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Literature Review & Research Skills Guide: What is a Literature Review?

What is a literature review

Once you have defined your topic, the next step is to start a literature review. A literature review summarises, interprets and critically evaluates material that has already been published on a topic. The purpose is to establish current knowledge of a subject, identify gaps, inconsistencies and relations in the literature as well as outline areas for additional research and/or define a topic of inquiry.

Adopted from Charles Sturt University Library. (2017). Literature review.  Retrieved from

Types of literature reviews

The type of literature review you write will depend on your discipline and whether you are a researcher writing your PhD, publishing a study in a journal or completing an assessment task in your undergraduate study.

A literature review for a subject in an undergraduate degree will not be as comprehensive as the literature review required for a PhD thesis.

An undergraduate literature review may be in the form of an annotated bibliography or a narrative review of a small selection of literature, for example ten relevant articles. If you are asked to write a literature review, and you are an undergraduate student, be guided by your subject coordinator or lecturer.

Often the term "review" and "literature" can be confusing and used in the wrong context. Grant and Booth (2009) attempt to clear up this confusion by discussing 14 review types and the associated methodology, and advantages and disadvantages associated with each review. For research students, especially those in EEB501, ERP502 or doctoral students, they will be undertaking a critical literature review.

Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 26, 91–108. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

What is the purpose or aim of the literature review?

A literature review should demonstrate your knowledge of the research that has been conducted in the past and should place your research in the context of this work. A literature review can have a number of purposes within a research project. These include:

  • demonstrating and clarify your understanding of your field of research;
  • identifying patterns and trends in the literature;
  • identifying gaps in the literature and seek new lines of inquiry;
  • identifying similarities and differences in previous research and place your work in perspective;
  • justifying your own research;
  • increasing your breadth of knowledge of your subject area;
  • identifying seminal and influential published works in your field;
  • identifying relevant journals, publishers and conferences to search;
  • providing the intellectual context for your own work, enabling you to position your project relative to other work;
  • identifying experts working in your field (a researcher network is a valuable resource);
  • carrying on from where others have already reached.


Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Frels, R. (2016). 7 steps to a comprehensive literature review : a multimodal & cultural approach. London : Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.

Randolph, J. J. (2009). A guide to writing the dissertation literature review. Practical Assessment Research & Evaluation. 14(Article 13), 1-13.

An Introduction to Literature Reviews

Please watch the following video:

Play video - An introduction to Literature Reviews


where to start a literature review

There are many different types of resources which might offer information on the topic you are researching, but you need to consider whether the source is scholarly or authoritative enough for a literature review. Typically literature reviews are conducted by using journal articles, conference papers, book chapters, websites or standards.  

In addition, there is a range of new information sources that you may not have come across before, such as: 

  • Internet resources
  • Tracking citation
  • Using Social Media
  • Interlibrary loans

To keep your information organised, you might like to consider using a reference manager.  There are a number of different reference managers available to use, and they all have their own advantages and disadvantages. See the EndNote tab to find further information on Charles Sturt University's bibliographic management software EndNote.

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