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What is a literature review?

A literature review involves gathering existing research on a particular topic. It typically provides the background on what is known so far on the issue you have chosen, and suggests areas for future research to fill in gaps. 

A literature review may be a stage in a larger research project, or a research project in and of itself.

A literature review is:

  • a synthesis or overview of the research on a particular topic
  • a critical analysis of the existing literature
  • a means to identify gaps in the existing research or areas of further study

A literature review is not:

  • A list of articles
  • An annotated bibliography

Determining the scope of your literature review

Whether you are conducting a literature review as a research assistant or as part of your own research project, here are some important questions to consider before you start:

  • How far back in time will your search go? 
  • What types of sources will you include in your literature review? Are you interested in journal articles, books, dissertations/theses, and reports from non-profits or government agencies? This will largely depend on your discipline. 
  • Are you focused on finding a particular type of research study (e.g. you only are interested in finding randomized controlled trials)?
  • How will you organize the sources you find? You may want to use citation management software like Mendeley or Zotero to help you keep track of what you find. 

Literature review tips

In compiling your literature review, you'll likely assemble at least three 'piles' of information corresponding to different parts of your question.

For example - If your topic is Cynicism and Environmental Corproate Social Responsibility(CSR) in the Oilpatch then you'll collect sources on:

  • cycnicism and public relations (PR),
  • PR in the oil patch
  • environment-related CSR initiatives.

While you will probably find some sources covering two of these subjects, you're less likely to find a lot of articles  that cover all three aspects of your topic (if you do find a lot that cover all aspects of your topic, it may be a sign the topic's overdone). 

So - you're going to need at least three different search strategies and corresponding lists of keywords.

When you compile the lit review, look for points of intersection and alignment in the articles within each group - common themes, places where opinion is divided, etc. Your literature review should provide the reader with a state of play of the aspects of your topic - a summary of what is known or thought about the basis for your paper.


Strategies to Help You Organize Your Literature Review

It is important to find a way to organize your ideas as you are reading articles. Some people find it helpful to create a synthesis matrix or concept map while they are reading to help them identify major themes and how different authors contribute to the theme.

Synthesis Matrix

The matrix method is one way of working on your literature review. to do their literature review more efficiently. 

Use a table in Word with a row for each of your sources. Develop columns based on key themes in your paper with room for more columns that emerge from your readings. When a source relates to one of the columns, note the key point in the box, and add a page number so you can find the point again quickly.

Source    cynicism in PR     PR and oilpatch    environment-related
 other aspect  
El Hussein, 2010  

petroleum PR requires

understanding of envir.
issues (p. 347)

Suncor leader in
envi CSR
Littlebear, 2014 shareholder cynicism
csr initiatives (p.16)
Petroleum PR
especially mistrusted
McGillicuddy, 2010 Mistrust of corporate,
govt PR

environmental csr provokes

most cynicism (p.22)

Cho, 2012       anti-oil activists play to

Additional resources:


Concept Mapping

Concept mapping is another way to visualize connections between sources during your literature review. 

Need assistance?

If you need assistance with your research project, please reach out to your subject librarian. They would be happy to help.

If you are not sure who to chat with, please contact Cari Merkley.