How to write a literature review for a research paper

Conducting research is not easy, as it often involves that the researcher invests a lot of time and effort. The literature review in a research paper is one of the most important and time-consuming tasks to do, but it is very important for the researcher and the readers to be aware of the existing investigations about a certain topic. Here we will discuss some requirements to write a complete literature review, which we can also refer to as ‘theoretical framework’, as it is widely used in the scientific community. This article offers 5 steps to go through when writing a literature review for a research paper

Provide background for the problem or research issue

A good literature review shows the readers of the paper a summary of the main studies related to the research problem, reporting the main findings on the topic. This is important to ensure the quality of our research, by taking into consideration previous work on the problem and, therefore, to build from there more insights regarding the issue. An ethical researcher should make sure to include important information and acknowledge the source, by indicating who has been writing about the research problem.

In scientific terms, a literature review or theoretical framework reports the main theories related to the research topic. Different ideas regarding the same issue usually lead to different theories and a complete review should address the most important ones.

Select the information and organize the concepts

Prioritizing information is key when writing a literature review. It is in the hands of the researcher to select suitable theories and works accurately related to the present study. A review of the literature helps to show the importance of the topic. Therefore, if we present a complete background signaling the important results, we also show that our topic is relevant for common knowledge and worth to study. 

At the same time, we need to organize the concepts arising from the review of the existing literature and manage to present the information in a logical order. Keep in mind the need of reporting the information in a clear and friendly way, in order to engage your audience to the research topic and relate to the importance of the study. Usually, in research papers, researchers present the theoretical framework in a deductive manner, that is, by presenting the broader terms first and the most specific concepts at last. Also, researchers try to include a historical perspective in their literature reviews by presenting the evolution of theories through time. This way, the reader can establish some connections related to the information flow and the emergence of ideas throughout the years.

Include the latest results on the topic and search several databases

As important as acknowledging the first established, main theories on a topic, it is to include the latest findings and most recent studies in the field as well. In your references, make sure that the majority of papers listed were written and published in the last decade, this helps to prove that the literature reviewed for the study is updated.

In addition, to ensure a trustworthy and up-to-date theoretical framework, we suggest you look for papers and articles in several databases. Different articles can be accessed by different means: many disciplines and institutions have their own databases. It is part of the researcher’s ethical principles to review as many sources of information as possible to make a complete literature review. Surfing through these databases you will need to focus on the abstracts of the papers to select papers suitable to enhance your own investigation.

Cover the essential concepts for your piece of research: provide an overview

It is key to provide all the general information and terminology necessary to understand your study. Some topics are very specific in a certain field and demand a clear, but very detailed literature review. Keep in mind that your reader may not be part of the expert community dealing with your research topic. Acknowledge main findings, authors and research conducted by others, so that the reader understands the way in which your own study fills a gap in the existing literature.

Cite all the information properly

Give credit to all the work done previously on the topic. Ideas have sources and we should state where they come from. Meet the requirements of your teacher or institution in terms of citation styles, every style has its own rules in order to deliver the information in an organized manner. Mixing up styles is not a good thing when citing in a research paper, it is always better to adhere to one set of rules. Finally, make sure that all of the information you refer to in your text is present in your reference section. Big pieces of research and also some institutions may require a minimum of works cited to ensure that the study is trustworthy and that it does not contain plagiarism. If you are concerned with plagiarism and have doubts about it, we suggest you check out our article about plagiarism!

At last, these are some suggestions to check out when writing a literature review, but they can also be useful to consider before delivering a piece of work, in order to make sure that you included all the necessary information. Writing takes time and effort, building a text requires revision and can be time-consuming. Looking for papers, discriminating amongst documents and finding out any piece of information in databases can be stressful and we suggest you take enough time to read as many articles as possible to deliver a complete literature review that is accurate and useful for your own study.


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