Literature Review – Best Practices

1. Introduction

All research studies need to be informed by existing body of knowledge in the subject area. Literature review identifies and organizes the concepts in the relevant body of knowledge. The difficult aspects of a literature review include encountering extensive, messy nature of knowledge with concepts that transcend disciplinary boundaries. The art lies in the ability to organize ideas, concepts, and themes to build and support (or even refute) an argument. Literature review is a campus that guides your navigation into the study of the subject. It enlightens on what to expect (priori) and possible surprises in the study. Most importantly, it forms the bedrock of the appropriate methodology and justifies the approach that the study should take.

2. Drawing Together the Literature Review

Drawing together literature review involves five critical steps, namely:

i. Documents scanning provides familiarity with the broad spectrum of documents that exist on a subject and facilitate the grouping of documents with similar themes. This also give insights into key themes that need to be included and the selection of important arguments, theories and studies;

ii. Making notes is important as it leads to a distillation of key ideas, arguments, themes and messages. An easy way of making notes is to annotate and mark-up the document so that key pieces of text can be readily located later;

iii. Structuring is concerned with identifying the key themes in the review and starting to organize concepts, ideas, arguments, and documents in accordance with the key themes that have emerged;

iv. Writing the literature review can commence once a broad structure has been mapped. The headings in the structure can be used to analyze existing documents by making margin comments referring to sections of the literature review. Then all of the documents with content relevant to a specific section of the literature review can be gathered together, and the writing of sections of the literature review can commence (Rowley & Slack, 2004). A balanced literature review should integrate coherently the following three different types of material:

  • a distillation and understanding of key concepts
  • proper mix of quotations, in summary or in verbatim (the original words of the author or the argument, without necessarily the actual words of the author). Quotations in verbatim should be used sparingly and only for special impact. It is important to cite the author, date and page number of the quote (e.g. Peterson, 2002, p.45), and to include the full reference for the source in the bibliography. It is also best practice to be consistent with one referencing style in the whole document (consistence is key); and

v. A distillation of positions, research findings or theories from other authors, but written in your words. These concepts should be acknowledged with a citation.

3. Types of Literature Review

There are different types of literature review, some of which include:

i. Argumentative review-examines literature selectively to support or refute an argument, assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature;

ii. Methodological review –does not focus on what was said or found, but rather on the method of analysis. This approach provides a framework of understanding research approaches, sampling, data collection and analysis techniques. It also helps highlight ethical issues which researchers should be aware of and consider as they go through the study;

iii. Theoretical review-intends to thoroughly examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated regarding the subject. It helps establish what theories exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Theoretical review of literature focuses on theoretical frameworks, underpinning theories, constructs and operational definitions of the object/character under study; and

iv. Empirical literature review-concentrates on critical analysis of previous researches that relate to the study. It seeks a critical analysis of previous studies by comparing and contrasting the methodologies and results found.

4. Structure/Components of Literature Review

Literature review should have an introduction, body, conclusion and bibliography. The introduction explains the focus of the study, preview the main argument, concurrences, controversies and assumptions that exist on the subject. The body contains headings of the literature review and discusses the main themes, arguments, theories, propositions and trends

It also explains the different views and perspectives between various authors. Good literature reviews take the general-to-specific approach, where the introductory sentences generalize, and the preceding sentences drill the concept down to a specific perspective. A good literature review must present a balanced argument and at the end, justify the writer’s take in the argument (Hart, 2018). It is more appealing that the body flows logically, and the argument must be interesting to follow. To avoid mere summarization of studies or theories, the best practice is to group together theories or studies which support (or refute) an argument (Wee & Banister, 2016). Studies or theories must be presented in descending order. The most popular and powerful ones should be discussed first. There is also an element of time frame on papers that can be reviewed. The convention is to include papers not older than 10 years.

The conclusion is the last part of the literature review that contains a summary of the arguments and the evidence collected. The conclusion of a review of literature should also highlight the implications of what has been discussed to the study at hand. Furthermore, the conclusion should highlight and justify the methodologies that cab be adopted for the study, as informed by the literature review.

A bibliography is a list of all of the sources that you have referred to in the literature review Constructing the bibliography is a continuous process that run from the beginning of the literature search until the completion of the literature review. As work progresses, it is important to make notes of the documents and other sources that have been read, and, later translate this list of documents into bibliography. Always make sure that all in-text references appear in the bibliography. Some researches specify the type of referencing system to be used and the format of citation to be adopted. The most important thing to remember about citations is that there should be sufficient data included to uniquely identify and locate a document.

5. Conclusion

There are different types of literature review, some of which include argumentative, methodological, theoretical and empirical literature reviews. Writing a literature review is an art that requires thorough preparation. The art lies in the ability to organize ideas, concepts, and themes to build and support (or even refute) an argument. Drawing together literature review involves some critical steps which include scanning documents, making notes, logical structuring and the writing process itself. A typical literature review should have an introduction, body, conclusion and bibliography.

Author: This blog was produced by Ranganai Muneri, Research Economist at Underhill Corporate Solutions. His contact details are as follows: | +27 (0)12 751 3237 | +27 (0)73 818 3278 / +27 (0)61 844 1387


Hart, C., 2018. Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination: Sage.

Rowley, J. & Slack, F., 2004. Conducting a literature review :Management research news.

Wee, B. & Banister, D., 2016. How to write a literature review paper? Transport Reviews, 36(2), pp. 278-288.