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Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Research Guide

This guide is an amalgamation of resources relevant to scholars in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department.

What is a literature review?

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:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
  • Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Point the way forward for further research
  • Place one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature

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:

  • Problem formulation—which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
  • Literature search—finding materials relevant to the subject being explored
  • Data evaluation—determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
  • Analysis and interpretation—discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature

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.

For additional information, including suggestions for the structure of your literature review, see this guide from the University of North Carolina's Writing Center:

This <10 minute tutorial from North Carolina State University also provides a good overview of the literature review:


Finding Examples

While we don't have any examples of an EEB JP literature review, it may be useful to look at other reviews to learn how researchers in the field "summarize and synthesize" the literature. Any 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:

  • Web of Science - If you'd like to limit your results to Review Articles, look to the left side of your results page. There you will see many options to refine your search including the section labeled Document Types. Select "Review" as the document type and click on Refine.
  • Scopus - Similar to WoS, you can use the options on the left side of your results page if you'd like to limit the document type. Here you will again choose "Review" and then click on the Limit To button.
  • Annual Reviews  - All articles in this database are review articles. You can search for your topic or browse in a related subject area.
  • Dissertations @ Princeton - Provides access to many Princeton dissertations, full text is available for most published after 1996.

*** 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.