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  4. Conducting a literature review

Conducting a literature review

You may be expected to gather evidence by making a review of the current literature, perhaps as a distinct section in an assignment or as a chapter of a dissertation. Or it may be part of your preparatory work for a project proposal.

A literature review usually takes the form of a critical discussion that shows insight into the theories being discussed in publications with a clear link to the purpose of your question or research.

The structure of the literature review depends on the aims and purpose of your work. Generally, you should group together your work in key themes, with each one explicitly linked to your research topic.

Beginning a literature review can be a bit overwhelming. The best place to start is with your textbooks and the key academics referred to within them. After you've identified the key relevant authors you can read more from them (books, articles etc). This will then lead you on further, to other academics and theories.

You can use the OU's online library to source material that is available online. It has links to journals, articles, e-books and more.

Here are some key steps in conducting a literature review.

  • Define your topic. Do you have central question you want to answer?
  • Narrow down what you want to research - a narrower topic allows you to focus more deeply, rather than skimming the surface
  • Divide your topic into key themes to make it easier to look up information
  • Use your textbooks to identify key authors or theories that relate to the themes and make them your starting point
  • Do the textbooks suggest any further reading? If so, track it down
  • Use the OU's online library to locate academic opinion and theory
  • Organise your literature: store any paper copies in folders and files, grouped into themes
  • Read the literature you have sourced
  • Fit the literature into the key themes you have identified - if any don't fit, or they don't seem important enough to include, put them to one side

You now need to engage critically with the texts. Think about whether you agree with what's being said. Examine the methodology used: divide the articles into qualitative or quantitative categories, evaluate conclusions made based on the method used and evidence presented.

Once you start to collate your literature review, make sure to reference your sources correctly as you use them. Keep full details of the title of the paper or book chapter, the authors, the page numbers, the journal or book it was published in and year of publication, as it can be hard to track down these details later.

It is important that you keep up with your subject; people will be writing about it all the time, with new theories and literature produced. This means you should look over literature at other points too: certainly mid-way through a research project and again at the end.