A literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory. The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.
A literature review may constitute an essential chapter of a thesis or dissertation, or may be a self-contained review of writings on a subject. In either case, its purpose is to:
A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.
Similar to primary research, development of the literature review requires four stages:
Remember, this is a process and not necessarily a linear one. As you search and evaluate the literature, you may refine your topic or head in a different direction which will take you back to the search stage. In fact, it is useful to evaluate as you go along so you don't spend hours researching one aspect of your topic only to find yourself more interested in another.
The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper will contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.
It may be useful to look at other reviews to learn how researchers in the field "summarize and synthesize" the literature. Most research article or dissertation in the sciences will include a section which reviews the literature. Though the section may not be labeled as such, you will quickly recognize it by the number of citations and the discussion of the literature. Another option is to look for Review Articles, which are literature reviews as a stand alone article. Here are some resources where you can find Research Articles, Review Articles and Dissertations:
*** Note about using Review Articles in your research - while they are useful in helping you to locate articles on your topic, remember that you must go to and use the original source if you intend to include a study mentioned in the review. The only time you would cite a review article is if they have made an original insight in their work that you talk about in your paper. Going to the original research paper allows you to verify the information about that study and determine whether the points made in the review are valid and accurate.