How to structure the literature review in a research paper?

By Riya Jain and Priya Chetty on March 24, 2022

A literature review is a collection of summaries of different key studies on a topic.  It is an essential component of research, especially academic research like thesis and dissertations. It provides the theoretical understanding of the topic and is presented as a separate chapter. However, a literature review should also follow a specific format. Often the problem is that the researcher fails to structure the literature review and just states all the information without a proper direction. This makes the study unfocused and irrelevant. A well-structured literature review has many components and is the key to successful research. The presentation of a good literature review needs a logical and clear structure for a rich understanding.

Introducing the literature review

This is the first paragraph of the literature review. It should present the main components of the chapter and the purpose of discussing them. It includes defining the topic, establishing a point of view, and stating the scope of the review. A look at this paragraph should give the reader a good idea about what to expect in the rest of the chapter.

The main body of the literature review

This is the main section of the literature review where the secondary studies are analysed and discussed according to themes or elements. Secondary studies refer to any study which is already published in a journal, book, magazine or website. Writing this section involves four main tasks:

  1. Mentioning the right studies.
  2. Interpreting the studies.
  3. Writing or synthesizing the findings of the studies.
  4. Critically evaluating the studies for their strengths and weaknesses.

This can be presented in:

  • Chronological order: According to the year of publication of the studies.
  • Thematic order: According to themes or elements identified in the topic.
  • Methodological order: By dividing the studies as per the type of methodology that was used, like quantitative, qualitative or mixed.

Moreover, present the literature in many ways like systematic review, a generic literature review, empirical review, theoretical overview, or critical review. A combination of two or more types of literature review in this chapter can also be presented.

Presenting the research gaps

Many researchers choose to write the research gaps in the Introduction chapter, but they can also be included in the literature review section. This is because after a reader reviews the existing studies, they are able to see the problem better. It is also easier to identify the research gaps when it is backed by authentic sources of information. This section must identify at least one research gap and explain each in detail, followed by the research hypothesis if applicable.

Presenting a summary

This is the last component of the literature review structure. It summarizes essential findings you draw from the studies reviewed in the chapter. It should also provide a purpose to the research and explain the next step, i.e. method of analysis performed to enhance the topic. The figure below represents the components of a literature review structure.

Majors aspects of a Literature review
Figure 2: Majors aspects of a Literature review

Exceptions for technical and non-technical literature reviews

Although the purpose of a literature review is the appraisal of existing research on a topic, the components of the chapter differ. The components of a literature review of a technical thesis are different from a non-technical thesis. Technical theses are related majorly to STEM subjects like science, technology, engineering and mathematics. On the other hand, non-technical subjects include management, social sciences, economics, English literature, education, etc. The literature review differs on the basis of the purpose, components, inclusion and exclusions. The table below gives a detailed look at these differences.

AreaTechnical literature reviewNon-technical literature review
PurposeTo track recent developments in their field/ topic so that further improvements can be madeTo appraise existing literature so that specific research questions can be answered.
FocusExisting studies contributions, gaps, suggestive codes/ systems/ methods/ scientific findingsConceptual base, existing studies contributions, gaps, and hypothesis formulation
ComponentsIntroduction, empirical review, systematic gaps, proposed framework/ system, development planIntroduction, synthesis, empirical review, gaps, conceptual framework, hypothesis, and summary
Table 2: Exceptions for technical and non-technical literature review components

Thus, depending on the aim and objectives of the study, subject, and type of review, the structure and components of the literature review can be decided. The researcher must remember that the literature review chapter is a significant section of a study and thus, must be properly written and structured.

References

  • Forcael, E., Ferrari, I., Opazo-Vega, A. and Pulido-Arcas, J.A., 2020. Construction 4.0: A literature review. Sustainability12(22), p.9755.
  • Graulich, N., Lewis, S.E., Kahveci, A., Nyachwaya, J.M. and Lawrie, G.A., 2021. Writing a review article: what to do with my literature review. Chemistry Education Research and Practice.
  • Paul, J. and Criado, A.R., 2020. The art of writing literature review: What do we know and what do we need to know?. International Business Review29(4), p.101717.
  • Salminen, J., Guan, K., Jung, S.G., Chowdhury, S.A. and Jansen, B.J., 2020, April. A literature review of quantitative persona creation. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-14).
  • Verma, M. and Verma, K., 2017. Social media a promotional tool: hotel industry. Journal of Advances in Humanities5(1), pp.221-223.

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