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Literature Reviews

General information on how to organize and write a literature review.

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

Accessible Text of Infographics

Types of Scholarly Literature

A brief overview of some types of scholarly literature you may find in the library databases.

Empirical Article

Empirical articles are original research articles. This type of article will have a methodology section that tells how the experiment/study was set up and conducted, a results or discussion sections, and a conclusion.

These articles are often referred to as primary research.

Theoretical Article

These articles are written to contribute to the theoretical foundations of a field of study. An author will draw upon existing research to form a new theory or explore theories in new ways.

Review Article

A literature review or systematic review is written to bring together and summarize the results or conclusions from multiple empirical or theoretical articles. 

This type of article will generally have a very extensive bibliography which can help you locate important authors and articles for your own research.

Gray Literature

The general name for informally published scholarly work. These works can often be found on the internet and in specialized resources like institutional repositories or Google Scholar. They are not often not formally peer-reviewed but are especially important in the sciences.