6. Locating your study in the literature


The literature search

  1. What is a literature review and why do one?
  2. What should a literature review contain?
  3.  Introducing your take on your review:
  4. Why only scholarly material?
  5. Finding articles – what are you looking for?
  6. How do you search for relevant material?
  7. How do you annotate and catalogue what you read ?
  8. Organizing the material
  9. What methods have been used in the field to tackle my research problem?
  10.  Avoiding Plagiarism: Writing With Integrity

1. What is a literature review and why do one?

What is the purpose of a literature review – other than complying with the request from all your academic mentors that you must write one as an early chapter of your thesis?

The literature review establishes what is known in your field of study, and what methods have been used to investigate it. It also lets you know whether your particular focus is a novel and important contribution to this field; that is, unless you are replicating a study that has already been published with the expectation that your study will have a different result.

There are broadly two types of literature reviews;

1. Contextual – this situates your study in the literature both in terms of content and in the methodology that you choose to investigate it. By telling the reader what is the context for your study, and what has been done before, you are justifying your study in the broader field. A contextual literature review is therefore not a review which summarizes the field, but is focused on locating your study in its broader context. So the sources of information most closely related to your work will be given front and centre status in your review. More tangential, historically relevant and interconnected articles will be mentioned also, as will a section on the prevalent methods used to investigate and analyse information in your field. You are telling the reader, first, what is known and, second, what methods have been used to study it.

An important part of the literature review is to ensure that the study you want to do has not yet been done. As we said earlier, a thesis must come up with a new or novel contribution to your field. This needn’t be a huge contribution but it should indicate how your thesis is adding to the existing field. In order to justify your contribution you begin knowing the field to determine this.

2. Comprehensive summary (review, meta-analysis)

The second type of literature review is a summary of a new or existing field, or a compendium of work that lies at the intersection of two or more fields. Typically your thesis will not have this kind of a literature review, unless you are conducting a meta-analysis of hitherto uncollected studies, or showing the relationship between two or more previously unconnected fields. You may however want to spin off a publication by turning your literature review into a summary or review paper.

back to top

2. What should a literature review contain?

You may already have encountered sections about the literature review in previous units of this Guide. In unit 2, under the heading “Read, read, read” I used the analogy of throwing a stone into a pond. Your research question, once developed, is the point of entry into a pool of literature. As you read you encounter further literature that both takes you back to previous work in your field and also points to linked and peripheral publications that inform your field.

The point of the literature review is that you describe and evaluate the books, journal articles, conference presentations and proceedings, and dissertations in your field – in other words in the acknowledged scholarly sources that impinge on your study. It is not a laundry list of everything you’ve read, nor is it an annotated bibliography. It is your synopsis of the relevant publications and how they connect, as filtered through your perspective.

back to top

3. Introducing your take on your review

In some dissertations, your perspective may be made explicit in a separate section; the lens that you have used to filter the material. Especially when your field is controversial and interpretive, the reader may need to know how your perspective and background may have influenced your selection of what you choose to present and how you present it. That is part of being transparent about your sources, and in allowing the reader to decide whether or not to be persuaded by what you claim.

back to top

4. Why only scholarly material?

Why not newspaper articles, Facebook entries or Wikipedia? There is a long traditional in scholarly writing that work can only be published when it has been reviewed by a group of scholarly peers and found to meet the standards of objectivity, accuracy, analytical and reporting precision. Indeed journals and other sources go to great lengths to describe the peer review process and the individuals who peer review the articles submitted. In general other sources in our world of “false news” cannot be trusted as accurate and are therefore not used in scholarly writing. However this is not a hard rule; some dissertations may well drawn upon popular press, social media and other sources in addition to the scholarly literature as part of grounding the study to be reported. Indeed there have been eye-popping cases of fraudulent data that was reported, cited and re-cited in scholarly publications. In any case, the most trusted sources are the ones that are usually required to support your work and to frame your research question in its literature.

You may wonder whether the scholarly source rule makes your research harder to undertake. After all if scholarly sources have already been peer reviewed, how will you be able to find an argument, gap or controversy to justify your own study? In fact the conventions of publication help you to locate your own study. Often peer reviewed journal articles have to include statements of their limitations – what the author was unable to control for, or how the context of the study might limit how the results are interpreted. This may lead you to find your thesis question in such a source. Other ways to find your question are examined below.

Your study is like a brick in a wall or node in a network that you are building. Each study is linked to the others, some tangentially and others peripherally. Your task is to highlight your brick or node in the larger building, first with context of and history for how it fits in the overall wall, and then with detailed references to the neighbouring studies.

Here are four recommended YouTube sources that tackle parts of the Literature Review process.

  1. Dr. Candace Hastings – Dr. Hastings drew from “They Say/ I say – cited above


How to source material in your writing.

The video really tackles how to find, organize and catalogue your literature research.

2. Writing a literature review: (July 2009)



North Carolina State University. While not a dynamic presentation, this video is filled with great tips.

3. Writing a literature review: (Sept 30 2016)


University of Louisville Writing Centre

4. Guy E White – dissertation literature review



back to top

5. Finding articles – what are you looking for?

Start with your clear and definitive research question – if you are clear about what you will ask then the relevant literature will be easier to identify.

See Writing the research question section

From the question(s) identify the following:

  • Key words that are central to your topic
  • Key authors – writers who you may know in your field. These may be few or non-existent at the outset, but it will build. Include your immediate supervisor and committee members if they work in the same field.
  • Potential methodological, theoretical and analytical approaches. How do you intend to address the question in your method, and what precedents exist for this in the literature? – authors and topic.

Start an organizer – on line, or labeled piles of articles. It can be simple initially because it will grow as you conduct your research. One student with whom I work uses “Smart Ideas” as a conceptual tool to define the main questions and possible sub-questions of his thesis. Each node in this conceptual mapping tool can then become a heading for articles as well as data. It keeps the focus on the research question and limits the extent to which he wanders into the by-ways and detours of the research literature.

A very helpful YouTube source to keep your reading on track has already been mentioned previously:

Simon Peyton Jones, Microsoft Research – How to write a great research paper:


Dr. Jones argues for writing to think; that is, starting your writing very early in the research process, rather than doing lots of research in order to write. That way, when you write, you are not overwhelmed by mounds of material that you have difficulty keeping in mind, but have already started to annotate the key concepts into a beginning form of an organizer. This grows as you continue to read.

back to top

6. How do you search for relevant material?

There are a number of strategies for finding articles and chapters that are relevant to your thesis topic.

One way is to identify the authors in your field who are the leaders – the senior contributors to it. Each author is known by his or her ‘citation index’. When a published work is cited by another author, a number of software systems are able to count that citation. Of course the more an article is cited the more that author is influential in that field. You can find out who are the most cited authors in several ways:

Research Gate, a blend of social media and scholarly disseminations, keeps count of citations.

Google Scholar also provides citation counts for the big players in your field. By locating the names of the major contributors, you are set to conduct a literature search of authors that will zoom you into the main work in your field.

Keep in mind that the members of your thesis committee may also be names to be searched in the citation literature. By linking your research to theirs, you will introduce a dialogue with them that could be very helpful when you defend your thesis at final oral (if you have one) with them present.

Another way to get into the literature is to find a recent review article that covers the current research in your field. In unit 4, I discussed situating your thesis question in the broader field of study. The topic of how to find a viable research question was raised under the heading ‘Where do I find my topic and research question?’. Both in finding your question and in developing it, a recent review article, written by leaders of the research in your field, can be a great resource. There are many books of review articles; Annual Review and International Review of… where authors have undertaken a literature review of the second type that we discussed at the outset of this chapter; a comprehensive summary of what is current in the field. This overview is valuable to enable you to see the overall context of your work in this field. It may also include an evaluation of the different studies; their strengths and shortcomings, the gaps in the knowledge base, and the controversies between researchers.

For example, the 20 year history of my work and that of colleagues was part of a review in a chapter published in H. Fives and M.G. Gill, (Eds.,) (2014), International Handbook of Research on Teacher Beliefs. New York: Routledge; Taylor and Francis. The intent of the chapter, by Kiely, Brownell, Lauterbach and Benedict, was to point to the shortcomings of the definitions of teacher beliefs used in our field, the effect of teacher beliefs on the inclusion in classrooms of students with special needs, and the gaps in the research (p.475-490). Such a review article is useful not only because it situates our work in a broad context, but also because it suggests where the next studies should be focused, and what standards they must meet. In effect it allows researchers to stand on the wall built by those who have gone before, and to add the next brick.

back to top

7. How do you annotate and catalogue what you read ?

Beginning with one article:

Start with a summary of the article, plus full citation, and note the relevance to your topic. When you have collected some of these, label the main theme and contribution in light of your own study. Add any evaluation you may have of the study you are reviewing, – strengths of the source and weaknesses, how it adds to justifying your study (for example, a very small sample size, or a weak argument, or another possible explanation for the findings).

Dr. Candace Hastings has some excellent tips for organizing those piles of articles that you have collected. (See the link above in Section 4)

In her video she suggests you annotate each article thus:

Dr. Hastings’s 5 questions:

1. What do scholars say about your topic?

2. What are the ongoing debates within your topic?

3. What ideas do you agree with? – Why?

4. What ideas do you disagree with? – Why?

5. What hasn’t been said about your topic?

And a 6th; What are the methods used to investigate this stuff?

Use citation software to keep track of what you read, such as EndNote, Refworks, Zotera. In the behavioural and social sciences you will likely be using APA (American Psychological Association) citation generation. The way you cite your sources in text is reflected in the Reference list that the software generates. It’s important to get to know what this looks like – take note when you read published articles because this is what they also use. Then read the sections in the APA Publication Manual of Style. Again, it is worth the time invested.

One further tip: save quotable quotes and include the complete page location in each source. It’s increasingly important that, when you supply material cited from another source, you include verbatim quotes. This may be because they are controversial or evaluative or open to various interpretations, or because they are colourful and add interest to your text, or because they came from an eminent and quote-worthy source. You will need the page number when you use them in your thesis –and you can never find it again if you don’t record it – really!

Although you should not use persuasive argument to convince your reader about your views on your topic, nothing prohibits you from verbatim quotes from other sources. As on good journalism, the author remains objective but the salacious, inappropriate or bigoted views of others can be conveyed if they are directly quoted from a traceable source!!

Also see the section on plagiarism below – verbatim quotes and full credit to sources are important mechanisms for any author to justify their work, and to avoid the penalty of plagiarizing someone else’s writings.

So now you have developed a stack of similarly annotated articles. How do you reorganize them so that you do not overload with information?

One possibility is to use the various components of your research question to organize the material. One student recently asked me how to get a huge pile of papers into a system so that he could keep track. It’s a challenge unless you start to grow the organizational structure from early in the search process – label and cross reference what is historical, key concepts, key arguments, methodology, key authors in the field.

back to top

8. Organizing the material

Start with summaries of article, plus full citation, and notes on the relevance to your topic. When you have collected some of these – perhaps related as you work through the material cited in a review, for example, label the main theme and contribution in light of your own study. Add any evaluation you may have of the study you are reviewing, – strengths of the source, and weaknesses especially if it adds to justifying your study; for example a very small sample size, or a weak argument or another possible explanation for the findings.

It is very useful to use citation software: EndNote, Refworks, Zotera – APA citation generation. These keep track of your references in text by generating the reference list with full source information that will be added to your thesis, and will match the citations in your thesis content. In days of yore, this was a manual task – and inevitably a sharp-eyed examiner would find a citation in text that was missing from the reference list, or a difference in cited year or author in text compared to in the reference section.

In your system of keeping track of what you read, I suggested annotating the authors in your field who most often pop up, or who have published something very close to your own work. These are the names that you can trace on an online digital library such as the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC),  https://eric.ed.gov/  and Google Scholar, ERIC Clearinghouse, ProQuest dissertations or a social network for research dissemination such as ResearchGate https://www.researchgate.net/

Research Gate is a relatively new resource that is a cross between a social network and a library of publications that are posted by their authors. It enables more than just accessing relevant material; one can interact with the authors, ask them questions and request materials such as measures, and also ask the broader community for assistance on research-related topics. By joining this community you are tapping in to the conversation in your field, and this will help you to locate your study and the importance of your research questions.

There are now a number of open access sources to the literature. The old gold standards such as ERIC are still available. Newer ones such as Scholar.google.com have emerged, and although not comprehensive they give you the names of the big players by supplying the number of citations of a given article. Also search your thesis committee, external examiner etc. – what will the people on my committee expect me to know (their work!). Don’t mess up on their details. How they write will be how they will expect you to write.

Also check out theses that have been written in your field through ProQuest dissertation searches.

back to top

9. What methods have been used in the field to tackle my research problem?

Part of your search will be to justify why you chose a particular methodology. The keywords for your method are also important for your literature search. Sage publications now has a guide to research methods in the social sciences that is a useful resource to locate your method: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/sage-research-methods

back to top

10. Avoiding Plagiarism: Writing With Integrity

Plagiarism can be a serious offense. People have been denied their doctoral degrees or have had them withdrawn when they have plagiarized the writings of another.

Plagiarism is defined as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas processes, results or words without giving them credit for it”.

In citing the literature base in your thesis, it is essential that you give credit where it is due; that you record the source by author and location of the work you refer to. This takes the form of author names and years placed by the quotation, and matched to a full citation of the publication or source in the reference section.

Plagiarism can however be complicated. I know of authors who have taken well written paragraphs from someone’s work and slotted them into their theses. In one case a whole thesis was constructed from carefully selected tidbits from other sources. The rationale of the authors was that they could not have written the paragraph better themselves. Indeed that may be the case, but it is required that at the very least you either quote the paragraph in quotation marks and cite the author, or you rewrite the paragraph in your own words. There are sophisticated computer program that can spot plagiarized material, and you do not want that to happen in your thesis.

A UTube video that examines plagiarism in some depth and helps to define how to present your sources is Dr. Candace Hastings, at Texas A & M Centre:


Finally, what do you do about sources that are hard to get or that you find through a secondary reference that cites them? You are strongly advised to go after sources that may be pertinent, even if they are hard to get. Try to get the original rather than re-report someone else’s summary of them. There are numerous instances of a single incorrect interpretation of a person’s work that has been picked up by others from a second hand source and re-reported in further work. Like a good investigative reporter, check your sources by going to the original. If you cannot go to the original, make sure you reference the source from which you drew it. For example, “Smith (1953), as cited by Brown (2017), found that ….”

back to top

Close Menu