Approaching Chapter Two – The Literature Review.

28 10 2013

By Mark Ellis, Ph.D. – Doctoral Studies Professor | Content Expert | Dissertation Committee Chair


Simply stated, the Literature Review is a critical evaluation of peer-reviewed literature that has already been published. As such, the student who is writing the dissertation should organize, integrate, and evaluate previously established literature and present the literature in a way so as to consider the progress of current research toward clarifying the stated problem in the study. The literature review should be interconnected in a way that examines concepts or theories that are similar or are in alignment with the current study. Moreover, there should be methodological similarities and in the historical development of the field that is under examination.

The literature review ties in with the remainder of the dissertation as it defines and clarifies the problem. Further, it also summarizes the wide array of previous inquiries, empirical studies or investigations in order to inform the reader of the current status (or stage) of the research. Moreover, the evaluation and synthesis of the literature review should also identify relations, point out inconsistencies, identify gaps or contradictions and then proceed to suggest the next step (or variety of steps) toward solving the problem that is currently under investigation.

Crafting a literature review is certainly not something that is done overnight. Nor is it done in a few hours, days, or even weeks. Crafting a viable literature review can take a number of months. In reality, a doctoral student should begin doing preliminary research allowing at least a year to pull together the literature in order to lay an appropriate foundation for the review. Of course, this can be done at the very beginning of the doctoral program.

I think I’ve mentioned this before however, the content of what is being presented in the literature review is vital. I cringe when I see an excessive amount of textbooks, magazine articles, or newspaper articles as references. Such sources may be “okay” in a limited sense depending on what the researcher is trying to establish, however, the majority of the material contained in the literature review should be just – that the literature. Not just any literature, but peer-reviewed literature. The validity and credibility of the information being presented in the literature review cannot be over emphasized.

The peer review process is a lengthy process whereby various experts in a given field carefully and meticulously review and provide required changes in a given study in order to ensure that the research presented to the academic community is indeed accurate. Also, as a rule, as the writer progresses through the literature review the majority of what is being presented should be literature that has been published within the last five years (or so) except for the historical section, of course. Nevertheless, as the literature review takes on the appropriate form, current research should almost always be evident in the literature review as it progresses. Previous studies can become obsolete in a very short period of time. As such, keeping the sources current within the last five years keeps the dissertation from becoming obsolete or even erroneous in some of the conclusions that are presented.

Finally, the literature review should be narrowed and focused. At the beginning stages of crafting a literature review oftentimes doctoral students will take a “shotgun approach” and try to overwhelm the reader with a wide array of previous studies. This is almost always a showstopper.

“Narrow, narrow, narrow and focus, focus, focus.”  These terms cannot be over-emphasized in crafting a viable literature review.

I wanted to share this link that is presented by University of Southern California (Go USC Trojans!) that gives a tremendous amount of information regarding academic writing, dissertations, and the literature review. Of course, USC is a world-class institution and has a wide array of resources available to individuals who are in pursuit of crafting, proposing, and defending the dissertation.

Here is the link:


Below is an excellent overview of the literature review presented by Candace Schaeffer of Texas A&M’s University Writing Center. It is a clear, concise, and comprehensive presentation.

Enjoy. Dr. Mark Ellis




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