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Research Process Guide

Step 4: Conducting a Literature Review


In order to understand your topic, before you conduct your research, it is extremely important to immerse yourself in the research that has been done on your topic and the topics that might be adjacent to your particular research interest or questions. “a researcher cannot perform significant research without first understanding the literature in the field” (Boote & Beile, 2005, p. 3). Essentially, When writing a thesis or research proposal, the review of the literature would be your Chapter 2.

Frankly, the literature review is often the first major challenge of the writing process. Sometimes, the task to review and synthesize all of the previous research on and around your topic can feel overwhelming. Although the literature review is foundational to situate your research within the body of literature on your topic, there is almost no literature on the challenges and pitfalls of writing a literature review (Randolph, 2009).

Boote and Beile (2005) reveal through their research on dissertation writing, that although a sophisticated literature review is essential for substantial research, they are often poorly written and lack organizational structure and conceptual relevance. So, the question is, how can you write a literature that is well-organized, comprehensive and situate your research within the literature?

Onweugbuzie et al. (2012) identify 23 core components of an effective literature review in their research and are referred to as the standard checklist for most empirical researchers. The list includes the following:

  1. What has been researched and what needs to be in the future.
  2. Identify variables within the literature that are relevant to your study.
  3. Identify the relationship between theory and practice within the literature.
  4. Discuss the quality of research with particular emphasis on the exemplary studies.
  5. Examine the methodologies and research design used throughout the literature, and evaluate the efficacy.
  6. Pay attention to any contradictions within the literature and
  7. Make sure to not replicate studies that have already been completed, however, if there are similarities, identify how your study and variables examined are important, different, and relevant.


How to complete a literature review

Fair Warning: The literature review is often time-consuming and can feel like an endless process.  Don’t Give Up! It is the first major hurdle of the research proposal process. Once you have completed the literature review, you will have a good idea of what is significant, relevant and novel about your research. The key is to spend time reading, recording important findings, and organizing the scholarly literature on (and around) your topic.

At this point, it is important to distinguish between scholarly literature and other sources. You need to keep in mind that you are only reviewing scholarly literature, which includes sources and studies that have a clear methodology, empirical evidence, results and conclusions. These studies are PEER-REVIEWED, meaning, contemporaries in the field have reviewed the research methods and findings of the literature, and found them relevant, significant, authentic and valid (Wakefield, 2015).

Where do you begin? Great question.

According to Randolph (2009), the goal of a literature review is to integrate and generalize findings across studies, debate findings within a field, resolve the debate, and discuss the language specific to the field. For a meta-analysis, which is a common strategy for a literature review, the goal is largely to integrate quantitative findings across the research on the topic. For other strategies to complete the literature review, the goals may be to critically analyze previous studies, identify central themes or issues within the existing literature or analyze an argument in the field (Randolph, 2009). In literature reviews for dissertation, the goal is to largely interrogate and analyze the current findings to find weaknesses or contradictions in order to place your study within the context of the current literature and to justify your study’s relevance.  So in essence, the goals of literature review, regardless of the strategy, are not only to deal with the central theme across the literature and to present a thematic analysis of that literature, but also, and perhaps more importantly, it is to focus on whether the body of knowledge is credible, reliable and valid based on the methodological approaches and outcomes of the literature in the field (Wakefield, 2015).

A few initial steps are:

  1. Develop a list of key words and phrases that relate to your topic and questions (Denney & Tewksbury, 2013).
  2. Search for relevant sources using useful databases found in Kean University’s Library:
  • Kean University’s WorldCat Discovery single-search application
  • Databases A-Z, which provides access to more than 250 multidisciplinary and subject-focused databases, including:
    • ERIC (education)
    • JSTOR (multidisciplinary)
    • Project Muse (humanities and social science)
    • PsycINFO
    • Web of Science (citation searching)
  • Google Scholar
  • Set up an account with a bibliographic citation manager like EndNote Online (access provided by Kean University) or a freely available option such as Zotero. The EndNote Online Guide provides separate on-campus and off-campus account registration instructions. A bibliographic citation manager will not only help you manage and organize your sources, but it will also help you format your references in various citation styles.
  • Take advantage of research support options provided by Kean’s librarians, including workshops, appointments with a librarian, and 24/7 Chat.


Think about adding “Kean University” to your library link within your Google Scholar Settings.  You will be able to gain full access to “full text” articles while searching in Google Scholar.

If you identify a source (article or book) that is not available through Kean University’s library collections, you may submit an Interlibrary Loan request. Book or article records found in the WorldCat Discovery database will feature an Interlibrary Loan request option. However, you may also utilize the Interlibrary Loan form.

You may also use the VALE Reciprocal Borrowing Program, which enables Kean University students and faculty to check out books from libraries at other New Jersey colleges and universities. To participate in this program, a researcher must first obtain a signed "VALE Reciprocal Borrowing Application Form" from the Nancy Thompson Learning Commons before they can borrow at one of the participating libraries.

What are the sources that are appropriate for a literature review? According to Garrard (2009) and others scientific or empirical research refers to the:

         …theoretical and research publications in scientific journals, reference books, government practice, policy statements, and other materials
         about the theory, practice, and results of scientific inquiry. These materials and publications are produced by individuals or groups in
         universities, foundations, government research laboratories, and other nonprofit or for-profit organizations (p.4).

Onwuegbuzie et al. (2010; as cited in Onwuegbuzie et al., 2012) goes further and describes the literature that could be included in a literature review, “research articles,… essays, article reviews, monographs, dissertations, books, Internet websites, video, interview transcripts, encyclopedias, company reports, trade catalogues, government documents, congressional/parliamentary bills…” (p. 7). However, Onwuegbuzie et al. (2012) builds on this definition, by saying that a literature review is largely, “a systematic, explicit, and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work produced by researchers, scholars and practitioners” (p.3).

So, what does this mean for you, the researcher and author of the literature review? You want to use multiple source types. Additionally, stick to the parameters laid out by Onwuegbuzie et al. (2012)  in that the literature reviewed should be an evaluation and synthesis of the existing work completed by “researchers, scholars and practitioners.” The list of sources should be semi-exhaustive and representative of the field.

Next, you should:

     3. Evaluate and select your sources. Read the abstract first to see if the source is relevant to your topic (Wakefield, 2015; Denney & Tewksbury, 2013; Randolph, 2009).

  • Is this source peer-reviewed?
  • Is this source presenting empirical evidence, meeting the threshold for scholarly research?
  • Is this topic relevant to my research topic/questions?
Tip: While reading your sources, take notes and keep track of what each article says:
  1. Note the trends in the literature.
  2. Note the gaps in the literature (this is where the significance/relevance of your study may lie).
  3. What methods have been used? Is your methodology different? (Also where you may identify further significance of your study.)
Tip: Creating a Literature Review Matrix is a helpful way to keep track of your sources. Including title, author, topic(s), methods and findings, as well as direct quotes that you think might be meaningful to your literature review would be helpful. Also, it would be important to note how you retrieved your source so that, theoretically, other researchers could replicate your literature review (Randolph, 2009).


Organizing your Literature Review:

Outline your literature review- how do you want it organized? You are “synthesizing” the literature as your purpose here. What structure works best for your topic and study? The most common formats are (Randolph, 2009; Onwuegbuzie et al., 2012):

  1. Historical format - literature is reviewed chronologically.This method is preferred when there is a goal of analyzing the progression of research methods, theories or practices over time.
  2. Conceptual format - centered arounds the propositions in research rationale or a theoretical- centered review which is organized according to the theories in the literature.
  3. Methodological format - this involves the discussion of methodology  as in an imperial paper including an introduction, method, results and discussion. This approach is most commonly used in meta- analytical reports.
Tip: Be sure to structure your literature review so it makes sense to you. You can organize it thematically, chronologically, methodically or any other way that works for you and your understanding of the topic.

Let’s talk about synthesis.

A literature review is not only a review of the empirical research, but it is also evaluation and synthesis of the research. Boote and Beile (2005) have created a five- category list for evaluating a literature review. The categories are coverage, synthesis, methodology, significance, and rhetoric.

  1. Coverage:
    • You need to create a justified criteria for including and excluding studies from your review
  2. Synthesis:
    • You need to discuss what has been done in the field and what still needs to be done.
    • Place the topic or problem within the greater context of scholarly literature.
    • Place the topic or problem within the historical context.
    • Discuss the subject vocabulary.
    • Articulate the important variables and phenomena that are relevant to the topic.
    • Synthesize and discuss a new perspective on the literature.
  3. Methodology:
    • Identify the main methods and research techniques that have been used in the field as well as their advantages/disadvantages.
    • Relate ideas and theories to research methodologies.
  4. Significance:
    • Rationalize the practical significance of the research problem.
    • Rationalize the scholarly significance of the research problem.
  5. Rhetoric:
    • Write in coherent language and be sure the organization/ structure of the review makes sense.

Synthesis is difficult - you need to articulate what this literature means for your research and/or how does the literature inform the purpose, impact, methodology of your study? Rather than summarizing, the idea behind synthesis is taking the information you have discussed and drawing your own conclusions, making connections between the literature and your study.


Boote, D. N., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6), 3-15.

Denney, A. S., & Tewksbury, R. (2013). How to write a literature review. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 24(2), 218-234.

Garrard, J. (2009). Health sciences literature review made easy: The matrix method. Jones and Bartlett.

Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Leech, N. L., & Collins, K. M. (2012). Qualitative analysis techniques for the review of the literature. Qualitative Report, 17(28), 1-28.

Randolph, J. (2009). A guide to writing the dissertation literature review. Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation, 14(1), 13.

Wakefield, A. (2015). Synthesising the literature as part of a literature review. Nursing Standard, 29(29), 44-51.