Creating Lit Reviews as Arguments
I wrote this practical guide for students in 2003. Since various people are still asking about it, I’ll share it here:
- A literature review is a systematic search of scholarly work surrounding and specifically related to the researcher’s interest/project.
- A literature review is also an argument or set of arguments made after reading previous research and theoretical discussions in the area of interest.
- A literature review is, therefore, both the process of searching through scholarly works and the outcome of this search; a written argument by the researcher that justifies his/her research project.
- A literature review helps the researcher determine where to go next by pointing out what has been accomplished in previous studies, or what is missing in previous studies, or what might be a useful or innovative way of cutting into a phenomenon to contribute to the conversation.
- A literature review is NOT a paper that simply overviews, summarizes, or describes previous studies, although all these things must take place as the researcher prepares the literature review.
- The written review should be narrow in focus but your search for literature and your review of literature is not narrow.
- Reviews do not simply describe or summarize, they evaluate.
- The process of creating a review can be inductive or deductive (deductive is recommended if you already have a study in progress):
(A deductive approach implies that you “choose an area of research, read all the relevant studies, and come up with some meaningful way to organize the studies” [University of Washington Psychology Writing Center handout])
(An inductive approach implies that you begin with an argument/point or organizing theme and read related studies]
Value (and therefore quality) of the review relies on:
- Your ability to find a lot of research related to your general area, read through most of this, and incorporate only the most relevant into your literature review.
- Your ability to guide readers through the literature via your perspective and argument
- The level of evaluation versus simple description and/or summary
- Your ability to identify gaps, analyze controversy, posit future research questions, or justify your own study.
- Identify general area or specific theme
- Research thoroughly, in various disciplines and sources
- Read for detail, keeping a chart if necessary
- Brainstorm ideas for a way to synthesize the material, creatively move beyond mere summary/synthesis to build your own argument
- Narrow your scope: Identify and list themes or arguments
- Pose arguments as claims, in the form of declarative sentences
- Organize the themes into a logical pattern
- Write each argument, using major theories and research findings to help you build evidence and arguments
- Write the intro and conclusion last
Questions to ask yourself:
- What specific research question am I seeking to address?
- Am I looking for issues of methodology, theory, policy?
- Do the research articles match my research question?
- Am I looking in the right places? Enough places?
- Will the reader find my review useful? Why or why not?
- Have I included or accounted for opposing viewpoints or findings?
Evaluation Questions to ask about each article or author as you read:
- Does this article fit with other research in the area? how does it differ?
- Does the author account for variation from other researchers and findings?
- Have I identified the major findings of this author?
- What is the theoretical framework, the rhetorical purpose, and the practical perspective f this author?
- Is the author internally consistent?
- Does the author provide enough evidence to support the claims being made?
- Are the sources of evidence appropriate?
- Do the conclusions follow from the evidence or study findings presented?
- Does the methodology match the type of question being asked?
Tips for Excellence
- Do not rely on too few articles
- Use several disciplines and libraries to broaden your findings
- Search widely, using various types of physical and online searches to avoid missing large or vital areas of research
- Keep the topic narrow and strive for depth rather than breadth of coverage….which essentially says, “narrow your research question.”
- Remember that you are building your own argument as a scholar. You are not simply summarizing the field (a good lit review is not a broad sweeping overview of the topic. It is your argument about a topic using many different authors and articles to support your points)
To aid your reading and comprehension of difficult materials:
- Read easier articles first
- Read previous review articles or even semi-related lit review articles first
- Do not skip difficult, long, or complex articles: Simply read, re-read, and digest.
- Read carefully, looking for subtle interpretations or explanations of theoretical concepts
- Give yourself adequate time to do all of the above…..the worst case scenario is that your argument is poor and misinforms you and your reader because you didn’t take the time to read carefully.
- Explore unfamiliar ideas and concepts with textbooks, but don’t take textbook knowledge as “truth”—that’s the whole point of your literature review. (textbooks are like big, too easy to read, very broad literature reviews)
More tips for writing literature reviews (or for writing any good argument)
- Outline (preview) your arguments in the introduction clearly and precisely
- Use headings to separate categories and major arguments
- Revise sentences that indicate subjectivity (we know everything is subjective, but you don’t want to water down argument by using “I feel,” “I think,” or “I believe.”)
- Avoid other tendencies such as overusing pronouns and vague referents. Be concrete and specific.
- If your claims are not original, that’s fine. Cite the origin(s). Give others credit for their ideas.
- Again, avoid plagiarism; if the idea or statement is not yours, cite your source.
- Paraphrasing is more common than direct quoting in a lit review (not a hard and fast rule).
- Remember that a literature review is not really just a “review.” It is your argument, which begins with and builds from and moves beyond the stuff you read.
Why write as an argument?
- The argument format of writing encourages you to build claims supported with evidence or reasoning.
- Stating your points as declarative statements (that could be answered true/false on a quiz) can help you discover your own attitudes, believes, and values.
- Demanding good arguments of ourselves will lead to new and better ideas.
- Demanding good arguments of ourselves will expose weaknesses that might lead to better qualifications of, or necessary shifts in our claims.
- Making claims and defending them with reasoning and evidence from the literature forces the level of discussion beyond summary and compels you to take a position.
- Finding the weakness in the evidence or reasoning supporting your own claims may help you identify weaknesses in the literature, which in turn can expose excellent gaps to fill with your own research.
Document created by Annette Markham in 2003. Content supplemented by the following resources. Please cite me if you’re using or quoting this document. Please consult these other good guides for more information.
- Univ. of Washington Psychology Writing Center: http://depts.washington.edu/psywc/handouts/litrev.html (now probably here: http://www.psych.uw.edu/psych.php#p=339)
- University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre: http://www.utoronto.ca/hswriting/lit-review.htm (now probably this: http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review)
- University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center http://www.wisc.edu/writing/Handbook/ReviewofLiterature.html
- Damer, T.E. (2000). Attacking faulty reasoning. A practical guide to fallacy-free arguments. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.