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IV. Write Your Literature Review

May 17, 2016 by Kathryn Betts Adams

Collect and Organize Literature on Your Topic

Before starting on the literature review section, you need to gather literature in some systematic way. The literature you find helps to determine whether the level of existing knowledge leads you to a clear-cut prediction that you wish to test (i.e., a hypothesis) or to one or more research questions. There are broadly two types of literature you will collect and include to varying degrees: material about the scope of the problem and prior research and findings about the problem/issue. Every manuscript will need to include some of the two types of literature. You will also collect, read, and sometimes cite theoretical and conceptual literature by experts, practitioners, or researchers, which you may cite to explain some aspects of your research questions or hypothesis, or the way you construct your study.

If you have written on your topic before, you will have references already and may only need to check for any more recent citations. Particularly if you have written a grant proposal or a dissertation proposal, you probably have most of what you need and it will be only a matter of shortening your literature review section to fit the journal you target. Many scholars find keeping literature in an Excel spreadsheet is helpful. Here you will list the citation and a brief description of the type of article and the key findings/conclusions that apply to your topic(s) of interest. Reference manager software (e.g., Endnote) is also a helpful tool to assist in managing the many citations you will use in all of your work. This type of software makes it possible to type in your reference once and then have it available to be transformed into many different formats that may be required by different journals and printed out in the reference list for your manuscript.

Literature on the Scope of the Problem

The first type of literature you will cite consists of articles or data that support the existence of the problem your study seeks to address, which you can think of as “scope literature.”  Some of these citations will simply describe the prevalence or incidence of a problem or possibly the size of the population affected (e.g., from a Census document). You may include a select published quotation from an expert in the field about the importance of the problem or issue your study addresses. This material usually belongs in the first one or two paragraphs of your manuscript, an introduction that sets the stage for the rest of your study.

Literature Summarizing the Work in this Field

The remaining literature will be found in a literature review, the length of which will depend on the field and the journal. In some cases you will not label it formally as a “literature review,” but will continue from the introductory “scope literature” noted above, right through all of the literature until you describe your study, often referred to as the Current Study, just before your Methods Section. On the other hand, in a more theoretical or complex study, you may have several topics to cover in your literature review. It helps the reader and will make the beginning of your article more coherent if you group these accordingly and use subheadings to show what topics you are presenting. Say, for instance, your study looks at a question about whether teens from low-income families or high-income families are more likely to suffer low grades and discipline problems related to excess smart phone use. You might have a subheading for “Negative Impacts of Smart Phone Use” and one for “Income Differences in Teen Socializing.”

In each section of this part of the literature review, you will need articles about the prior research in this area and the findings that have led you to the gap in knowledge that you are filling with your particular study. Choose those studies that show the path to your own ideas.  You will want to describe one or two studies in a bit more detail to demonstrate what they reported and how their study led to the work you are presenting now.

Customize Your Literature Review to Your Field and the Specific Journal

Depending on the field you are in and the specific journal you target, the literature review will be longer and more detailed, as in some of the social sciences that highly value theory, or short and to the point, as in many medical and health-focused journals that highly value applications of research to practice. In any event, it bears noting that a journal article will not have nearly the emphasis on theory or the scope of literature review that a dissertation requires. You will have to summarize in a few pages, at most, the theory and the literature that led you to your research questions and the current study. Do not try to include every article you have access to, since that might be excessive for the type of journal you are targeting and for the limited pages you have to work with.

It is also appropriate, particularly for journals that expect less well-developed literature reviews, to group and list many of your references in a series of sentences without much detail, such as in this made-up example: “Numerous studies have found that condoms are effective as birth control (citations) and disease prevention (citations), but other research has found that among men in developing countries, condom use is low (citations).”  Finally, save a few references that describe similar studies to your own (but hopefully different enough that your study is justified!), and references that seem to support your findings, for your Discussion Section.

Current Study

At the end of the literature review section(s), ideally you will have literature sufficient to make the case for your study’s justification that will lead logically to the description of your study’s purpose and general methods. In many manuscripts, this will be its own small section, labeled “The Current Study” or “Purpose of the Study.”  Here you will write that the literature (which you have described above) has shown x and y (prior findings and gaps) and, thus, this study seeks to do something that makes sense as a next step. In other words, briefly describe the purpose and general outlines of the study, including the study design (i.e., is it a one-time survey or a longitudinal study with three waves of data, etc.)  Next, you will provide your research questions or hypothesis. Depending on the journal and the field, these research questions or hypotheses may be embedded in a paragraph of text or actually listed by number or bullet points. In a more complex study with several variables and particularly when using an advanced statistical method such as Structural Equation Modeling, rather than research questions or hypothesis testing, research articles report on the development and testing of a proposed, theoretical or conceptual model. This means that the authors propose a way that several variables fit together and affect one another and the outcome variable. The proposed model should clearly arise from the literature you have cited before it and you will create a figure here to graphically show the model. This visual aid has become the norm in many journals when the complexity of the analysis warrants testing a model. Make sure your figure is done professionally, using PowerPoint, Visio, or another graphic software program. For those who are challenged in this area, it is wise to get help to create your figure for your manuscript submission.

This short Current Study or Purpose section describing what you are doing in your study forms an important transition that links the introductory part of your manuscript, the context of the problem and prior theory and research, to the heart of the presentation of your study, alerting the reader to what to look for. Many times, too, when reading others’ journal articles, it is a quick way to see whether a study is relevant to your interests by checking this section first.

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