Section 4.3: Elements of a Literature Review

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In crafting a comprehensive literature review, various critical elements ensure clarity, relevance, and meaningful contributions to the academic conversation. Beginning by introducing the overarching problem area provides context for readers while highlighting specific, influential studies that underscore their significance in the broader dialogue.

Landmark and replication studies offer insight into foundational works and their subsequent validations. Leveraging existing review articles and addressing side issues allows for a more expansive coverage while acknowledging gaps and inconsistencies adds depth and honesty. Finally, justifying the importance of your study solidifies its place within the academic landscape. The subsequent sections delve deeper into each of these pivotal components, providing a roadmap for an effective literature review.

'Lit Review' Vs. 'Proposal'
Confused about the difference between a “literature review” and a “research proposal”? The following FAQ explains the difference:

Beginning with the Problem Area

When embarking on a literature review, particularly within the realms of the social and behavioral sciences, it is paramount to ground readers with a clear understanding of the overarching problem area under investigation. This sets the stage for them, offering a backdrop against which all subsequent discussions will be framed. By first introducing the broader issues or challenges pertinent to the field, you lay the groundwork for a systematic exploration that gradually narrows down to the crux of the matter. This transition from the general to the specific serves as a funnel, guiding readers through the complexities of the subject matter, ensuring they grasp the wider context before diving into the intricacies.

However, a word of caution is in order. While it’s essential to commence with a generalized overview, it’s equally critical to strike a balance, ensuring that these introductory statements aren’t so broad as to become ambiguous or nebulous. The introduction should not merely brush the surface or be too encompassing, but rather should subtly hint at the specific topic or niche that will be the focus of the review. In the vast and multifaceted world of social and behavioral sciences, clarity in this initial phase is key, providing readers with a beacon that illuminates the path ahead, ensuring they remain oriented and engaged as they journey deeper into the review.

Importance of Specific Studies

When you’re looking at a lot of research, you’ll notice that some studies stand out more than others. That’s because certain studies have done something really special or different that makes them important. So, when you’re writing about what you’ve found, it’s a good idea to point out these standout studies to your readers. One thing to look for is if a study is super big. Bigger studies can give a lot of information and can help us see the bigger picture.

Another thing to think about is whether a study has changed the way people do things, like making new rules or policies. This shows that the study had some big real-world effects. Also, pay attention to how the study was done. If they used a really good method to get their information, that’s a plus! It means their findings are probably more trustworthy. So, when you tell your readers about these studies, they’ll know why they’re a big deal and why they should care about them.

Landmark Studies

When you dive into your research, you’ll find some studies that stand out as game-changers. These are known as “landmark” or “classic” studies. They’re like those foundational books or moments in history that everyone should know about because they’ve made a big impact. These studies have shared groundbreaking ideas or findings that have become key talking points in the field. They’ve helped shape the direction of research and have given others a solid base to build on.

Now, why are these landmark studies so important? They often introduce ideas or terms that many people in the field adopt and use. Imagine a foundational book in a subject that everyone refers to or quotes. In research, these landmark studies have similar significance. They pave the way for new ways of thinking and become a standard reference. So, when you’re writing your literature review, highlighting these significant studies helps your readers grasp what’s been influential and foundational in the area you’re exploring.

Replication Studies

Landmark studies are a big deal in research, kind of like setting a trend everyone wants to follow. Because they’re so influential, they often lead to more research where people try to see if they can get the same results. These are called “replication studies.” It’s like double-checking to make sure the findings from the big landmark study weren’t just a one-time thing. These replication studies help us see if the results from the original study are solid and can be counted on in different situations or with different groups of people.

Now, when talking about these replication studies, it’s important to point out whether they back up the original findings or if they found something different. Imagine telling a story and having a friend share it too. If both stories match up, it’s likely true. But if they’re different, people might raise an eyebrow. Similarly, if a replication study supports the original findings, it strengthens the case. If it doesn’t, it’s worth digging into why. Highlighting this in your literature review helps readers understand how trustworthy and reliable the original study’s findings are.

Utilizing Review Articles

When you’re diving into your research, you might find someone else has already written a review on your topic. It’s like finding out someone made a movie with a similar plot to the one you’ve been thinking about. But that’s okay! Use it to your advantage and weave it into your own work. Here’s what you should think about:

First, figure out how your review brings something new to the table. Is yours fresher with more up-to-date info? Maybe yours covers more ground or perhaps it hones in on a specific area the earlier one missed. The key is to make sure you’re not just rehashing what’s already been said. Think about it – if you’re reading two papers and they both say the same thing, you’ll probably get bored or wonder why the second person even bothered. So, aim to give fresh insights. Just repeating what’s already out there won’t make your paper stand out. It’s like baking – if you’re using the same recipe and ingredients as everyone else, your cake won’t stand out. But add a twist, and it becomes memorable! Your review should do the same.

Alright, so while finding a review article on your topic might seem like someone beat you to the punch, there’s a silver lining. Think of that review article as a treasure map. One of the most valuable sections of any review article is the reference page or bibliography. For student writers, this is pure gold!

Here’s the thing: The reference page of an existing review article is like a curated list of key sources and studies related to your topic. Instead of scouring the internet or library databases for hours, you’ve got a starting point handed to you on a silver platter. It can point you to some of the most important works in the field, saving you a ton of time and effort. Plus, by exploring these sources, you can gain a deeper understanding of your topic, which will help make your own review more robust.

But wait, there’s more! By digging into these references, you can also find gaps or areas that the original review might have missed or not delved deeply into. This gives you a chance to fill in those gaps with your own insights and make your review unique. It’s like having a roadmap where some paths are marked, but you also find some hidden trails to explore on your own. So, don’t just skim through that existing review; use its reference page as a launchpad for your own research.

Reviews on Side Issues

When you’re deep into your research and writing, you’ll often find yourself stumbling upon topics or issues that are super interesting, but not exactly the main focus of your paper. It’s like going on a road trip with a set destination, but spotting some intriguing side roads along the way. You might want to explore them, but you also know you’ve got to stick to your main route.

So, what do you do when you come across these side issues in your research? Instead of taking a full detour or ignoring them entirely, a smart move is to acknowledge them and point your readers to review articles that explore these topics in depth. This way, you’re giving a nod to these interesting side topics without derailing your main argument or discussion.

By directing readers to other review articles, you’re essentially giving them optional reading material. For those super curious or keen on diving deeper, these references can be a treasure trove of additional information. Plus, it shows you’ve done your homework and are aware of the broader landscape of your topic. In short, even if some issues are on the sidelines of your main topic, they can still enrich your paper and offer readers a fuller picture if you handle them wisely.

Here’s an example of how you might format it:

“While the primary focus of this research is on the effects of sunlight on mood, there have been related studies on the impact of artificial lighting that are also noteworthy (see Johnson & Lee, 2019).”

Addressing Gaps in the Literature

Research isn’t just about highlighting what we know; it’s equally vital to point out what we don’t. When you’re delving into a topic, there will often be areas that haven’t been thoroughly studied or questions that remain unanswered. These areas are what we call “gaps” in the literature. Recognizing and pointing out these gaps is essential because it not only shows that you’ve done a comprehensive review of existing work, but it also identifies potential avenues for future studies. Addressing these gaps can lead to new discoveries and deeper insights into the subject matter.

However, you don’t have to identify all these gaps on your own. A valuable approach is to refer to recent articles where other researchers have highlighted gaps in the field. Often, seasoned researchers or authors will note areas that require more exploration in their discussions or conclusions. Citing these observations serves a dual purpose: it supports your claim of a gap in the literature and shows that you’re building on the collective understanding of the research community. But whether you’ve identified the gaps yourself or are building upon insights from other scholars, it’s crucial to be transparent about your sources and methods. This not only bolsters your credibility but also provides a clear perspective for readers and potential future researchers interested in filling those gaps.

Handling Inconsistent Results

Navigating the world of academic research is akin to piecing together a puzzle. And like any puzzle, sometimes the pieces don’t quite fit together perfectly. This is especially true when dealing with inconsistent results across different studies. Differing outcomes can emerge due to a multitude of reasons: varying methodologies, diverse sample populations, or even evolving frameworks and understandings within the discipline itself. It’s important to acknowledge that inconsistencies aren’t necessarily a sign of flawed research, but rather they showcase the complexity and multifaceted nature of many topics.

When presenting your literature review, clarity is paramount. If Study A found X and Study B found Y, ensure you distinctly delineate these findings rather than melding them into an indistinct summary. It’s tempting, especially when faced with a multitude of sources, to generalize or group findings together for simplicity’s sake. However, doing so risks obfuscating the unique contributions and nuances of each study. It’s a bit like describing the plots of two different novels just because they belong to the same genre; while there may be thematic overlaps, the individual stories and their implications can be vastly different.

Furthermore, being transparent about inconsistencies offers readers a comprehensive view of the current landscape of research on that topic. It fosters critical thinking, inviting readers to ponder why such discrepancies exist, and what factors might account for them. Perhaps even more importantly, by laying out these inconsistencies clearly, you provide a foundation for future researchers to dive deeper, exploring these gaps and further advancing the field. So, instead of viewing inconsistent results as a hurdle, treat them as an opportunity to shed light on the rich tapestry of research, with all its intricacies and divergences.

Justifying Your Study

Every piece of academic work, from the shortest essay to the most exhaustive research paper, carries with it a core message or purpose. The finale of your study shouldn’t just be a period at the end of a sentence; it should resonate, offering readers clarity on why your work matters in the grand scheme of things. After all, in a world brimming with endless sources of information, you must answer the pivotal question: Why should anyone dedicate precious time to digesting your paper?

The justification for your study is the compass that directs and gives meaning to your research journey. Perhaps you’ve ventured into uncharted territory, addressing gaps in the existing literature and shedding light on topics previously overshadowed. Or maybe you’ve revisited established theories, questioning their applicability or introducing fresh perspectives that challenge traditional notions. Replicating key studies is also invaluable; by either reaffirming or debunking past results, you contribute to the evolving accuracy and reliability of academic knowledge. And innovation shouldn’t be understated: utilizing novel methods to dissect age-old hypotheses can revitalize discussions, ushering them into contemporary dialogues. At other times, your work might serve as a mediator, aiming to resolve conflicts within the literature by offering a synthesis or a new lens of analysis.

Ultimately, the essence of your justification should translate into a clear takeaway for your readers. It’s not just about stating facts and presenting findings; it’s about weaving a narrative that underscores the relevance and significance of your study in the broader academic conversation. By ensuring readers grasp this importance, you not only validate the worth of your study but also inspire deeper engagement, discussion, and further exploration in your chosen domain.

Things to Avoid

Avoid nonspecific references.  There are two purposes to a citation in academic writing: 1) to give credit where it is due, and 2) to demonstrate the breadth of coverage of the paper.  A long list of nonspecific cites at the end of a paragraph leaves the reader wondering many things: Are these empirical studies? Are these statements research results or speculation?  Are all these studies of equal weight, or do some provide more solid evidence than others do? Introduce studies with specificity.

Introducing references after the review section.  Cite all of your references in the literature review of your document.  By the time the readers get to your discussion section, they should already have been introduced to all the important works on your topic.  Make sure your literature review is comprehensive (especially for a thesis or dissertation).

Bad English.  Misspellings, capitalization errors, and easily recognizable grammar errors make you look like an idiot.  Proofread your paper. Fix your mistakes. If you have less-than-perfect grammar skills, get someone else to help you with editing.  Most universities have a writing center where you can get help. (Help with English usage—do not expect writing center personnel to be experts in your field or the APA style!).  There are software plugins available that can automate many editing tasks, making your work better quickly. (I personally use Grammarly).

Overreliance on Direct Quotations. While using direct quotes from sources can be useful, excessive reliance on them can make your paper feel less original. Instead, aim to paraphrase or summarize key points from your sources, integrating them smoothly into your narrative. This not only demonstrates your understanding of the content but also makes the paper more engaging to readers.

Neglecting Contradictory Evidence. Only discussing studies or viewpoints that align with your argument can make your work seem biased. A comprehensive literature review acknowledges all significant perspectives, even those that might contradict your stance. Addressing and counter-arguing such points strengthens your position.

Overuse of Jargon. While academic writing often requires specialized language, avoid excessive use of jargon or overly complex terms that might alienate readers unfamiliar with the terminology. Aim for clarity and simplicity, providing definitions or explanations for terms that aren’t widely recognized outside your specific field.

Lack of Structure and Flow. It’s crucial to organize your literature review or paper logically. Ensure there’s a clear structure, with ideas and points flowing seamlessly from one to the next. This helps readers follow your argument and understand the progression of your discussion.

Ignoring Updates in Your Style. Publication guidelines, including the APA and Chicago style, occasionally undergo revisions. Ensure you’re using the most up-to-date version of the style guide when formatting your paper.  If your professor provides a template, use it!  Even if it’s wrong, your professor thinks it is correct, and that is all that matters for your grade.

Reliance on a Limited Range of Sources. Diversifying your sources ensures a richer and more balanced understanding of your topic. Relying too heavily on one type of source, such as only articles from a single journal or only older publications, can limit the breadth of your insights. Ensure you’re exploring a mix of both seminal works and recent studies from various reputable sources.

Using Outdated Sources. In many fields, knowledge and research evolve rapidly. While older articles can provide foundational knowledge, relying heavily on dated sources can make your work seem out of touch with recent developments. As a rule of thumb, prioritize sources published within the last five years to ensure the relevance and currency of your information. If you do choose to cite an older article, there should be a clear justification for its inclusion. For instance, it might be a landmark study that introduced pivotal concepts or findings to the field. However, even in such cases, it’s crucial to contextualize the older source and, where possible, complement it with more recent research that builds upon or critiques that seminal work. This approach ensures that your literature review or paper reflects both the historical context and the current state of the field.


Creating a comprehensive literature review is vital for a meaningful contribution to academic discussions. One should begin by introducing the overarching problem area, setting the stage from a broad overview and progressively honing in on the specific topic, ensuring that the introduction is clear without being overly general or ambiguous.

It’s also crucial to underscore influential studies when discussing the literature. Considerations like the size of the study, its real-world impact, and the soundness of its methodologies can highlight its significance. Among these studies, there are those considered “landmark,” foundational works that have left a lasting imprint on the field. Such studies set the tone and context for subsequent research and are integral to any in-depth literature review.

Equally important are replication studies that aim to reaffirm the findings of these landmark studies. By confirming or challenging the original research’s outcomes, they either solidify the landmark study’s conclusions or suggest alternative perspectives.

One should also not overlook existing review articles on the topic. Even if someone has previously tackled the subject, newer reviews can bring fresh insights, newer data, or different angles. An existing review article can also be a valuable resource, especially its reference page, which provides a curated list of key sources.

As the review progresses, it’s essential to acknowledge side issues and tangential topics, pointing readers towards comprehensive articles on those subjects. This practice gives a holistic view of the research landscape without diverting from the main topic. Acknowledging and addressing gaps in the existing literature adds depth, while pointing out inconsistencies across studies showcases the multifaceted nature of many subjects.

Lastly, justifying the study’s relevance and importance in the academic sphere ensures readers understand its significance, encouraging deeper engagement and future exploration. And throughout, clarity, updated references, and diversified sources are paramount to avoid pitfalls in the literature review process.

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  09/21/2023

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