my-cumbria-logo, my-cumbria-logo Toggle navigation

There are two types of literature review that are similar but have different purposes: 

  1. Part of a wider primary research project.  It identifies what is currently known, sets the context of your research, identifies any gaps or areas for further development and situates you in the chain of research.
  2. A ‘stand-alone’ literature review is secondary research which uses published research to answer a question or explore a topic.  It should include a new interpretation of the existing body of work: a synthesis of the information.

Either way a literature review is a select analysis of existing research which relates to your subject and the question(s) you have chosen. It’s not a summary of everything you can find which seems relevant but rather a critical review which identfies the key sources and analyses and interprets the findings.
Watch the video below to see the difference between a literature review and an essay. Click on the picture to play.

 literature reviews, literature reviews video
 Carrying out your literature review

Initially, you may read quite broadly round the subject area to further your understanding of the field. This should help you to focus in on your topic and establish the angle that your work will take. It should also help you to spot that gap or area for further development and work out how your research will extend and develop the research already carried out. 

For health topics: If your tutor has asked you to use the PICO or other frameworks (eg SPIDER) to help you formulate your research question then find out more on this NHS guide and download our PICO searching form.


Once you have refined your topic and identified the relevant keywords for your search, you need to carry out a systematic search, recording what you searched for and where, number of results and any limiters you used.  This helps to demonstrate that you have identified the key research for your topic and is particuarly important for stand alone literature reviews as this is your method.

 3 You may have many results. Sift and select your results using your inclusion/exclusion critieria (for example date, country, type of research).  Check the abstracts to make sure they are relevant to your topic. 
Save the relevant sources using folders or Refworks.  Create a table of the relevant sources, sumarising the key points for easy comparison.
 4 Evaluate and appraise your sources.  You may want to use a Critical reading grid for social science resources or a CASP tool for research.  This critical evaluation helps you to identify which are the key sources that you will discuss in more detail and which are the subsiduary sources that may support only one point.  It will also identify key themes for you to discuss.
5 Re-read your sources, synthesising them under themes, chronologically or theoretically depending on your research question.  Use different coloured highlighters or post its on the wall, whatever works for you.  What have you learnt?  Have you answered your question?

Organising your sources and writing it up

How do you present what you have learnt? Synthesising your sources around key themes is the most common approach but there are several possible approaches depending on your subject area and topic:

  • organised around key themes or debates
  • from distant to close; from less specific to more specific
  • a methodological approach, following the different methods used in your field
  • a chronological approach, tracing the development.

Whichever you use it is often combined with a funnel approach, starting out broad and then becoming more specific. Think of it as an inverted triangle, or a filter funnel.

  • First, briefly explain the broad issues related to your investigation; you don't need to write much about this, just demonstrate that you are aware of the breadth of your subject and context.
  • Then narrow your focus to deal with the studies that overlap with your research
  • Finally, hone in on any research which is directly related to your specific investigation. Proportionally you spend most time discussing those studies which have most direct relevance to your research.

Literature review structure graphic, Infographic explaiing the funnel structure of a literature review that moves from broad overview of key issues in the topic, towards the literature that overlaps with your area of focus, to the specific studies that are most closely aligned to your research topic

Try using our Framework for your literature review to organise your thoughts in a more critical way and see the Review dissertation structure for writing up a stand alone literature review.

See the skills@cumbria pages for Academic writing and Being critical.

For futher information this guidance from Reading may be helpful:

Literature Review

Edit page