Research Methodology

Preparing and writing the literature review

Preparing and writing the Literature Review


The purpose of the literature review is to document the state of the art with respect to the research problem that you are dealing with. This will then provide a foundation for the research work that you will be carrying out. If you do not conduct a thorough literature review, then there is a danger that you will be re-inventing the wheel, or overlooking an important approach that would radically improve the research. In general literature research is a vital component of any research project.

Hot Tip

Don't hand in your first draft. Get a reasonably knowledgeable person to read and comment on one or more drafts of your review. Revise it several times so that it is a polished document by the time it gets handed in. You should follow this general procedure for all your written work. However, don't expect your lecturer or supervisor to do your editing for you.  Make sure that you acknowledge the assistance that you get from other people so that there is no ambiguity about what work you did and where the ideas came from.

Length and Format

The literature review should be typed or printed in readable font and should be equivalent to 8-10 pages of single spaced text, or between 2000 and 2500 words in length (for a proposal, a shorter review is acceptable). It is recommended that you use double spacing so that it is easier to read and to make comments on the text when it is marked.

The literature review should summarise the relevant literature and citations should be interspersed liberally within the text. For instance:

"Smith and Jones (1994) found that pointed sticks are hazardous to the unprotected human eye. However, Brown (1995) found that safety glasses cut down the risk of eye injury in pointed stick manufacture by 90%. Johnson (1995) recommend the use of plexiglass as the ideal compound to use in constructing safety glasses for this purpose. However, none of the articles or books that we found after an extensive search considered the possibility of using slightly blunter sticks..."

The literature review should contain the following sections.


This is where you explain why you are carrying out the literature review and what questions you hope to answer. You should also summarise the main issues and human requirements that will be relevant to your research project. The introduction sets the stage for what is to follow and prepares the reader with a framework that helps to organise the material provided in the later sections.

Background theory

Most research is a mixture of creativity, applied science, and the application of good research methodology. The applied science is typically driven by one or more relevant theories. This section will be assessed both in terms of how relevant the theory you discuss is to your project, and how well the theoretical issues are discussed. Here, and throughout your literature review, the discussion should sound like a reasoned review of scholarly literature, rather than a recitation of your opinions.

Prior research

Theory is good, but you also need practice. If you were designing a car in the late nineteenth century, then relevant prior art might include the design of carriages and trains. The goal in this section is to see what previous research findings might be relevant to your project. Obviously, you will want to learn from this research, avoid making the mistakes, or contrast your aims with them to identify what innovations you are making. You should strive to be creative, but not too fanciful, in finding instances of prior research to cite. You should also explain your reasoning for classifying something as prior research, particularly when that reasoning may not otherwise be clear to the reader.

Ideas and speculations

This section forms the basis for your conceptual framework. Here is where you discuss all the ideas and concepts that have been circulating in the literature. For instance, someone trying to invent the first powered aircraft might talk about the concept of flapping wings like a bird versus using the Bernoulli principle to create lift. The important thing in this section, as in the others, is that you can cite literature rather than just your own opinions. You can still have your opinions, but use the references that you cite to support your opinions. By choosing articles, and linking them together in a certain way you still have lots of freedom to express yourself and what you think is important.


This is where you put it all together. What have you learned from your review of the literature? What are the key research aims and principles that follow from this review? What research approaches should be discarded as less promising? What are the major problems likely to be? What further research is needed or specific questions answered before you can get down to detailed work?


You should cite your references in a standard format, including page numbers, publisher, etc. It is recommended that you follow the format used in the most authoritative journal(s) in your discipline. While the number of references that is appropriate will vary between projects at least 25 references per project can be used as a guideline (fewer would apply to a Literature Review in a Proposal/Protocol) .