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Writing a Thesis: The Literature Review

"A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. … In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries." (Proctor 2007)

This is the section of the thesis dissertation in which citations to a set of references are expected. The references are to the sources of the concepts background materials etc. that the researcher has referred to in building the thesis. The sources may be of varying quality but should generally be of a good academic standard. As many as possible should be from conference papers or academic journals. Where other sources are used their validity should be verified, and a second independent source used in support where possible.

The literature review is a critical review of the essential literature surrounding the dissertation. Critical means that it will compare and contrast literature sources. There needs to be a judgement of the importance of the source and how it pertains to the research topic.

The review is likely to cover a number of sections as illustrated in the figure below. The actual material covered and therefore the structure and exact content will be determined by the nature of the research and will therefore vary. However the sections noted give a general guide, and they are expanded in the material that follows.

likely topics diagram

Fig 1. Diagram illustrating likely topics for a literature review


There has to be a need for the research, and the research should answer a question. If the research is being undertaken towards a doctorate then it will be expected that the answer to that question will add to the body of knowledge. Where the research is undertaken for a Masters degree then the final report should provide at the least a new slant to a problem, even though the problem area has been researched by others. The slant may be that it is designed to cover the needs of a particular client whose particular needs have not been covered in other researcher's results. In the case of a final year project report, then it will contain the views and conclusions of the writer, and those views will make it different and individual. The literature review should cite sources showing that the need exists, or include sources covering the research question. The review needs to support the choice of research topic and the question being answered.

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There needs to be a client or a beneficiary of the research. In some cases this will be a real client who has asked for the research to be undertaken, or has asked for the resultant product. It may be a client who is taking a direct interest even though they were not the original proposer. In many cases however there will not be a client. In such cases it is still imperative that the researcher identifies the nature of the person, group or commercial enterprise that would benefit from the results. Thus for example, a study into the educational needs of a region of the Indian sub-continent could benefit the government of that district. It may well be however that the district government involved know nothing about the research and will not see the report. If the research is of no benefit to anyone, then it will almost by definition have no validity. The client or the beneficiary as defined above will need some background material cited within the literature review.

Area of Concern

This section should cover the background details of the focus of the research. Wherever possible, evidence from conference papers and journal articles is needed in order to demonstrate the academic interest in the topic.

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Problem Domain

It is quite common for the area of research to be particular to a field of study or specialist area. Under these circumstances the review needs to cover any background to this area that is relevant to the study, or helps to inform the nature of the research. As an example, if the research involved a study of management principles applied to a section of the health service, then the relevant area of the N.H.S. would need to have background information included in the review.


Where the research is set within a particular time slot, or the changes over time within the area of concern are relevant to the question of the research, a review of the history will be required.


Although a full review of theory is not usually appropriate within the literature review section, a reference to appropriate literature covering the principle aspects of the methods chosen for the research should be included. It is likely that a section concerning the methods and research rationale will be presented in the final report. Such a section if present will be used to compare methods and justify the choices and may cite some references. Never-the-less it is common to find some sources noted within the review section.


Proctor, M. (2007) The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It [online] from a site created by Dr. Margaret Proctor Writing support coordinator at University of Toronto available at <> [23/07/10]

Gould, S. (2004) How to write a literature review [online] Academic Guides: Writing, available from <> [23-07-10]

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