Review the Literature

Once you have a research idea, and you have put together a question and hypothesis, the next stage is to conduct a literature review. Before you can write a strong proposal you need to make sure that you are up-to-date on the available literature (research) in your area. A literature review will help to justify your research question and hypothesis. This is essentially a critical account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers that is significant to the work that you are carrying out.

Be Selective & Critical, Not Exhaustive

A literature review demonstrates to reviewers that you’ve done the necessary preliminary research to undertake your project. Literature reviews should be selective and critical, not exhaustive. Reviewers want to see your evaluation of pertinent works. For more information, see a useful UNC handout on literature reviews.

A literature review will help:

  • identify gaps in the literature
  • avoid reinventing the wheel (at the very least this will save time and it can stop you from making the same mistakes as others)
  • carry on from where others have already reached (reviewing the field allows you to build on the platform of existing knowledge and ideas)
  • identify other people working in the same fields (a researcher network is a valuable resource)
  • increase your breadth of knowledge of your subject area
  • identify seminal works in your area
  • provide the intellectual context for your own work, enabling you to position your project relative to other work
  • identify opposing views
  • put your work into perspective
  • demonstrate that you can access previous work in an area
  • identify information and ideas that may be relevant to your project
  • identify methods that could be relevant to your project

To begin a literature search, try brainstorming the key concepts / issues of your topic, and then use a literature indexing database (e.g., PubMed) to locate the relevant information around the key concepts. It is useful to find the most important and relevant material early. You may wish to read review articles which will give detailed coverage of the literature. Your aim should be to familiarise yourself with the key texts on the subject area, and to supplement this with a more broad reading around the topic.

Sources for Literature Reviews

Try to use a wide variety of resources (e.g., books, journals and Internet sites), but be careful that you are not simply listing as many references as possible. Books can offer detailed information about a subject area but can become out of date quickly. Also, it is estimated that ‘proven’ evidence-based knowledge can take up to ten years to find its way into standard medical textbooks. Periodicals provide a large amount of information and are often more up to date than books.

Make critical and evaluative notes as you read. State the content of the literature, the implications of this knowledge, any gaps or deficiencies, and any inconsistencies or conflicting viewpoints. Your conclusion should draw together all the important points from the literature, and in some cases identify which areas need further research.

Librarians are trained to support you during your search for information, so use their expertise. Consider using the UBC Library “Ask a Librarian” function.

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