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MEERL Program Library Guide

Literature Reviews

Literature reviews are an important step in the research process and are commonly assigned in upper-year and graduate level courses. Alternatively, you may need to include one at the beginning of a research paper or as a chapter in a dissertation or thesis. No matter your reason for conducting one, a literature review should show the reader that you have a comprehensive understanding of the published research on a particular topic. The literature review should identify what has already been done and what is still left to be explored in your topic area, which prevents duplication of research efforts. Finally, it should show that you can position your own informed perspective into the scholarly conversation as you make connections between studies and situate them within the broader context. The literature review should not be a summary of what you have found - it should be a critical evaluation

The three goals of a literature review are to:

  1. Summarize and analyze previous research and theories
  2. Identify trends, important questions, common methodology, controversy, and contested claims
  3. Highlight any gaps that may exist in the research to date

Depending on the purpose of your literature review, you may also need to situate your own research into the scholarly conversation and justify its value. 

Getting Started

It's important to be well organized before you start working on your lit review. It might be helpful to have the following in place:

  1. A plan to keep track of where you search and what you search. This can be as simple as a Word or Excel file where you list the databases that you search in and the search strings, parameters, and other filters that you've used. 
  2. A citation management tool such as Zotero, Mendeley, or EndNote. This will help you keep track of your references and auto-populate citations as you write your review. It can also be a great place to store PDFs of articles or book chapters that you read. For more information, see the tab on Citing & Citation Management

A sample search log: 

Database Search string # of results Notes/Thoughts # of Articles Selected Articles Selected
Scopus (pollution AND environmental impacts AND Canadian lakes) 343 Too broad, retrieved too many articles and not all were relevant 2

Smith, 2021

Jin, 2018


This can be adapted to suit your needs, for a literature review that is part of a course assignment, you likely will not need the last two columns. 

What about Systematic Reviews?

Systematic Reviews are another type of knowledge synthesis that people might refer to when talking about a literature reviews; however, they are quite different! A true systematic review must follow a rigorous methodological process and requires at least two people. Other common types of evidence synthesis include Narrative Reviews, Rapid Reviews, and Scoping Reviews. To learn more, visit our Guide to Systematic Reviews & Other Synthesis