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Undergraduate's Guide to Creating & Communicating Research


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Erin Owens
NGL 223D
ORCID: 0000-0001-9520-9314

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Writing a Lit Review How-To

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1. What is a literature review?

A literature review tries to briefly explain what research has already been done on a topic before a researcher begins a new study.

Whether you're interested in working with a faculty researcher or starting a project of your own, a literature review is an important starting place to see where there are gaps, unanswered questions, contradictions, or unclear points on a topic of research. After all, if the past studies were perfectly conducted and entirely complete, and they have already answered the question or resolved the problem, why would you be studying the issue further?

To begin, you will need to search for published books, articles, etc., then read them and take notes on their methods, what aspects of the issue they do/do not address, where their findings agree or differ, and so forth.

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2. What a Literature Review is NOT

A literature review is NOT just a list of article summaries or book reviews.

X Author A (1999) conducted a study like this and found that X was true. Their study parameters were this, this, and this. Author B (2012) conducted a study like this and found that Y was true. Their study parameters were this, this, and this. Author C (2018)...  X

You'll take notes on each reading, but when you write your literature review, you want to synthesize them: pull them together, group them, discuss how they are similar and different and what's still missing to be studied.

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3. How Do I Do That?

A useful tool in planning a literature review is the synthesis matrix. Basically this is just a table that shows how each source you read relates to the main ideas or central themes. You can create a table in Microsoft Word / Google Docs or use a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel / Google Sheets, depending on what tool is comfortable for you.

  Source #1 Source #2 Source #3 Source #4
Main Idea A        
Main Idea B        

As you read each source, make notes in your table about how that source relates to each main idea or central theme. Leave a space blank if a specific article doesn't relate to an idea.

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4. What are My Main Ideas?

You can think really broadly about what "main ideas" or "central themes" means here. You might identify them differently, depending on your topic and the purpose of your study.

  • If you are going to test a new method for answering a question or solving a problem, maybe your "main ideas" are the methods that have been previously used, and for each paper that used that method, you make notes on the strengths and weaknesses of the method and how that impacted their results. This would lay the groundwork for eventually describing your new proposed method, then seeing how your results (and the strengths and weaknesses of your method) compared to past studies.
  • Or maybe your "main ideas" are different findings on a topic. Some papers have found that X is true, some have found that Y is true, and your study wants to try to resolve which set of findings are correct or explain the source of the variation. So your "main ideas" would be results X and Y. For each paper that had a certain finding, you could make notes about the methods they used to arrive at that finding, any limitations or oversights in their study, and so forth. This would lay the groundwork for eventually describing your study, your findings, and why you believe that you have clarified or resolved the disagreement in past findings.

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5. What Else Do I Need to Do?

After taking notes on how all the relevant sources relate to the central themes, you will use those notes to write paragraphs which share only as much detail about each study as necessary to explain its importance. You may say much more about certain important studies and just briefly reference other examples.

Your literature review should also have some form of introduction and conclusion, so let's explore those more.

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6. Adding an Introduction

The introduction should identify the overall themes or groupings that you identified (your "main ideas"). If a certain type of paper/study has been left out of your review on purpose, explain your scope. For example, maybe you only reviewed studies from a specific country, or studies published within a certain number of years. In most cases, we can't read and synthesize everything that has ever been written that might somehow be related; we have to draw lines somewhere, and that's ok. Just be sure the reader can understand where you drew the lines and why.

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7. Adding a Conclusion

Your conclusion will generally try to "wrap up" or recap the most important points that the reader should take away from the literature review. If your literature review is leading into a new project, then you especially want to highlight where the gaps or problems exist in the literature that your study will seek to address. This helps to justify why you are doing this study and lays the groundwork for why you will do it a particular way.

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8. See Some Examples

If you're new to the synthesis matrix or the literature review, it is helpful to see some examples!

This document from NC State University Writing and Speaking Tutorial Service shows an example of a filled-in synthesis matrix and a section of a literature review based on it.

This website from the University of Wisconsin-Madison describes how to structure a literature review and gives three examples of different lengths and from different fields of study.

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9. Get More Assistance

This short tutorial was created by the SHSU Newton Gresham Library, and we are here to help!

If you need more help figuring out where and how to search for the published literature you need, please contact the SHSU Newton Gresham Library. You can contact the expert librarian for the subject area you're working in, or you can just start by reaching out to or chatting with us virtually.

If you would like to request help with the organization and writing style of your written literature review, we recommend contacting the Academic Success Center (ASC), which provides writing tutors among their many services.


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