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What is a literature review?

If you have to write an undergraduate dissertation, you may be required to begin by writing a literature review. A literature review is a search and evaluation of the available literature in your given subject or chosen topic area. It documents the state of the art with respect to the subject or topic you are writing about.

A literature review has four main objectives:

  • It surveys the literature in your chosen area of study
  • It synthesises the information in that literature into a summary
  • It critically analyses the information gathered by identifying gaps in current knowledge; by showing limitations of theories and points of view; and by formulating areas for further research and reviewing areas of controversy
  • It presents the literature in an organised way

A literature review shows your readers that you have an in-depth grasp of your subject; and that you understand where your own research fits into and adds to an existing body of agreed knowledge.

Here’s another way of describing those four main tasks. A literature review:

  • demonstrates a familiarity with a body of knowledge and establishes the credibility of your work;
  • summarises prior research and says how your project is linked to it;
  • integrates and summarises what is known about a subject;
  • demonstrates that you have learnt from others and that your research is a starting point for new ideas.