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How to write a dissertation literature review: an in-depth guide

What is a literature review?

❶An omission will be more obvious within a table, where it would appear as a blank cell, than it would be within text.

Why do I need a literature review?

Another way of organising your content is according to theme; or sub-themes, if your review focuses on one overarching topic. This method of organisation still allows you to present an overview of any polemical debates within these sub-themes.

A thematic review can easily shift between chronological periods within each sub-section too. This method is particularly evident in introductory sections whereby researchers may simply want to state that a particular subject has been mostly studied from a qualitative or quantitative perspective they will often then cite a number of scholars or studies to support this claim.

In scientific reviews however, a methodological approach may form the basis of the discussions in the body. If this is the case for you, focus on the methods used by various researchers. How did they go about answering a particular research question? Were there any limitations to this method?

If so, what method s would have been better? The body of your research may also include additional sections that do not necessarily form a part of its organisational structure. It may also focus on historical considerations.

You could include a short methodology section that details the approach you used in selecting and analysing your sources. Write the paragraphs of the body Once you have settled on the approach to writing your body, you must now write each of its paragraphs in a way that is in keeping with academic conventions.

Consider this paragraph from a literature review about stakeholder participation for environmental management, to clarify the discussion that follows:. Despite the rhetoric and the concerns that have been expressed, there have been few attempts to investigate the validity of the many claims that have been made for stake-holder participation Webler, ; Beierle, ; Brody, ; Blackstock et al. The few attempts that have been made have tended to focus on evaluating the process rather than the outcomes e.

Beierle, ; Renn et al. This may be partly due to the challenge of selecting appropriate evaluation criteria and data collection methods. However, this is not straightforward. Webler and Tuler found strong differences of opinion between participants that they selected from ten case studies, about what constituted a "good" participatory process.

Stakeholder participation for environmental management: Biological conservation, 10 , pp. As the example above suggests, a dissertation literature review must be written using a formal and academic style. Also, note how sources have been grouped according to both arguments and themes. Remember we noted that the process of grouping sources in the body of your literature review is never a linear one? You will often use a combination of the approaches that we have discussed.

Ensure that your writing is concise, coherent and devoid of any personal or strong language. There are exceptions at post-graduate level or generally — like when you have conducted your own primary research or published your work widely — which give you the academic authority to boldly make claims. Remember also to generally use present tense when referring to opinions and theories although in the context of specific research experiments, the use of the past tense is better.

Useful linking words and phrases include: When there is disagreement, you may want to use any of the following: However, conversely, on the other hand, diverges from, antithetical to, differential from….

Write the conclusion The conclusion of a dissertation literature review should always include a summary of the implications of the literature, which you should then link to your argument or general research question. The overall structure of your literature review will be largely based on your research area and the academic conventions that are in line with it. Nevertheless, there are some essential steps that apply across all disciplines and that you should ensure you follow:.

Do not simply describe the opinions of writers Analyse, analyse, analyse, and ensure that your analysis is critical what have the writers missed; where does your opinion sit with theirs, etc. Structure the body of your argument using various techniques Your structure should be organised based on thematic areas, key debates or controversial issues, and according to methodological approaches. Keep your review dynamic, but coherent. Remember to identify literature gaps and link this to your own research.

Use ample evidence This is extremely important and forms the very essence of a dissertation literature review. You must refer to various sources when making a point; see the sample paragraph above for an example of this. Your arguments and interpretation of a research topic must be backed by evidence. Do not make baseless claims, as a literature review is an academic piece of writing and not an opinion piece.

Be very selective Not every piece of research has to be reviewed. If you are determined to show that you aware of the available literature out there, try writing techniques such as: There is robust literature available concerning the migration patterns of Syrian refugees.

X , y , Z Once you have acknowledged these works, you do not have to review them in detail. Be selective about the sources that you will discuss in detail in your review. Do not rely too much on direct quotes Only use them to emphasise a point.

Instead, highlight the importance of that author in your research and move on. If you need to keep going back to the work of that author, then you need to link those discussions with your work. Make your voice heard Yes, the whole point of the literature review is to provide a critical analysis and summary of the viewpoints out there, but a critical analysis does include the fact that you need to make your opinion known in the context of the literature.

They will ask questions such as:. These are questions that you will already probably be asking yourself. You will also need to be ready to answer them in a viva if you will be having one. It is important that your literature review is more than just a list of references with a short description of each one. What is critical reading?

With small-scale writing projects, the literature review is likely to be done just once; probably before the writing begins. With longer projects such as a dissertation for a Masters degree, and certainly with a PhD, the literature review process will be more extended.

This applies especially to people doing PhDs on a part-time basis, where their research might extend over six or more years. You need to be able to demonstrate that you are aware of current issues and research, and to show how your research is relevant within a changing context.

Staff and students in your area can be good sources of ideas about where to look for relevant literature. They may already have copies of articles that you can work with. If you attend a conference or workshop with a wider group of people, perhaps from other universities, you can take the opportunity to ask other attendees for recommendations of articles or books relevant to your area of research.

Each department or school has assigned to it a specialist Information Librarian. You can find the contact details for the Information Librarian for your own area via the Library web pages.

This person can help you identify relevant sources, and create effective electronic searches:. Reading anything on your research area is a good start. You can then begin your process of evaluating the quality and relevance of what you read, and this can guide you to more focussed further reading. Taylor and Procter of The University of Toronto have some useful suggested questions to ask yourself at the beginning of your reading:. You can add other questions of your own to focus the search, for example: What time period am I interested in?

You may also want to make a clear decision about whether to start with a very narrow focus and work outwards, or to start wide before focussing in. You may even want to do both at once. It is a good idea to decide your strategy on this, rather than drifting into one or the other. It can give you a degree of control, in what can feel like an overwhelming and uncontrollable stage of the research process.

Searching electronic databases is probably the quickest way to access a lot of material. Guidance will be available via your own department or school and via the relevant Information Librarian. There may also be key sources of publications for your subject that are accessible electronically, such as collections of policy documents, standards, archive material, videos, and audio-recordings. If you can find a few really useful sources, it can be a good idea to check through their reference lists to see the range of sources that they referred to.

This can be particularly useful if you find a review article that evaluates other literature in the field.

This will then provide you with a long reference list, and some evaluation of the references it contains. An electronic search may throw up a huge number of hits, but there are still likely to be other relevant articles that it has not detected.

So, despite having access to electronic databases and to electronic searching techniques, it can be surprisingly useful to have a pile of journals actually on your desk, and to look through the contents pages, and the individual articles. Often hand searching of journals will reveal ideas about focus, research questions, methods, techniques, or interpretations that had not occurred to you.

Sometimes even a key idea can be discovered in this way. It is therefore probably worth allocating some time to sitting in the library, with issues from the last year or two of the most relevant journals for your research topic, and reviewing them for anything of relevance. To avoid printing out or photocopying a lot of material that you will not ultimately read, you can use the abstracts of articles to check their relevance before you obtain full copies. EndNote and RefWorks are software packages that you can use to collect and store details of your references, and your comments on them.

As you review the references, remember to be a critical reader see Study Guide What is critical reading? Keeping a record of your search strategy is useful, to prevent you duplicating effort by doing the same search twice, or missing out a significant and relevant sector of literature because you think you have already done that search.

Increasingly, examiners at post-graduate level are looking for the detail of how you chose which evidence you decided to refer to. They will want to know how you went about looking for relevant material, and your process of selection and omission. You need to check what is required within your own discipline. If you are required to record and present your search strategy, you may be able to include the technical details of the search strategy as an appendix to your thesis.

Plagiarism is regarded as a serious offence by all Universities, and you need to make sure that you do not, even accidentally, commit plagiarism. After the standard Abstract, Introduction and Methodology chapters you will need to write the main body of your dissertation, which will provide a discussion of your own research and explain and analyse your results.

This can take the form of more than one dissertation chapter, depending on the complexity of your methodology and findings. The length and nature of these chapters will also vary depending on the area of your studies — in MSc subjects you would be less likely to present conclusions in these chapters, focusing instead on the data from your empirical research.

However, in Humanities and Social Sciences your theoretical conclusions should be woven into your overall analysis of data. In all cases you should be sure to refer back to the works cited in your literature review, and use them to support your analysis. The Conclusion should provide a brief but thorough overview of your research project as a whole, and give special attention to the significance of your results.

Try to address any potential criticisms of your research. Avoid the temptation to make rhetorical flourishes in your final paragraphs and end simply, clearly and factually.

The Bibliography of the Masters Dissertation will vary depending on the citation style prescribed for your university and discipline. Details of the style guidelines will be made available to you by your institution, and most can be found online.

Be sure to pay careful attention to the details of the style conventions and avoid costly errors. Some Masters Dissertations will also include an Appendix or Appendices. These give you an opportunity to provide additional details to readers. An Appendix might include charts, tables or figures that you refer to in your text, or essential documents that are not readily available to readers. Together these sections form the standard UK Dissertation structure, which is almost universal across disciplines.

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The structure of a literature review. A literature review should be structured like any other essay: it should have an introduction, a middle or main body, and a conclusion.

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Writing a Literature Review As an academic writer, you are expected to provide an analytical overview of the significant literature published on your topic. If your audience knows less than you do on the topic, your purpose is instructional.

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Below is an overview of how you could structure your literature review. This is a general overview and you should always follow specific guidance given in your dissertation Writing a Literature Review in a dissertation 4 | P a g e your dissertation topic and field of study. The Structure of Your Literature Review Sep 09, by Dr Sally Once you have analyzed, synthesized, and evaluated the relevant sources for your topic, you need to think about presenting the material in a way that will best shape your argument and make sense to your readers.

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The literature review is very important to the rest of the dissertation structure, because it provides the context for your own research and outlines the key theories that your own work will be supported by. How to write your PhD thesis (part 1) How to write a PhD literature review (2-part course) 41 thoughts on “ How to write a PhD literature review ” Clara Tang. i have a question about the structure of the literature review, what is the best design or layout for the L.R.