Literature Review

Literature Reviews

This resource provides a simple definition and example of a literature review, and explains where it fits into academic work at various levels of study.

What is 'literature'?

In an academic context, literature means academic publications. It doesn't mean novels and poems, but books and articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

What is a 'review'?

In an academic context, a review of literature is a careful and critical discussion of a whole range of publications on the same topic, or around the same question.

Reviews of academic literature come in many shapes and sizes. You might be asked to write one in just a few thousand words, discussing only a dozen or so publications. On the other hand, a literature review might be an entire chapter of a thesis, discussing hundreds of published studies. It might be a systematic review that gives a very comprehensive overview of an entire field of knowledge, and a very sophisticated meta-analysis of everything published in a given timeframe.

If you are asked to write a literature review, it is important to be very clear at the start how many sources you are supposed to read and discuss, and how many words you are expected to write.

How does a literature review differ from an annotated bibliography?

  Literature Review Annotated Bibliography

A literature review is written in the style of an essay, which consists of three parts: Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion.

Sources can be re-used as much as needed to support the writer's argument.

An annotated bibliography is a list of sources accompanied by a short summary and/or evaluation.

Each source is mentioned only once and they are organised alphabetically.


In general, a literature review will provide background information on a particular topic by summarising, comparing and contrasting existing knowledge, and acknowledging prominent researchers in that area.

If you are writing the literature review to provide justification for your research project, then you will need to identify the gap in knowledge, indicate the need for further research/investigation, and clearly state the significance of your research. (See Biology Example below)

If your literature review is not specifically attempting to justify a research project, then it is more likely to be a synthesis and evaluation of knowledge and practice in a particular area. (See Health Sciences example below)

Provide readers with a short summary and critical appraisal of the sources cited


The following example is an excerpt from a Biology student’s literature review.

Literature Review Comments

Although studies have shown that diet has an important influence on a mammal's overall biology (e.g. McNab 1983), little is known about the feeding ecology of many Australian species. One species, the yellow-bellied glider (Petaurus australis), which weighs up to approximately 700g, is the largest of the arthropod and exudate-feeding marsupial gliders (see Smith & Lee 1984). It has a widespread but patchy distribution in eastern Australia and is characterized by low population densities (Henry & Craig 1984; Kavanagh 1984). Relatively little research has been centred on the feeding behaviour of this species because of difficulty in its detection and capture (Craig & Belcher 1980).

One study (Wakefield, 1970) concluded that while yellow-bellied gliders obtain sap from the 'V'-shaped incisions they make in the trunks of various species of eucalypt, arthropods comprise the bulk of their diet. This conclusion, however, was based on limited feeding observations and the irregular occurrence of these 'sap-site' trees.

Other studies conducted analyses on faecal samples from north Queensland and Victoria respectively (Smith & Russell 1982; Henry & Craig 1984; Craig 1985) to determine feeding behaviour. These studies found the presence of arthropods, eucalypt sap, nectar and honeydew. However, as insect and plant exudates are almost tota1ly digested and leave little trace in the faeces, other indicators must be used to infer their use (Smith & Russell 1982). Bark, for example, is used as an indicator of eucalypt sap. Faecal analysis, therefore, does not allow a precise determination of the relative importance of each of the separate dietary items.

Qualitative observations of feeding behaviour in gliders have also been carried out (Henry and Craig 1984; Craig 1985; Kavanagh and Rohan-Jones 1982; Kavanagh 1987a,b). In these studies each observation is scored equal, regardless of duration, thus these data indicate only the presence or absence of food items in the diet, not their relative use.

A study employing the use of timed (i.e. quantitative) feeding observations is necessary to give a better resolution of the species' dietary requirements. This study was aimed at achieving this by addressing the following question: are different food resources exploited in different proportions throughout the year?

Introduces the subject of the study & identifies gap in previous research

Summarises the conclusions of the earliest relevant study and identifies limitations in method

Groups another set of studies according to method, summarises findings, and identifies limitations

Groups another set of studies according to method, summarises and identifies limitations

Identifies gap
States aims of the research – shows how this research will fill the gap.


The following paragraph is an excerpt from a Health Sciences literature review.

Literature Review Comments

Data from numerous studies reveal that unsafe food-handling is more common in some consumer groups than in others (Yang et al. 1998; Altekruse et al. 1999). Young adults and those with education beyond high school are more likely to be exposed to unsafe food handling than other groups (Altekruse et al. 1999; Patil et al. 2005; McArthur et al. 2007). A large-scale US meta-analysis of 20 food safety studies conducted by Patil et al. (2005) indicated that males, young adults, those without a high school education and those with high incomes reported the lowest level of knowledge about good hygiene and cross-contamination prevention practices. The literature further demonstrated that young adults both engage in unsafe food-handling practices (Unklesbay et al. 1998; Morrone and Rathbun 2003; Haapala and Probart 2004; McArthur et al. 2007), and report low levels of food safety knowledge. However, the research investigating safe food handling among this population is limited (Unklesbay et al. 1998; McArthur et al. 2007).

Introduces the topic of the paragraph with the major finding in the literature to be discussed

Integrates and summarises the studies

Evaluation of the findings

Further Resources

Last reviewed: 2 February, 2018