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Reviewing the literature

A review of relevant literature is one of the most important first steps when beginning a piece of research. A literature review identifies gaps in the current knowledge and provides context to your research and research questions.

Often it will underpin and help to justify your research design and choice of methodology.

The importance of the literature

You should continue to review the literature throughout your project, as you’ll need to interpret your results in the context of the relevant literature to support the discussion of your research and final conclusions.

Examiners will assess the quality and coverage of your literature when judging the overall thesis standard. It‘s expected that your review of the literature will comprehensively cover your area of inquiry, be up-to-date and reflect a process of critical engagement.

Engaging with the literature

Your literature review is expected to reflect critical engagement and a synthesis of relevant information.

Critical engagement involves situating the literature within the context of your research, and that of others. It includes identifying its strengths, limitations and implications.

A synthesis of the literature requires an integration of the knowledge such that the separate pieces of evidence work to comprise part of a whole argument. These processes set a literature review apart from an annotated bibliography and are the hallmarks of a good literature review.

Elements of a review

Generally, it is expected that your literature review will identify, interpret and discuss:

  • what has been done before;
  • the intersections between relevant pieces of research;
  • the key contributors to the area of inquiry and their contribution;
  • key theories and concepts that have been applied before;
  • the strengths and limitations of what has been done before;
  • the implications of what is known; and
  • the gaps in what is known.

The approach

Generally, it‘s useful to approach a review of the literature in two stages:

  • Stage 1:  prior to confirmation of candidature when you’re deciding on a research topic and defining the problem; this results in the preparation of a preliminary literature review that will be included in your research proposal.
  • Stage 2: continues throughout your degree from the research proposal. During this time you will continue to thoroughly review the literature relevant to your research topic.

This is important for analysing and interpreting your results and also to build on the original literature review. This ensures the final version in your thesis includes the most recent and relevant sources.

The literature search generally involves three categories of material:

  • the specific content of the proposed study and previous research undertaken on the topic;
  • selected concepts and theories closely related to the topic; and
  • research design, methodology, reporting, statistical processes and guidelines for thesis preparation and writing.

Some research studies will actually use the literature as a source of data. Examples include investigations of methodologies, bibliometrics, analysis of literary works and some historical studies.

Finding literature

The following people and resources can often save you a lot of time by steering you in the right direction when searching for literature relevant to your research area:

  • Your supervisors
  • Your school librarians
  • Bibliographic databases
  • Reference lists in papers
  • Past theses


One of the signs of a good literature review, and indeed a good thesis, is the appropriate application of referencing to acknowledge others’ ideas and work and the quality of the sources cited.

Any statements, assertions or arguments not referenced are assumed to be your own work or ideas.

However, if the idea or work did not originate from you and it’s not referenced it could be considered as plagiarism. When writing your thesis, you should ensure you don’t use another person’s ideas or words in a way that would suggest they are your own.

A referencing style appropriate to the discipline should be used consistently throughout the thesis for in-text and end referencing. Consult with your supervisors regarding referencing style.

There are many resources available to assist you with your referencing practices, including the GRS research training workshop on paragraphing and structuring your writing.

Turnitin software may be a useful tool to help you to detect any part of your work that has not been correctly referenced. For more information visit the Turnitin web page.

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