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Literature Reviews

How to understand and write a literature review for an academic paper or research article.

Literature Reviews

"Analyzing the past to prepare for the future."*

Literature reviews provide a critical summary of the relevant literature of a subject. To write a literature review is to discover the patterns that emerge within the body of work devoted to a specific issue, and to establish an evidentiary basis of common thought and current questions about that subject at the given moment. 

*Webster & Watson, 2002, title.


The Review

Structure and Shape
  • Depending on your subject, your field, and the type of review you're conducting, the chronological focus can be broad (historical) or narrow (state of the art).
  • Sciences tend to emphasize currency.
  • Literature review sections range in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages, or can be extended into an article solely reviewing recent literature, which are called review articles and which can be structured in different ways.
  • In whatever field, if there is some fundamental text that defined the field or topic of study, that must usually be included no matter how old it is (unless the focus of your review is limited to current research, as in a state-of-the-art review).


Purpose and Value

"Good review papers ... help bring structure and understanding to the often disjointed and contradictory work that is at the forefront of a research field." (Moldwin et al, 2017)

How to Write One

You must first decide the type of review. The specifics of the review process will vary, which is determined by your intention in writing one: 

  • Are you trying to establish a knowledge of the field for your own research article or thesis/dissertation?
  • Or are you writing a full-length review paper to show the current state of the research on a topic?

Once you have established your goals, you can proceed with your plan.

The Plan

  1. Identify the research question

  2. Develop criteria for inclusion/exclusion

  3. Perform the search

  4. Analyze the literature

  5. Evaluate the work done

  6. Synthesize into a narrative

Whether you are writing a review section or full article, the process you follow will be similar, though the degree to which you collect and read the literature will vary based on what you're working on.



Reviewing Reviews

One of the best ways to prepare for your own literature review is to read review sections and papers in your field.

They can be useful not just for their bibliographies, which can provide citations you might need for your own review, but also for the structure and method of the review itself.

Similarly, if you're writing a thesis or dissertation, consider looking for those done by previous students to get a similar idea of what will be expected of you.

Review Papers

Citation Indexes

Search for your topic and limit to review papers.

  • Scopus: Use the DOCTYPE(re) limiter
  • Example: arthroscopy AND DOCTYPE(re)
  • Web of Science: Add DT=(Review) to your search string
  • Example: (DT=(Review)) AND ALL=(arthroscopy)


Journals and Repositories

Look through collections of reviews.



Theses and Dissertations

Stevens Theses and Dissertations

The database below will give you immediate access to the recent work of Stevens students/alumni; if you'd ever like to read a thesis or dissertation that's only in print, email Ted Houghtaling for more help.

Non-Stevens Theses and Dissertations