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Graduate Writing: Writing Literature Reviews

Writing Literature Reviews

Literature reviews are commonly written in graduate school, either as a standalone document or as part of a larger text (e.g., scholarship proposal, research project, thesis, dissertation), and provide an overview about what is currently known and not known about a particular research area. Literature refers primarily to the work of other scholars, captured in academic journal articles or monographs, though may include other documents too, such as government reports, white papers, and more.

Most graduate-level literature reviews are likely to be narrative reviews, but some students, especially those in health sciences, may be expected to produce a systematic review or a scoping (or mapping) review. Other literature reviews include critical reviews*, conceptual reviews, empirical reviews, meta-analysis reviews, and rapid reviews, among others.

*Critical review in different contexts may refer to an article or book critique.

While some graduate students will already be comfortable undertaking a narrative review, it is recommended that they work closely with their subject librarian when conducting any type of review for the first time. You can make an appointment with your subject librarian to learn more about how to navigate databases effectively, source grey literature, and more. Keep in mind that certain types of reviews may require academics to follow standardized procedures, both in terms of how research is undertaken and how it is written (e.g., PRISMA for scoping reviews). Unsure of which review is right for you? Consider completing a questionnaire or reviewing resources to help make the decision-making process a bit easier.

Narrative literature reviews have several purposes. In conducting the review, the writer deepens their understanding of the present research (the literature) and, in doing so, clarifies their own research question or problem statement. A standalone literature review (sometimes referred to as a review article) can also provide other scholars and professionals a useful overview of current research so that they can stay up to date in their field. However, one of the main purposes of the review is to provide justification for a research project by situating the project in relation to the work of other scholars.

While a narrative literature review should provide a sense of the breadth and depth of what the author has read, it is not necessary to include every single article or book that is tangentially related to the topic at hand. Instead, the text should serve the reader so that they have sufficient context to understand the issue(s) being explored.

Situating Research: Create a Research Space (CARS)

For literature reviews that are integrated into the paper’s introduction, the Create a Research Space (CARS) model, as articulated by John Swales, can be an effective method for helping to justify one’s own project. It involves the following three rhetorical moves that help establish an argument for one’s work by explaining

  1. what is already known about a topic (what has already been found)
  2. what is not known about a topic (the gap in the literature)
  3. what will be/is known about a topic because of one’s project (entering the gap)

This structure is frequently used within academia, echoing a problem-solution structure that establishes an appealing rhetorical situation readers can easily understand.

While CARS provides a broad structure for organizing a narrative literature review, within the “known” section additional thought must be given to overall organization. In general, there are three main options: chronological, thematic, or methodological. Within a chronological structure, the writer follows how the topic has developed over time; within a thematic structure, the writer identifies and develops themes (and sub-themes) around which the research circles; and within a methodological structure, the writer groups studies according to how they were designed (e.g., qualitative vs. quantitative studies). In practice, many writers blend aspects of two of more of these structures when writing their reviews.

Looking to fine-tune your literature review? Select a comparable review from your field and examine how it has been structured. Ask yourself how the authors have organized the text. Do they follow CARS moves?


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Keeping the Literature Organized

One of the more challenging aspects of crafting literature reviews is managing the volume of sources that you are expected to read, interrogate, and integrate into the final text.

Citation managers, spreadsheets and annotated bibliographies are all methods by which students can keep track of their sources.

Having a system in place from the start means that it is easier to synthesize and cite the research during the drafting and revising of the review.


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Synthesis and the Literature Review

Synthesis is a central characteristic of literature reviews, demonstrating a writer’s ability to group sources together based on shared information. Synthesis also creates more readable text by reducing needless repetition.

Consider the examples below. Which do you prefer reading?

Example 1: Baptiste (2001) reviewed 85 instances of elderly women who experienced hip fractures following falls. He determined that in most cases, these falls were preventable. Beyond the physiological impact of these falls, the costs associated with such injuries were significant. Adams (2011) also studied instances of elderly women experiencing hip fractures in her study. According to her research, most of these falls were preventable. In 2018, Statistics Canada released a report on the costs associated with bone fractures in elderly populations, which often result in expensive hospitalizations. These injuries are often caused by falls and are largely preventable.

Example 2: The costs associated with bone fractures among elderly populations are notable as these injuries often result in expensive hospitalizations (Baptiste, 2001; Statistics Canada, 2018). However, some of these injuries may be avoidable. For instance, two studies studying hip fractures experienced by elderly women who had fallen found that most falls were preventable (Baptiste, 2001; Adams, 2011).

Did you prefer the second example? Most readers do as it communicates the same information as the first but in a more concise way. That is the power of synthesis.

Synthesis can also be understood as a form of pattern recognition that involves writers asking themselves how different sources relate to each other. Because of this focus on relationships, the following questions can also be used to generate synthesis:

  • Are researchers asking similar or different questions about the same topic?
  • Do the scholars agree? Or do they contradict each other?
  • What debate(s) are emerging?
  • Do researchers interpret data in similar or different ways?
  • What methodologies have been used to investigate comparable questions?
  • How are scholars responding to previous research?
  • How does the research fit into the current academic conversation?

Graduate students may also wish to use a synthesis matrix. These are useful tools that can be easily tailored to any research project and make visualizing commonalities among studies as simple as glancing at a table.


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