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Blog post

Getting Started on Your Literature Review

January 25, 2018
By GradProSkills

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A literature review is a fundamental component of a thesis because it grounds your research. It can also be a little daunting to start. This blog post unpacks what a literature review is, how you can start looking for useful research materials and when you should stop.

What is a literature review?

GradProSkills facilitator, Jason Begy, describes a literature review as “a survey of the credible and relevant literature on your topic.” It draws on academic journals and presses, books, and even graduate theses to construct a frame of reference for the research that you are partaking in. The purpose of a literature review is to construct a foundation to situate your work, identify what other scholars are saying about your topic and what they may be missing out on, as well as to provide evidence for why your research is important. 

Jason states that a well-done literature review will not only present an overview of the subject that you are researching, it will also include critical evaluations (not summaries) of each resource that you use.

Where to start looking for your literature review

The most common and reliable place to start searching for literature is the library. You can either access the Concordia Library website to start searching for journal articles and books related to your topic, or head to Webster library downtown or Vanier library at Loyola. Google Scholar can also be a very useful resource when it comes to searching for academic articles that the Concordia Library database may not have access to. Your advisor can also provide guidance on where to look as well as the librarian who serves as your subject specialist. You can find out who your designated librarian is for your discipline by going to the Subject & Course Guides section. 

Don’t forget to examine citations and reference pages. If you come across an article, book, video or presentation that really resonated with you, then look at the sources. This will introduce you to more people writing and thinking about some of the same concepts that you are investigating. 

Assessing your sources

Once you locate your resources, you need to assess how useful they will be for your research. Jason recommends eight steps that you should follow to assess your literature:

  1. For journal articles, read the abstract to get an overview of the argument the paper is making. For books, especially ones that are compilations of essays, read over the introduction.
  2. Look at the author of the piece. Is it someone you recognize? Though, it’s important that you don’t make this the sole criteria for choosing your literature because then you may miss out on newer scholars in that field.
  3. Think about how you came across the resource.
  4. Do a quick search to see if anyone else has been citing the resource.
  5. Look over the headings and/or the table of contents before you start reading.
  6. If there is an index, make sure you examine it. This is a great way to look for keywords that relate to your research.
  7. Prioritize – start with the material that is the closest fit with your research topic.
  8. While you’re reading, ask yourself, “Is this giving me new ideas about my research?” If it’s not, perhaps you need to put that text aside. 

How do you know when to stop?

Knowing when to stop collecting resources for your literature review can be tricky. Either you’ll know it’s time to stop collecting materials intuitively, or you’ll be able to tell when you keep coming across the same articles and arguments. You may want to speak with your advisor and give them a list of what you’ve collected. It is important that you try to keep up with the literature published within your field, especially if you’re writing a PhD dissertation, and this may require conducting a few searches through databases every few months. 

After you collect a sufficient amount of literature you may be left wondering how you should organize it. Our next blog post will discuss some tips for organizing and presenting the material for your literature review. Lastly, we’ll leave you with a bit of advice, don’t start writing your literature review right away because your ideas will change the more that you read, but always try to keep notes. 

For more guidance on how to start writing your literature review, visit the literature review guide on the library website. You can also attend the GradProSkills GPLL37 Writing a Literature Review workshop. Don’t forget, you can look through other graduate theses using the Concordia Library database if you need examples of literature reviews.

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