What Is The Role Of The Introduction Of Literature Review In A Research Paper

(Edited by Guangbing Yang and Thai Bui)

    1 Introduction
    2 Presentation
          2.1 Purposes
          2.2 Literature Review Classifications
          2.3 Strategies for writing a literature review
          2.4 Tips for a good literature review
    3 Application
          3.1 Example 1
          3.2 Example 2
    4 Conclusion
    5 References


A literature review is study of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. It is often a part of the introduction to an essay, research report, or thesis. Taylor[4] mentioned that people writing the literature review try to convey to their readers what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are [4].

[4] argued one of main roles of the literature review is to enlarge people's knowledge about the topic. He also mentioned that conducting a literature review, an author can also gain and demonstrate skills in following two areas:

  • information seeking: the ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles and books
  • critical appraisal: the ability to apply principles of analysis to identify unbiased and valid studies.

When writing a literature review, the author shall consider these things:

  • tightly associate the review contents and context with the research questions
  • emphasizes the relationships between research problems and the outcomes of the literature review.
  • identify areas of controversy in the literature.
  • list the questions that need further research.
  • write solid and avoid abstract to show a full analysis path
  • write directly on the topic or sub-topics.
  • include an overall introduction and conclusion to state the scope of the research coverage.
  • formulate the review questions and problems.

Normally, a newcomer likely makes a mistake to list papers and researchers in each paragraph when she/he first write a literature review. The literature review is not a simple list describing or summarizing others' works. The literature review shall be organized into sections by concepts, themes or trends. It’s usually a bad sign to see every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher [4].

In this work, more intensive information about the role of literature review in research and how to reach the role will be presented in following three sections: presentation, application and conclusion. In the presentation part, the purposes of the literature review, possible types of the review, process in writing the literature (e.g. strategies), and some tips are addressed to help a novice researcher to understand the role of the literature review in turn to write a good review for a specific research topic. In the application part, two practical examples, which are presenting the literature reviews conducted by precedent researchers, are given to help novice researchers to imagine the realistic process in writing a review for a specific area. The last section is conclusion of our work.



A literature review goes beyond the information search. It helps you identify and articulate the relationships between the literature and your field of research. [10] have summarized following basic purposes for a literature review:

  • It provides a context for the research,
  • It justifies the research,
  • It ensures the research has not been done before (or that it is not just a "replication study") or there are gaps in previous researches,
  • It shows where the research fits into the existing body of knowledge,
  • It enables the researcher to learn from previous theory on the subject,
  • It illustrates how the subject has been studied previously,
  • It highlights flaws in previous research,
  • It outlines gaps in previous research,
  • It shows that the work is adding to the understanding and knowledge of the field, and
  • It assists on refining, refocusing or even changing the topic.

Besides these basic points, a literature review can also help the researcher to

  • identify the research trend in this area,
  • determine the definitions of the main terms appeared in previous researches
  • establish the knowledge base on the subject
  • adjust the scope of the research
Literature Review Classifications

Literature reviews can be classified based on Cooper's taxonomy of Literature Reviews [1]. The taxonomy proposed by Cooper has five characteristics for categorizing literature reviews, they are: focus, goal, perspective, coverage, organization, and audience. Depending on which characteristics a literature reviews concentrated on, there are various types of literature reviews. For instance, if a literature review concentrates mainly on focus characteristic, reviewers can be interested in one or more foci: Research outcomes, Research methods, Theories and Practices or applications [1]. The types of literature reviews are categorized corresponding with its characteristics shown in the Table 1 below.

Characteristic Category
Focus Research outcomes
Research methods
Practices or applications
Goal Integration
(a) Generalization
(b) Conflict resolution
(c) Linguistic bridge-building
Identification of central issues
Perspective Neutral representation
Espousal of position
Coverage Exhaustive
Exhaustive with selective citation
Central or pivotal
Organization Historical
Audience Specialized scholars
General scholars
Practitioners or policymakers
General public

A combination of these categories is also common cases. For instance, a literature review is a kind of research outcomes focus and its goal is also for integration to make generalization of a topic.To acquire more information about Cooper's Taxonomy of Literature Review, you can read more in [1] and [2].

Strategies for writing a literature review

One of the most difficult things in writing a literature review of novice researchers is that they do not know where to start and how to do it in an efficient way. To give some hints for the inexperienced researchers, this part describes briefly the process of conducting a literature review. Basically, there are 6 main steps (mainly extracted from [1]) in working on the literature. The process spreads from specifying type of the review to presenting the review.

i. Specifying type of the review
A literature review can be one or a combination of several types described in previous part (Cooper's Taxonomy of Literature review). Positioning your type of the review will help you to orientate your process of conducting the review, especially in the next step - choosing review questions.

ii. Choosing review questions
There is a distinction between review questions and empirical questions in a research [1]. The review questions refer to those questions which will be answered during the literature review while the empirical questions will be experimented and answered during the primary research conducted by researcher. At this stage, the review questions are concerned and formed. To form the review questions, two sub-steps are needed: Forming the questions and indicating filtering criteria [1].

  • Forming questions: Review questions are very essential and influence the whole process of the review. These questions are not only lightening your search but also directing you in evaluating, analyzing and interpreting collected data; It can be thought as compass for exploring "the forest" of knowledge and finding out your own path of the review. As mentioned, the review types influence this forming step largely. For example, "From the previous literature, what is the effect of intervention X on outcomes Y and Z" [1] is a question focusing on the goal of integrating research outcomes. In particular, a similar question can be "How can peer-communication influence to learning java programming in online manner?".
  • Filtering criteria for qualified data: While the review questions are useful to help the novice researchers to locate resources, filtering criteria are necessary and crucial in narrowing down or focusing on relevant resources. These kind of criteria are called criteria for inclusion and exclusion [1]. Indeed, these criteria should be considered as conditions for classifying collected resources (e.g. articles, papers...) into two folds: relevance (inclusion) and irrelevance (exclusion). The criteria are good enough if there is a similar classification result after giving the same set of resources to two persons classifying based on these criteria [1].

iii. Locating resources / data
The main aim of this stage is to collect relevant resources lightened by the review questions based on the established filtering criteria. Normally, this stage will consume large time of the whole process. Nowadays, locating resources is almost done based on internet search. The search can be varied from common and popular sources such as search engines (e.g. Google), pages (wiki, blogs, research group website...) to specific and more professional places like e-libraries (ACM, Springer Link, ...), specific online journals (e.g. Ed/ITLib, Journal of Interactive Online Learning...). There are some practical recommendations which the novice researchers need to be paid attention while doing the searches. More often than not, qualified and valuable data is found at professional places rather than from results given by common search engines. But the common search engines can give good clues for further searches.

  • Initializing the search from your existing knowledge, try to use keywords or combination of the keywords
  • Logging your searches as much informative as possible such as: where you found the articles, which articles relate to which concepts, what are your thinking and decisions from each paper, who are authors of the papers, which authors or research groups have had much influence in the specific areas, etc.
  • Expanding the searches by following references of valuable articles which have been found [1]
  • Asking and consulting colleagues and experts (e.g. your supervisors) about your search results periodically [1]
  • The search can be stopped when the researchers think that the collected data is rich enough to convince readers and that the questions are answered reasonably by the collected data [1].

iv. Evaluating data
This step is very important for convincing readers (e.g. reviewers, supervisors). In this step, the researcher has to inspect very careful and deeply the collected data retrieved in previous step. Here again the review types play a very important role in evaluation, it means the evaluated data must support the selected types of the review. For example, if the review is characterized by the focus and its goals are research outcomes and integration, the evaluated data retrieved from the articles must express the achieved results of previous researches and an integration of these results must be considered and obtained [1]. Moreover, the following aspects should also be investigated: what kind of the type of evaluated data is? How was the process or instrument used to gather data? What methodologies were used to analyze the collected data? etc. This information has to be recorded carefully in appropriate form, for example, coding book is recommended in [1].

v. Analyzing and synthesizing
This step is continuity of the evaluating step. In this stage, the author has to put her own ideas on the evaluated data. A holistic picture of the research area should be exposed such as what have been done by previous researches; what are the gaps and where are the problems which will be solved in the primary research. The synthesis of the review can be done in various ways decided by the collected data, these ways can be quantitative, qualitative or mixed approaches [1].

vi. Publishing the work
Finally, the whole work will be arranged and organized based on your purpose such as historically, conceptually and methodologically [1] then a presentation of the review can be published or sent to target readers.

Tips for a good literature review

Tips Methods
Ask yourself questions ask self questions about

purpose, like 'What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?'
type, like 'What type of literature review am I conduction? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research? qualitative research? etc.'
scope, 'What is the scope of my literature review?'
quality, 'How good was my information seeking?' wide enough to ensure I have found all the relevant material, and narrow enough to exclude irrelevant materials?
analysis, 'Have I critically analyzed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them?'
contrary, 'Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?

Quickly browse abstract, keywords, conclusion, and references first Do not read the entire paper right away. Read abstract first to discover the interests. Read the conclusion part to see what the authors have already done and what are left untouched.
Know key authors Find out all related works done by key authors in the certain time frame. Doing this, you will know how long the authors stay in this area and how deep they dig through.
Write down the main terms and their definitions Search for the same terms with various definitions, and at the meantime, search for the similar definitions with different terms. Then compare them to each other to find out the patterns and differences. From these patterns and differences you may find out some clues for your research.
Record key definitions and their context Look for patterns and frameworks in what is written about a topic such as the context – social, political, historical.
Create a map of your sources Going through these sources, you will find some gaps among them. Draw a map to show these 'holes' and link them with your sources.
Fill in the 'holes' in your source map[9] Link these 'holes' with your sources to see whether your existing sources can cover all holes. If not, you may think to expend your search range. Doing this way can help you to find out the research gaps, which might be your next research topics. Like [7] mentioned "in searching for information, be prepared to be simultaneously depressed and excited – depressed because you cannot find anything to match your needs exactly, and excited because this means that your line of inquiry could be unusual or even unique. Be prepared to step out of both your subject area…and even your discipline."
Start writing After analysis and evaluation of your literature, be attention to tell your audience that you are writing literature review. Very good tips about this step can be found at Boston College University Libraries’ list of caveats:


Organize your references in preferred bibliography style [8]


In this part, we present two practical examples to illustrate how to conduct a literature review and its role in research.

Example 1

The paper "Survey on Context-Aware Pervasive Learning Environments" [5] is a very good example of a literature review, I think. It has had a very clear structure and good approach to reach the aim - presenting the current state-of-the-art of Context-aware pervasive learning environment. In the introduction part of the paper, authors have specified very clear about type of the review, the goal of the review is integration and identification of central issues based on observing and evaluating research outcomes of existing applications and practices: "By reviewing existing work, we seek to build a solid ground for further research on how different learning models can be efficiently utilised in pervasive learning environments and what are the critical features of such an environment" [5]. The method used in the paper to conduct the survey is also similar with the strategies discussed above: formulating research questions, Collecting data, evaluating data and observing (analyzing and synthesizing). The followings are some particular examples extracted from the paper.

  • Research questions: These questions are very important for later steps. The questions are not primary research questions but they are for review research. The followings are 3 main questions created by the author of the paper [5].
1. What are the currently existing context-aware pervasive learning environments and how are they built?
2. What learning models, if any, have been established to support pervasive learning experiences in these environments?
3. What is the role of mobile devices in existing pervasive learning environments?
  • Data collection: Before gathering the data the authors has created a set of rules for inclusion, some example rules from the paper are: a) The work describes a design, implementation, analysis or test of a pervasive learning environment or system; b) The presented environment/system uses sensors or other technologies for smart environments to enable context-awareness; having people walking around with mobile devices connected to a wireless network was not enough as it is merely m-learning; etc.[5]

There were 18 qualified papers chosen for the survey from many papers or articles passing two phases. In the first phase, titles and abstracts of papers or articles in given forums were investigated. If there were relevance the papers were chosen to the next phase. In the second phase, the abstracts and introductions were read carefully. Just only those met the inclusion criteria were selected for the survey.

  • Data evaluation: to extract useful information from the selected papers, the authors has created a set of detail questions derived from the research questions. These detail questions have lightened the author to retrieve relevant information which supporting deeper analysis. Some example questions from the paper are: Q-A0: What are the description and purpose of the system/environment? Q-A1: Is it based on a client/server approach? If not, what is it based on? Q-A2: What is the hardware/software platform of the system? etc.[5]
  • Observations (analysis and synthesis): After extracting and evaluating based on the detail questions, the authors have established 5 observations as the result, some observations concluded by the author are:
    • Observation 1: RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) is the most prevalent sensor technology used in pervasive learning environments.
    • Observation 2: There are several learning models that are suitable for different learning activities in pervasive learning environments, but none of them was validated properly
    • Other observations: see in the paper [5]

The important thing is that these observations were made on the basic of the detail questions created in the data evaluation stage.

  • Presentation: The result of the review has been presented in the format of empirical paper including introduction, method, results, and discussion parts [1].
Example 2

A good example of literature review was done by Alex Wilson and Janet Sarson about "Participation of Aboriginal Students in Postsecondary Health Education Programs in Saskatchewan." [6]

The author started with the project/research goals and followed a brief hstory of the topic. And then the authors specified the problem statements that they planned to expend deeply and discuss more step by step.

After the Introduction section, the authors discussed the first problem related to the research topic. They presented their points in the first sentence directly, then followed the found from the article or paper, which was cited from (Aboriginal Population Profile, 2006 Census, 2008; Saskatchewan Bureau of Statistics, n.d.), and ended with another issue that would be ready for the discussion in the next paragraph. In the second section, the authors use the same style to directly state the problem and follow the facts found in articles, journal papers, and statistics reports from the grovernment.

So, the entire literature review is structured in this style:

  • Directly give out the research or project goals,
  • Clearly state the problems,
  • Briefly introduce the history related to the topic,
  • Deeply expend each problem statement with facts found in jpurnal papers and reports,
  • Intently identify areas of controversy in the literature,
  • The review synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known,
  • The review materials are organized around based on the themes and trends.

For instance, the project goal is “to improve coordination of health programming, reduce administrative duplication, better adapt programs to the needs of First Nations and address the gaps in health services for First Nations people” which was cited from (Government of Saskatchewan, 2008), and then in the next paragraph, the authors use these statistic data to support the prolem statement mentioned previously.

In addition, the authors referred wide enough and good quality resources for this review. For instance, statistic reports from Statistics Canada, research paper from Canadian Council on Learning, and journal paper from Canadian Journal of Native Education, etc.


Thought as the first important brick for building a solid base for a good research later, the literature review needs to be conducted by researcher in a very careful and deliberate manner before starting the primary research. Normally, novice researchers have very little experience in writing the literature review for their topics, they often feel confused and don't know where is the beginning point for conducting the review. The Cooper's taxonomy, the summary of strategies for writing a literature review (mainly extracted from [1]) and some useful tips described above can provide some hints for the newcomers in considering and making a convincible literature review. Moreover, the two presented examples are also practical works where the novice can find more useful experiences from precedent researchers. In our opinion, this work is not a comprehensive material for writing an excellent review but we believe that it can provide inexperienced researchers some clues for thinking and conducting a reasonable literature review which will be a solid ground for establishing the primary research later.


[1] Justus Randolph, A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review, http://www.cs.joensuu.fi.joecat.joensuu.fi:8080/impdet/uploads/literature_review_guide_Justus_Randolph.pdf (retrieved in May, 2010)
[2] Cooper, Harris M., A Taxanomy of Literature Review, Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (69th, Chicago, IL, March 31-April, 1985)
[3] Boote, D.N. & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher 34/6, 3-15.
[4] Taylor, D. (2010). The literature review: A few tips on conducting it. Retrieved from http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review at May 17th, 2010
[5] Teemu Henrikki Laine, Mike Joy, Survey on Context-Aware Pervasive Learning Environments, International Journal of Interactive Mobile Technologies (iJIM), Vol 3, No 1 (2009)
[6] Wilson, A. and Sarson, J. (2008). Literature Review on Participation of Aboriginal Students in Postsecondary Health Education Programs in Saskatchewan. A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 6(3) 2008. Retrieved at May 19th, 2010 at http://www.pimatisiwin.com.joecat.joensuu.fi:8080/uploads/1742634680.pdf
[7] Carole Gray and Julian Malins, Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004). p. 43.
[8] Boston College University Libraries’ list of caveats: Bibliography: http://libguides.bc.edu/content.php?pid=1194&sid=157358.
[9] Mattern, S. (2010). Literature Review Tips. Retrieved from http://www.wordsinspace.net/course_material/MatternLiteratureReviewTips.pdf at May 21th, 2010.
[10] Boote, D.N. & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher 34/6, 3-15.

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