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ENG W231: Professional Writing Skills

Literature Review v. Research Paper

What is a literature review?

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

How is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper will contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.

How do I know when I can stop?

Literature reviews can be tricky because you don't want to stop before you've found everything relevant to your topic. There are a couple of guidelines for knowing when to stop looking for materials.

  1. If you have done steps 1.1-1.3 (below), when you start to see the same articles over again, then you have done your due diligence and can consider your lit review complete. That isn't to say an article might not slip through, but if you have done the steps below, then the chances of a really important article slipping past you is pretty slim.
    1. Searched all relevant databases, using a variety of keywords and subject headings
    2. Mined article bibliographies for their cited references
    3. Looked in Google Scholar (or Web of Science or, for law, HeinOnline) to see who has cited those articles
  2. Think of the assignment timeline. If you are writing your PhD thesis you can spend more time doing a comprehensive lit review than if you only have a few weeks until an assignment is due. At some point you need to stop.


Characteristics of a Good Literature Review

Characteristics of a Poor Literature Review

Synthesizes available research

Basically an annotated bibliography

Critical evaluation of sources

Analysis confined to describing the work

Appropriated breadth and depth

Narrow and Shallow

Clear and concise

Confusing and Longwinded

Uses rigorous and consistent methods

Constructed arbitrarily

Literature Review Process

Literature Review Cycle

Flowchart from The Literature Review (2009) by Machi and McEvoy


Detailed description of, "Literature Review Process"

Why do we cite?

There are many reasons why it is so important to cite the sources you use in your research.

  • You demonstrate to your reader you've done proper research by listing sources you used to get your information.
  • You avoid plagiarism by quoting the words and ideas of other scholars.
  • You are being a responsible scholar by giving credit to other researchers and acknowledging their ideas.
  • You allow your reader to find the sources you used by citing them accurately in your paper by using in-text citations or footnotes in combination with a bibliography or works cited list.

Citing Sources in APA Style

Citing Sources

Many of the library's databases allow you to save or email an APA citation for an article. 

Look for the following buttons or links:

                     database tools menu that includes a link called "citation tools"                           screen shot of database citation tools menu

Depending on which database you are in, you can selecting the "Citation Tools" link to save the citation in APA format or click on the "Cite this article" icon to get citations from several different style guides.  Make sure you select the appropriate style for your citations. For W231, that will be APA style. When you get the citation, it may look like one of the following examples: 


Tips for Managing Volunteers With Disabilities. (Sept 142006). v18 i23 pNA Chronicle of Philanthropy, 18(23). p.NA. Retrieved 

      March 25, 2009, from Academic OneFile via Gale:

Karl, K., Peluchette, J., & Hall, L. (2008August). Give Them Something to Smile About: A Marketing Strategy for Recruiting

      and Retaining Volunteers. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 20(1), 71-96. Retrieved 

      March 25, 2009, doi:10.1080/10495140802165360


Warning: Don't just copy and paste these citations into your paper! Note the errors and extraneous information in the above citations in red. The library's databases are good at getting the right pieces of information in the right places for these citations, but they are not perfect. You will need to make some modifications to these to ensure they follow the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Pay particular attention to capitalization and punctuation. 

If you need a link to your article, make sure that you look for a permanent or persistent link.  When searching a database, the link displayed at the top of your browser window is often a temporary link, which will not work at a later time and should not be the one you use in your citation or reference list.

Schedule a visit with the University Writing Center or download the handout below for more help wtih APA style.

Citing Your Sources

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers Book Cover APA Style Book Cover Chicago Manual of Style Book Cover

There are many different "styles" you may choose from when citing sources. Your professor will probably tell you which "style" is preferred for your class. MLA (Modern Language Association), Chicago, and APA (American Psychological Association) are three of the most commonly used citation styles, but there are hundreds.

Recent editions of style manuals, which include detailed information and examples, are available at the Services & Information Desk at the University Library. If you need help on your research project, please contact a subject specialist librarian.

We have the Chicago Manual of Style available online as well as in print. For quick reference, there are many online sources. One of the best is the Purdue OWL. But be aware that the manual is always the most authoritative source.