A literature review is a fundamental part of your thesis writing process. It critically informs you of the relevant literature by other scholars in your research area and situates your research in the conversation. Ultimately, the literature review helps you communicate how the new knowledge you are producing contributes to existing scholarship.
The process of scanning literature in your area allows you to identify overlooked or understudied topics in your research field, and identify scholarships that support your arguments. The literature review provides the theoretical framework, methodology, concepts and problems that frame your research design.
We attended the GradProSkills webinar Writing a Literature Review (GPLL37), led by Joseph Brito, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religions and Cultures, to learn how to do a literature review efficiently and still be thorough. Joseph shared 7 steps to do a literature review in a stress-free manner:
1. Define your research scope
Establish the research area, topics and questions you want to address. Make a list of keywords (including synonyms) and main concepts linked to your research topic, and establish the connections between these concepts and your research question with a concept map. Then set some additional parameters to your searches like publication date, geographical coverage, and related disciplines.
2. Plan your research approach
Build a checklist with important aspects of your research area, like the existing scholarship covering your topic, under-researched or overlooked aspects by other researchers, and key scholars in the field. Identify where to search for research papers on Concordia’s online catalogue and databases, browse on Google Scholar, talk to a subject librarian or ask your advisor for tips. Identify credible scholarly publications like peer-reviewed journals, books from university presses and graduate thesis. If in doubt, seek your supervisor’s guidance to acceptable sources.
3. Search strategically: be efficient but thorough
Use the keywords and concepts you identified in your research and explore combinations with boolean operators (or, and, not, etc), and truncated terms (develop* returns results like development, developer). Enhance your research expertise with GradProSkills webinar Library Skills & Resources (GPLL231) or chat with Concordia's librarians.
Keep research logs with critical aspects of your search: date, database, terms used and their combinations, and results. Establish categories for important themes, and organize search results within these major themes.
4. Manage your literature with online tools
Keeping good referencing practices early on in your grad school saves you time during the writing phase. Zotero is a free online reference management tool to keep your citations and personal notes in one place. This software inserts the citation (author, date of publication, page number) into your word document and automatically creates a reference list as per the chosen citation style. Zotero training is available to grad students with GradProSkills webinar GPLL 243 - Using Zotero for Grads.
5. Critical reading and analysis
Before reading your text, consider the author's argumentation and evidence to support your research question. Skim read the abstract, conclusion, and the first sentence of each paragraph to eliminate non-relevant literature.
Keep an annotated bibliography for each source with its key points and importance to your research (about seven sentences), and place selected literature in conversation with each other. The literature review is an iterative process of searching, reading, taking notes and writing.
6. Benchmark from other literature reviews
Check existing literature reviews in the thesis and dissertations at Concordia’s Theses, dissertations, and research papers database. Organize the literature review keeping the connection between topics, with a smooth transition from one section to another. Avoid excessive direct quoting, and prefer to give your interpretation of other scholars’ perspectives in your research field.
7. Assemble the texts and write
Put all the sources together into your literature review when you are confident that you have covered the significant authors and debates in your field. You will know that you have reached this point when your search results and readings start repeating themselves, or if your advisor tells you to stop and write. A literature review is structured with an introduction, main body and conclusion. Concordia’s Student Success Centre shares handouts on how to structure essays and research papers.
Joseph recommends starting the literature review process sooner rather than later to give yourself time to gather and analyze your sources. Manage the process like a small project with specific goals and timelines to increase efficiency and reduce stress. You can learn how to work efficiently with our Productivity in Grad School (GPLL50) webinar.