What is a Literature Review?

While the term literature is often used to refer to fictional works such as novels and plays, in the academic world, literature can also have a different meaning. If your professor has asked you to review the literature or write a literature review paper, he or she probably does not want you to read novels and plays.

When scholars talk about the "literature" they are often referring to the collected body of academic works related to a topic. For example, a chemist may speak of the "scientific literature," referring to scholarly writing published by other scientists. In most cases, the literature consists of non-fiction books or scholarly articles published in academic journal. More rarely, other types of sources, such as a blog post written by a scholar, might also be considered part of the literature, although you should be careful of including non-traditional sources in a literature review without approval from your professor.

When you need to review the literature or to write a literature review, the goal is to identify, locate, summarize, and analyze a variety of sources containing information related to your field or research topic.  

Why review the literature?

There are many reasons why you might need to review the literature:

  1. You may need to review the literature in order to keep up to date in your field. Reviewing the literature helps you to identify the most significant research in your area and to recognize current trends. This can also help you to identify new topics to research.
  2. For most research papers, you are required to include a literature review section. In this part of the paper, you discuss and analyze previous research related to your topic in order to show how this research guides or supports your own research. This section provides the context for your research.

What is a Literature Review Paper?

In some cases, the term "literature review" can refer to a specific kind of paper. The sole purpose of this type of paper is to review and analyze the literature related to a specific topic. The author of this type of paper does not conduct any additional research project, instead, their goal is to select a number of different sources related to a particular topic and to summarize and evaluate the findings. For example, a nursing student who is studying techniques for IV insertion in pediatric patients may select the 15 most recent articles on the topic and analyze these articles to determine trends or best practices.

How do you conduct a review of the literature?

After you have identified your topic, you begin your search for sources related to that topic. In some cases, you may be looking for only the most recent literature on a topic while in other cases you may be looking for the most prominent sources or for sources that fit certain parameters.

Your initials searches may be fairly broad, but as you read and analyze you will be able to discard sources that don't relate closely enough to your topic.When you do find a book or article that is really relevant, one trick is to use the references in that source to find additional sources.  

How do I locate the literature in my field?

There are many options for finding books and articles related to your topic, including Discovery, subject specific databases, WorldCat, and SourceFinder.

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Discovery is a tool that searches multiple databases, including NKUIRE (the library's catalog).  In addition, there are approximately 150 databases available through Steely Library. Many of them are subject oriented and will provide full-text access to journal articles. Using these databases will provide you with the most current research related to your topic. The databases are available to you on or off campus.

Another source for finding books, videos, and other items is WorldCat. WorldCat is the world's most comprehensive bibliography and includes holdings information from libraries across the world.  Request any item NKU does not own using SourceFinder

How do I organize my information?

RefWorks is an online research management, writing and collaboration tool, designed to help researchers easily gather, manage, store and share all types of information, as well as generate citations and bibliographies. Several tutorials and guides are available that explain how to use Refworks.

Steely Library phone number:  859.572.5457