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Research Skills

Information to help students find, evaluate, reference, and write for their assignments

Literature reviews

A literature review is an overview and critical evaluation of published information about a topic. It's purpose is to identify:

  • what is already known about the subject field
  • common themes and methods
  • any gaps in the literature

It doesn't present any original research.

 Make an appointment with your Liaison Librarian to help you with your search.

 Make an appointment with an academic writing expert at Manaaki Pukenga to help you write your literature review. 

Quick links

Steps in the literature review process

Adapted from Georgia State University. Literature reviews: Introduction.

Selecting a topic

There are two important components in topic selection:

1. Make sure you have an interest in the topic. This will ensure the literature review process is enjoyable and you are motivated to do it!

2. Choose a topic that has been researched. You won't be able to write a literature review about a topic that has no literature!

 You will need to test your potential topic first by doing a preliminary search to see what research is out there BEFORE you commit to the topic

3. Have some background knowledge on the topic. Use a reliable source, like an encyclopedia to give you a general understanding of your topic before you begin your research. Encyclopedias can be general, or they can be specialised, like Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Wikipedia is not a reliable source.

4. Determine the scope of your topic. The narrower your chosen topic, the easier it will be to find literature.

 Gestational diabetes is too broad a topic. You will have too much literature to search through and you may find the literature doesn't deal effectively with a broad topic like this, as it will hone in on a specific aspect of gestational diabetes.

 Gestational diabetes in geriatric mothers narrows the broader topic of gestation diabetes to women of a certain age.

 Gestational diabetes in geriatric Pasifika and Māori mothers narrows it even further by adding ethnicity to the scope.

 Remember, before you commit to a narrowed scope, you will need to test your topic to make sure there is enough literature on it to conduct a review.

Identifying places to search

While it is good to have a variety of reliable sources in your literature review, such as books, conference proceedings, and theses, journal articles are often the best, because they are often peer-reviewed and regularly published, so you should be able to find up-to-date research if you need it.

The best place to begin your search for journal articles is the Wintec databases.

 Go to your subject guide's database tab to discover the most appropriate databases to start your search with.

 Google Scholar is a great place to look for journal articles after you've investigated the Wintec databases. Click on the link to find out what Google Scholar does and how to use it.

Reading and analysing the literature

Your search should throw up more results than you need, as some won't be completely relevant to your topic.

 Save yourself time by reading the abstract of an article first to determine whether it will be useful to your literature review. You will be able to weed out irrelevant material very quickly.

 You need to be objective in your selection of literature. If your topic is one that has caused debate, ensure you include literature that covers both or all sides of the argument. If you have your own theory about the topic, be open to including literature that doesn't support your ideas.

When you have found literature that meets the scope of your topic and that you know is a credible source, you will need to read it with a set of questions in mind (write notes about the source as you are reading):

 is the author objective in their approach or are they biased?

 is the author reliable and authoritative? Are they an expert?

 what are the main concepts and themes?

 what are the strengths and weaknesses, and are there any gaps in the research?

 what are the similarities and differences between the sources?

It can be helpful to use a matrix when analysing your literature to keep your ideas clear and ordered.

A narrative matrix is useful for quantitative research. You can adapt the following example to suit your needs:

Reference       Aim of study      Type of study/design Sample size/population Results           Strengths        Weaknesses 

Northern Territory Government. (n.d). Literature review writing: Read and analyse the literature.

A thematic matrix is useful for qualitative research. You can adapt the following example to suit your needs:

Theme         Reference      Aim               Methods        Context       






Northern Territory Government. (n.d). Literature review writing: Read and analyse the literature.

American Psychological Association

This resource from the American Psychological Association will help you identify and break down the important parts of the research you are analysing and assist you to paraphrase its findings.

Writing your literature review

What makes a good literature review?

A good literature review will do a lot more than simply summarise the literature found. It:

follows a logical structure

 provides arguments or reasoning for its analysis of the literature

 shows a clear understanding of the research topic

 synthesises as well as summarises. Synthethise means "to put separate facts etc. together to form a single piece of work"

Source: Cambridge Dictionary.

But what does a literature review look like?

A literature review is structured much like an essay in that it needs an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.

Georgia State University

Georgia State University provides an excellent outline of the parts of a literature review and what they do.

Otago Polytechnic

Otago Polytechnic has a PDF you can print out with a guide and exemplar of how to write your literature review.

Video tutorials

RMIT University

RMIT University has a comprehensive guide with step-by-step tutorials on how to structure and write a literature review.


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