Getting Started

What is a literature review?

The purpose of a literature review is to describe, summarise, evaluate, clarify and/or integrate the content of primary reports. A literature review does not report new primary data.
Literature reviews may be seen by students as exercises imposed on them, but they are also a common scholarly activity of academics, leading to reviews that are often published in prestigious journals.

Who needs to write a literature review?

At JCU, this is required of all students starting a research higher degree, or undertaking "qualifying" courses prior to starting a research degree. In these cases, the literature review is often prepared in conjunction with a research proposal. Some students doing coursework higher degrees might also opt to do a literature review.
By requiring you to do a literature review, the University is trying to break the mindset about research which many students still seem to have - first, do the research, second, when that is complete, visit the library for the first time, third, write the thesis! Bad idea!

Why write a literature review?

  • It's a mandated requirement at JCU for students undertaking a research degree (if it wasn't required, would you do one? Answer honestly).

  • It makes no sense to start a research project without knowing what work has already been done by others. Wouldn't it be embarrassing to unknowingly repeat what others have already done?

  • You will become the world expert in your area by the time you finish your degree. A thorough knowledge of the literature will enable you to point to gaps and controversies in the field, and to plan future work to fill gaps and settle controversies.

  • You need to be able to put your work in a larger context when you write introductions and discussions in your thesis.

  • You can't claim to have academic credibility until you can demonstrate the ability to assimilate and interpret the literature.

It must be emphasised that, by the end of your degree, you should expect to exceed your supervisor's knowledge in your exact field - this is normal

Preliminary thoughts

a) Consider the nature of scientific endeavour. As an undergraduate, you have probably formed the view that science is largely about facts. As a postgraduate, you have to appreciate that science is really about ideas, and about questions that flow from those ideas. Facts are merely the means through which questions are answered and further ideas generated. As you prepare a literature review and/or a research proposal, you should be hunting for the questions and ideas in the literature. These are often poorly articulated in individual research papers, which might emphasise the facts discovered and leave the reader to infer the questions.

b) Be prepared to encounter some very bad writing! Just because somebody has managed to get published a paper full of jargon and ungrammatical English does not mean that you should use this as a model for your writing.

Example: This phrase was encountered: "I will document methodology in the international forum". What does this actually mean?

c) Preparation of a literature review requires that you read a large volume of material, much of which will probably be new to you. There will be inconsistencies of style, research techniques and interpretations among the offerings from different authors. The same author(s) may be inconsistent from one paper to the next. There may be blatant errors and vehement disagreements. You then have to turn this mass of words and ideas into a coherent final product. How you might approach the reading can depend on your background and focus.

"Bottom up" and "top down" reading (adapted from Edith Cowan web site)

If you have a very specific focus or idea that you will use as the basis for generating your research question, you will need to develop a reading strategy which might be called 'bottom up' reading:

  • To look at related research to gain alternative interpretations of your original proposed idea.

  • To expand your knowledge throughout the area of study.

You may find that you refine your original proposal several times within the process of this reading. The dangers for the 'bottom-up reader' will be:

  • Too much concentration on the minutiae of the area.

  • A failure to demonstrate a broad understanding of the 'big picture', for example, the contribution of the research to knowledge, its significance in terms of society etc.

If you have a general interest in an area of study and no specific focus, you must develop a 'top down' strategy, whereby you need:

  • To look into the subcategories or specialities within the field to find their 'research place'.

  • To read to expand your knowledge of the whole area and the additional possibilities that that area offers for research.

The dangers for the 'top-down' reader will be:

  • Presenting material which is too generalised.

  • Presenting information which scans numerous unrelated or weakly related discipline specialities and only loosely draws them together into a focused research direction.

How should I select a topic for the literature review?

Your supervisor will probably suggest a working title. Although you might change the title slightly, you should keep as close as possible to the spirit of the title. Do not change the focus of your review just because you find a couple of very useful and interesting papers in an alternative focus area! Keep the working title in front of you so that you don't get distracted by fascinating but peripheral things. Part of the academic discipline you must learn is to stay focused on one topic that might not yield interesting information as quickly as you would like. Your topic should also have a "local" flavour and you should seek local examples and papers.

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Throughout this guide, when we have used material produced by others, we have tried to acknowledge the source. If you feel we have used material without proper acknowledgement, please let us know so that the appropriate changes can be made.