Chapter Six: Reviewing the Secondary Literature / Types of Literature Reviews / Reading Like a Researcher

Reviewing the Secondary Literature

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Note: not all research papers contain literature reviews in their finished or published form. Check your assignment and guidelines to see if one is required. Even if a literature review is not required, you still need to read the available literature on your topic so you can join the scholarly conversation.

Topics discussed on this page include:

What is the Purpose of the Review?

The literature review provides your reader of an overview of the existing research about your topic or problem. Creating the literature review involves more than gathering citations. It is a qualitative process through which you will discover what is already known about your topic, and identify the key authorities, methods, and theoretical foundations so you can begin to position your contributions within the scholarly conversation.

Further, the literature review sharpens the focus of your research and demonstrates your knowledge and understanding of the scholarly conversation around your topic, which in turn helps establish your credibility as a researcher.

The Annotated Bibliography

We suggest you begin putting your research together by making an annotated bibliography (or annotated list of sources), then synthesize your research sources by looking for through lines in them (arguments, narratives, trends, etc.), then determine which type of literature review works best for your project (we discuss these types on the following page). To help you gather annotated materials in one place, we provide a matrix tool that helps you organize and synthesize your research. The annotated bibliography serves numerous purposes:

  1. It organizes your research findings in one place, and provides a handy reference while you are completing your research project.
  2. If you will be writing a literature review for your research project, compiling an annotated bibliography is a great first step.
  3. If you decide to include the annotated bibliography in your research project, it will allow readers to explore these sources on their own.

The annotated bibliography, unlike the literature review, does not need to be essayistic. To create an annotated bibliography, use either the matrix tool or write a separate paragraph for each entry. An annotated bibliography organizes sources alphabetically and explains not only a summary of each source, but also addresses the source’s credibility and explains its relevance to your research project. An example of an annotated bibliography, created by UCF student Dolores Batten, explains how her readings related to her research project (which was to develop methods for improving student writing).

The Literature Review

Writing a literary studies research paper involves time and effort, with much of it going towards the development of a literature review. A literature review might fill several pages of your research paper and usually appears soon after an introduction and before you present your analysis. A literature review provides your audience with an overview of the available research about your area(s) of study, including the literary work, your theory, and methodology. The literature review demonstrates how these scholarly discussions have changed over time and it allows you to position your research in relation to research that has come before yours. Your aim is to narrate the discussion up to this point. Depending on the nature of the assignment, you may also include your critical commentary on prior research, noting among this material the weaker and stronger arguments, breakthroughs and dead ends, blind spots and opportunities, the invention of key terms and methods, mistakes as well as misreadings, and so on.

Once you have gathered the research materials you need for your literature review, you have yet another task in front of you: conducting an analysis on said research for your original contribution, which is the part where you discover and bring something new to the conversation. As the saying goes, “we are standing on the shoulders of giants.” Your job is to show a portrait to your audience of these giants and to show how your work relates to it.

Some beginning researchers try to tear down the work of other researchers in an effort to make their own work look good by comparison. It rarely works. First, it tends to make your audience justly skeptical of your claims. Second, it ignores the fact that even the mistakes, blind spots, and failures of other researchers contribute something to our knowledge. Albert Einstein didn’t trash Sir Isaac Newton by saying his theory of space was wrong and terrible and that his own theory was great by comparison. He built upon Newton’s work, showing how it could be improved. If, however, a researcher willfully set out to deceive others, then their work does not deserve such deference.

Before you begin work on your literature review, let’s discuss what we mean by “literature,” understand the purpose and scope of the review, establish criteria for selecting, organizing, and interpreting your findings, and, finally, discuss how to connect your findings to your research question.

What Do We Mean by Literature?

When we use the word “literature” in the phrase “literature review,” we are not talking about literary writing such as novels, poems, and plays, but about scholarly research. Our objective is to tell the story of research up to the point when you add your own contribution. You should use this time to think about what types of information and resources you will need to complete your project. In the case of literary studies, we often start with peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly monographs (books) that can be accessed through the library catalog and subject databases. These are both essential resources, but you may need more.

For Jada’s research project about James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues,” we might also think about exploring newspapers and primary source collections related to civil rights, African American studies, and social activism. Other topics might require different types of media, data sets, case studies, etc.

More about searching for these sources will be discussed in the library resources portion. In the meantime, let’s break down the literature review a little further.

What is the Scope of the Review?

Defining the scope of your review will also help you establish criteria to determine the relevance of the sources you are finding. At this stage, you are not reading in-depth; you are taking snapshots of what has been published, identifying major concepts, theories, methodologies, and methods while identifying connections, tensions, and contradictions within what Michael Patton calls the “intellectual heritage” of your topic or problem.

This work involves building on the knowledge of others and understanding what methods, measures, and models we have inherited from previous researchers in our field.

For more about Dr. Patton’s thoughts on the literature review, watch this short video:

Video provided courtesy of the Center for Quality Research (CQR)

Before we take a look at types of reviews, here are some key Dos and Don’ts:

Key Takeaways
Do Don’t
Provide your audience with at least an overview of the available research on your area(s) of study, including the literary work, theory, methodology, and method (if the assignment permits) Skip the literature review

Review only materials about the literary work but not about theory, methodology, and method

Provide your critical commentary on the materials (if the assignment permits) Present previous research as though it is all equally good or useful
Build on the research found in other scholarship Aim to tear down the research of other scholars



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