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The literature review comes early in your thesis, just like in a good research article. Literature can, and should be cited throughout but most readers/ examiners expect to see it up front. Citing literature that is peripheral to the study may be counterproductive. The purpose of a literature review is not to show how many authors you have read but how you have synthesised the knowledge.

A literature review chapter:

  • Deals with the key authors and their ideas in a rigorous way;
  • Appraises and critiques their contribution to the research; for instance, new knowledge, incomplete knowledge, erroneous conclusions etc.;
  • Mentions (where necessary) other contributions to the field;
  • Demonstrates how (and where) different disciplines interact to create new conceptual models;

 Reading for a literature review

By the time you are writing up, you will probably have drafted most of your literature and located your key authors. But it’s never too late to revise or rethink, especially when your supervisor or friendly reviewer steers you in yet another fruitful direction. In order to shape your literature review you need to read analytically. This means moving more or less systematically from the general to the particular.

Have I got enough literature?

The literature review is a necessary part of the thesis but many PhD candidates over-estimate its importance to the final mark. Literature reviews should aim for fewer authors in more detail (that is, quality rather than quantity). In doing so, it will provide a conceptual path that illuminates your research question. The literature review must therefore be a sign-posted path. Detours and excursions should be avoided. Superfluous work can dilute the authority of your research question. While abundant referencing gets you through the confirmation stage (your supervisors will usually encourage extensive reading) the practice will ultimately frustrate the examiner. 

 A simple literature review model


Key themes

Limit these to less than four. There may be intersecting fields


A-team only: who are the major theorists or contributors


Their contribution to the field:


The advantages or limitations of their approach as it applies to your research


Others who support the A team: these will be discussed in less detail


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