Reviewing the Secondary Literature

Barry Mauer and John Venecek

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 scholarly literature on your topic so you can join the scholarly conversation.

We discuss the following topics on this page:

We also provide the following activities:

What is the Purpose of the Review?

Many students seek to “find sources that agree with my claim or idea.” That approach is too narrow, in our view. If we use such an approach, we may get the following results:

  1. Because we can find sources that agree with almost any claim, readers will wonder whether your claims are weak and the sources are cherry picked.
  2. While literary scholars sometimes cite authorities to support their claims, they don’t rely only on authority. They respect authority, but not too much. Your own claims need to rely more on evidence (from the literary text, historical and biographical information), and your critical and creative reasoning skills.
  3. Scholarship is a conversation; thus, the goal is less about finding agreement and more about joining the conversation with the aim of making a valuable contribution to the discussion.

The literature review provides your reader with an overview of the existing research about your topic or problem. It provides the context necessary for your reader to catch up with the scholarly conversation and then to appreciate the value of your contribution to it. 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.

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.

The Annotated Bibliography[1]

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 similarities and differences (of arguments, narratives, trends, etc.) among them, then determine which type of literature review works best for your project (we discuss these on the next 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, unlike the literature review, does not need to be essayistic. We also provide an example of an annotated bibliography created by UCF student Dolores Batten that explains how her readings relate to her research project (her research project was to help develop methods for improving student writing).

For more advice on Synthesizing Sources, consider the following from The Purdue Online Writing Lab:[2]

Note that synthesizing is not the same as summarizing.

  • A summary restates the information in one or more sources without providing new insight or reaching new conclusions.
  • A synthesis draws on multiple sources to reach a broader conclusion.
  • Don’t force a relationship between sources if there isn’t one. Not all of your sources have to complement one another.
  • Do your best to highlight the relationships between sources in very clear ways.
  • Don’t ignore any outliers in your research. It’s important to take note of every perspective (even those that disagree with your broader conclusions).

Annotated Bibliography [Refresher]

Take this quiz to check your comprehension of this section.
If you are using an offline version of this text, access the quiz for this section via the QR code.

The Literature Review [3]

Conducting a literary studies research project 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 but before you present your detailed argument. 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 present 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 another task: conducting an analysis on the research to see where your original contribution fits into the scholarly conversation. As the saying goes, “we are standing on the shoulders of giants.” Your job is to show a portrait of these giants to your audience, and to show how your work relates to the portrait. On many scholarly topics, literature reviews already exist. You may refer to such existing reviews within your own, indicating any materials might have been overlooked, new developments that have arisen since the publication of the existing literature review, and new perspectives or insights you have about the materials.

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 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 disrespect Sir Isaac Newton by saying Newton’s theory of space was wrong and terrible, and that Einstein’s 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 or distort or to tear down the work of other scholars without good reason, 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 discuss how to connect your findings to your research question.

Literature Review [Refresher]

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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. Instead, we are talking about scholarly research. Our objective when creating a research project is to tell the story of research up to a point. Then, you add your own contribution. You should start by thinking 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 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. Your topics may require different types of media, data sets, or case studies, etc.

We will discuss in more detail about searching for these sources during Chapter Seven of this textbook. 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; instead, you are skimming through what has already been published and identifying the major concepts, theories, methodologies, and methods present within these published works. You should also be identifying connections, tensions, and contradictions within the already published works of your topic or problem. This involves building on the knowledge of others and understanding what methods, measures, and models we have inherited from previous researchers in our field.

Literature Reviews: Common Errors Made When Conducting a Literature Review [12 min 22 sec]

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

Key Takeaways

Do: Don’t:
Provide your audience with 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.

Reviewing the Secondary Literature [Refresher]

Take this quiz to check your comprehension of this section.
If you are using an offline version of this text, access the quiz for this section via the QR code.

  1. In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” On that page, we provide a rubric for Creating an Annotated Bibliography.
  2. Purdue Writing Lab. “Synthesizing Sources.” Purdue Writing Lab, 2021,
  3. In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” On that page, we provide a rubric for Creating a Literature Review


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