Literature Review

“If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

Once you’ve chosen a topic, and selected a possible research problem or question, it is time to explore what research has already been done on this topic and research problem or question.

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This is called dissertation literature review because the research you are looking for has been published; it is “literature,” sometimes abbreviated “lit.”  When you review this literature, you are looking up every relevant scholarly article, book, dissertation, or other resource that has ever been published on your topic and problem or question.  You are not “reviewing” it in the literal sense, but you are familiarizing yourself with it and carefully recording the publication information about these sources so you can include them in your references and bibliography.  You do not need to read everything that has ever been written on your topic, because that may very well be physically impossible, but you must make sure you are familiar with all the key sources in your field that are pertinent to your problem or question.

Why do you, as a doctoral student, do a literature review as part of the process of writing your dissertation?

Literature review is very important because reading the research that others have published on your topic and problem or question will allow you to learn more about your topic and problem or question.  In this way, literature review updates and completes your education, adding to what you have learned in your coursework and discussions with your professors.  It is entirely possible that, in the process of doing your literature review, you will improve and clarify your understanding of your research question or problem, which may cause you to modify your question or problem, or modify the scope of your research.

Another reason literature review is important is that it makes sure you do not repeat any research that has already been done before. Previous researchers may have also studied what you are about to study and they may have had special problems or difficulties; by reading what they wrote, you may be able to avoid their mistakes.  You may also, in the course of reading over previous research, discover something crucial to your research problem or question that has been overlooked by the main sources you have been exposed to in your coursework.  You may get useful hints about research design and methodology from the work others have done, to help you when you approach your own research design and methodology.

Doing the literature review will expose you to multiple viewpoints and perspectives on your topic and research problem or question. You may find there are several competing theories.  You may discover that experimental results which are relevant to your question or problem have until now been ambiguous, contradictory, or incomplete.  You may have to weigh competing theoretical arguments; you may also have to synthesize and evaluate varied strands of research conducted on different populations, different samples, and using different measures and research methods.  Research that is published while you are writing your dissertation may add to what is known about your topic or provide additional evidence for or against one or another theory.  You may even have access to research that is so recent it has not been published yet.

In all these ways, doing a literature review is not only crucial to writing a dissertation, it is also giving you experience with the ongoing process of new knowledge and discovery that is taking place in your field.  While you are writing your dissertation, you are engaged in making a genuine contribution to the field of knowledge.

In your dissertation, you will need to demonstrate how your research fits into all that has been done before, and all that is being done right now, on your topic, addressing your problem or question.  Maybe your research fills a gap in the existing research.  Maybe your research will verify previous studies, perhaps using better methodology.  Perhaps you will be refuting an existing theory or substantiating and extending an existing theory.  The literature review allows you to provide a rationale for what you propose to do. After you do your literature review, you should understand how your dissertation work will add incrementally to what is already known about your topic.  You may decide to change your approach or goals based on what you discover in your literature review.

When you get to writing your dissertation, your literature review will be crucial in the chapters that situate your work in the context of previous research in this field and that justify why your study is useful.  The literature review will also be crucial in building your bibliography of citations, sources, and references.


There are innumerable places to start in finding books, articles, dissertations, and other sources on your topic and dealing with your research question or problem. Use your up-to-date subject textbooks’ bibliographies.  Ask your professors for the key, seminal works in your field addressing this topic and research question or problem. Locate the most recent relevant articles and begin with the bibliographies they contain.  Identify any relevant published literature reviews, annotated bibliographies, or dissertations.  Search bibliographic databases with careful keyword searches.  Ask reference librarians for additional leads on sources.  Once you have identified key authors in the field, search for their additional publications.

The literature of many fields is vast.  Focus more on recent works, especially if older works do not seem to add anything new or additional.  Use only peer-reviewed journal articles and books. Be selective in examining works that address your research problem or question.  Don’t think you have to read everything that has ever been written on your general topic.  Your goal is to identify key, critical works that are relevant to your dissertation focus.  However, most dissertations review a very large number of sources.  For clues on whether a publication is relevant to your dissertation, consider the publication title, the abstract, the introduction, the table of contents, and the index.  Learn to skim quickly through article headings to evaluate the relevance of the study to your work.

Take notes efficiently. You may prefer to take notes on traditional note cards or you may use specially designed bibliographic software applications.  Either way, use a system you understand, so you can easily keep in mind what you have read and have quick access to the information you need when you need it.  Make sure your bibliographic notes are taken in the format, for example, APA format, that your dissertation will require, so you don’t have to change them later.  Double check to make sure your notes are accurate, since errors here affect the value of your dissertation as a whole.  Take notes on how recent the work is, how relevant it is to what you are doing, how directly or indirectly it addresses your research problem or question, and key passages you may wish to consider or cite when you write your dissertation.  You may wish to use codes, such as color codes, to identify the content of your note; for example, theoretical frameworks, research rationale, research design, and methodology.