conversations between scholars - and you don't need to be involved in every conversation to complete your review.

There are usually major works that were first written on a topic - these are authors you see cited over and over again. Then other, later works that tend to be building on or responding to the major works in some way. Basically the literature is a continuously evolving network of scholarly works that interact with each other. As you do your own research, you will begin to understand the relationships between these works and how your own ideas relate within the network.

Types of Scholarly Articles

  • Empirical Articles - original research is conducted and the article is a formalized write-up of that research (also called primary research)Infographic of scholarly literature types
  • Theoretical Articles - contribute to the theoretical foundations of a field by forming a new theory or exploring theories in a new way
  • Review Article - called a literature or systematic review and is written to bring together and summarize the results or conclusions from multiple empirical and theoretical articles
  • Gray Literature - informally published scholarly work that is often available online and in specialized resources

Steps to Take

Step 1. Define your project.

First, you must choose, explore and focus your topic. After some basic background research, you may discover that you need to tweak the scope of your question. If your topic is too broad, refine your research question so that it is specific enough to lead you to the relevant literature. If you are finding too little research, brainstorm related ideas and fields to broaden your search. Choose your methodology or methodologies.

Develop a working list of keywords and refer to it often. This list of keywords will expand and change as you continue your research.

Stumped? Brainstorm with a librarian for useful subject terms to get you started.

Step 2. Do preliminary research.

If you're just starting out in the field, look for books first or journals that are well-known in your area. Try CatSearch for items local to MSU and and other Montana libraries. If you find something at another library that looks promising, request it via Interlibrary Loan. MSU might not have everything you need to be thorough in your research, so be sure to use this great service!

To gather articles, go to the library databases with your list of keywords and related fields. Start with databases in your field, but be sure to look at databases in related fields. Import appropriate articles directly to Zotero, Mendeley, or EndNote. Explore and note the keywords assigned to the best articles, and use those for subsequent searches. Keep notes (electronically or in a notebook) to refer back to throughout the writing process. Read and critically evaluate these sources, making quick notes in your citation manager.

Step 3. Refine your focus and take a deeper dive into the research.

Now that you have a broad idea of the state of the field, identify the most important scholars and works. Use Google Scholar or Web of Science to determine who has cited the most important works. Read critically and identify how your work fits into the scholarly conversation. Evaluate at a deeper level. You're starting to look at significance now, rather than quality.

Step 4. Group and synthesize the literature.

Identify schools of thought and experiment with the organization of your literature review. You don't have to include everything you have found during the course of your literature review your work, but include enough so your reader understands the history of the field (or related fields) and how your work relates to that history. Make sure you are analyzing the scholarship, not simply describing it.

Step 5. Place the literature in context as you write the review. 

Determine where your research question fits within the literature as a whole. Are you going to perform a study that will fill the gaps you've identified in the scholarship so far? If so, make this point clear to your reader. Be ready to rewrite your literature review as you progress through your project (capstone, thesis, dissertation, etc). There may be references you did not include in your first draft that become more important to include as your complete your study.


Reid, M., Taylor, A., Turner, J. & Shahabudin, K. (n.d.). University of Reading Study Advice team & LearnHigher CETL (Reading). Literature reviews.

Rowland, D. R. (n.d.) The Learning Hub, Student Services, The University of Queensland. Reviewing the literature: A short guide for research students.

Before You Begin

Questions to Consider

  • What is the scope of your literature review? What does your research question want to answer?
  • How familiar are you with resources in the field?
    • What are the key sources in the field?
    • What are the key theories, concepts, and ideas tied to your topic?
    • What are the major issues and debates about the topic?
    • What are the origins of the topic?
  • What are the main questions and problems that have been covered already?
  • Why is your topic important in your field?
  • Can you identify gaps where further research is needed?

Organizing Sources

Need help grouping and synthesizing your sources? Try a synthesis matrix!

synthesis matrix example chart