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How to write your literature review

Judging the quality of your sources

when you've finished this page you will be able to...

 

When you 'review' something, you give a critical report of its strengths and weaknesses - this is what you need to achieve in your literature review. A literature review should never be simply a list of the literature. You'll need to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the studies you include.

You may be critical of a study for many reasons; for example, a study might...

When you're new to research, it can be difficult to judge the quality of what you read, and critically evaluating the literature is a skill that takes practice, but the more thoughtful you are about what you read, the easier it becomes - and the better grade you'll achieve. At undergraduate level, you'll be expected to show you're starting to think about the quality of the sources you use, but at postgraduate level, you'll need to comment critically on every study you include.

Top tip...

If you suspect a study is flawed, but you're not confident, discuss it with your supervisor. He or she will be pleased you're trying to think critically.

Top tip...

Journals published in some fields include review articles that offer a critical summary of important research on a specific topic. If you can find review articles in your subject, try reading a few - they provide good examples of how to critically review the literature, and give you a feel of what makes a study good, or not so good.

Activity: The strengths and weaknesses of your sources - 30 minutes

1. Spend a few minutes thinking about each of the studies you plan to include in your literature review. For each one, think about how you would answer these questions:

2. Make notes on your answers to these questions, and use them to help you write your review.

  • why was the research important?
  • what were the authors trying to find out?
  • is there anything controversial about the study - are there ethical issues, is it an emotive area, does the study use controversial techniques?
  • is the study well designed?
  • what do the authors conclude, and do you think these conclusions are reasonable?
  • do the results and conclusions of the study agree with the results and conclusions of similar studies?
  • do you think the research is truly independent, or is there a possibility of bias?

Recommended Further Reading

It can be difficult at first to judge things like the quality of a study's design, whether a sample is appropriate and whether data collection methods are robust; however, it gets easier with practice, and at postgraduate level it's vital to be able to do these things.

Action point:

You can use the questions in the activity on this page to judge the quality of any research study, so they should come in handy throughout your studies.

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