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Literature Review

This guide is an introduction to the Literature Review process - including its purpose and strategies, guidelines, and resources to get you started.
Mae'r dudalen hon hefyd ar gael yn Gymraeg


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A literature review is usually part of the process of writing a final year project, dissertation or long essay.  It can also be set and assessed as a standalone assignment.  

Students in the health sciences, maybe required to conduct a systematic review, which is not covered in this guide.

Why write a literature review?

A literature review is important, as it provides an overview and an analytical analysis of what is known about a particular topic.  It establishes and identifies:

  1. An understanding and knowledge of a topic.
  2. The current research in this area.
  3. Gaps in the literature that helps justify your research.
  4. The context for your research and illustrates how it relates to the wider research landscape in this area.
  5. The key authors writing in this field.

Developing a topic

Before you start, some faculties at USW assign topics to students and some allow students to pick their own area of interest.  If you have not been assigned a topic, you will need to come up with an idea yourself.

Choosing a topic
It is worth taking account the following:

  • It takes time to perform a literature review. Choosing a topic that interests you will help with the research process and make it easier to maintain a long term focus on the subject.

  • Is your project viable. Part of the purpose of the literature review is to assess if there is enough relevant and current material available. If there is not enough information available on your topic you may need to broaden it out.

  • New topics may have limited resources. You may want to focus on a new developing aspect of a subject or area of research, but you still need to make sure there is enough information available.

Expressing your topic as a question
Once you have chosen this area of interest, you then need to reframe that as a question.

Broad Topic: Film adaptation
Additional topic: William Shakespeare
Narrower focus: Film adaptation and William Shakespeare
Research Question: How has Shakespearean drama been adapted in film?

Broad Topic: Fashion industry
Additional topic: Streetwear
Narrower Topic: Fashion industry and streetwear
Research Question: What influence has streetwear had on the fashion industry in the 21 century?

Remember your topic / research question isn't set in stone in the early stages. As you gather the information and review it, you can use what you learn to adapt and refine your topic / research question.

How to approach the literature review

One way to approach a literature review is to start out broad and then become more specific. Think of it as an inverted triangle, or a funnel.

Using the funnel comparison, find: 

  1. The background information to your topic. This will identify the broader issues and research related to your topic and help you orient it, in the wider subject context.
  2. Narrow down your focus and identify the research that is closer to your area of research.
  3. Focus on specific research that is directly related to your topic.


Funnel approach to literature reviews 

funnelGo broad 
Start by looking at the broader issues around your project. Look at works that give a general overview of your topic and put it into the context of the bigger research landscape

This will show an awareness of the breadth of your subject.

Narrow down
Then try and focus your research on issues that are more related to your topic.

Focus on the specific
Look at the most relevant research that relates to your topic and spend more time discussing these key studies that are directly related to your research.