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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Demystifying the Literature Review

This guide provides an overview of the literature review and its place in a research project, thesis, or dissertation, and demonstrates some strategies and resources for finding the information you need using the U of I Library.

What is a Literature Review?

A) A Process

A literature review is a survey of the scholarly literature published on a given issue, research topic, or theory. Rather than providing a new research insight, a literature review lays the groundwork for an in-depth research project analyzing previous research. Type of documents surveyed will vary depending on the field, but can include:

  • books
  • journal articles
  • theses
  • dissertations

A thorough literature review will also require surveying what librarians call "gray literature," which includes difficult-to-locate documents such as:

  • technical reports
  • government publications
  • working papers
  • preprints


B) A Product

A literature review is also the component of your assignment, article, or other academic work which synthesizes what you found in your research; it provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work.  Your literature review should include:

  • major findings & trends
  • interpretation & evaluation (do not just list all the research articles you found)
  • current knowledge gaps
  • how your research fits in to the existing literature

Purposes of the Literature Review

  • Determine the research problem
  • Avoid useless approaches
  • Identify methods of future research
  • Find new lines of inquiry
  • Gain methodological insight

Reasons for Conducting a Literature Review

  • Distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done
  • Discovering important variables relevant to the topic
  • Synthesizing and gaining new perspective
  • Identifying relationships between ideas and practices
  • Establishing the context of the topic
  • Rationalizing the significance of the problem
  • Enhancing and acquiring subject vocabulary
  • Understanding the structure of the subject
  • Relating ideas and theory to applications
  • Identifying main methodologies and research techniques that have been used
  • Placing research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-art development

Questions to Consider

  • What is the overarching question or problem your literature review seeks to address?
  • How much familiarity do you already have with the field? Are you already familiar with common methodologies or professional vocabularies?
  • What types of strategies or questions have others in your field pursued?
  • How will you synthesize or summarize the information you gather?
  • What do you or others perceive to be lacking in your field?
  • Is your topic broad? How could it be narrowed?
  • Can you articulate why your topic is important in your field?