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Public Administration

The resources in this guide will help support the research needs of students enrolled in the Public Administration program.

What is a Literature Review?

What is a Literature Review?


A Literature Review is NOT:

  • just a summary of sources
  • a grouping of broad, unrelated sources
  • a list of anything and everything that has been written on a specific topic
  • literature criticism (think back to high school English classes) or a book review

So, what is it?

  • a summary of each resource (but not just a summary!)
  • an analyzation and interpretation of each resource
  • a critical evaluation of each resource

A literature review is when you, the researcher, collect the Top Resources that you consider to be directly related to your research question. You will then take those resources and discuss how each of them supports (or does not support!) your research question, AND each other. 

For example, pretend your research question is "Does My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic teach kids positive, helping behavior?" You have three resources: Resource A, Resource B, and Resource C. Let's say that Resource A and Resource C agree that the My Little Pony show teaches kids positive social behaviors, like sharing. But maybe Resource B disagrees slightly, and says that there are some areas of the show that could use improvement. Your literature review should point out what all three resources agree on, and where they disagree (or differ). 

You are NOT adding your own opinion! That belongs to a different type of assignment. You're simply summarizing and combining (sometimes called synthesizing) the main points from each resource. 

Why is it important?

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic
  • Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement
  • Points the way in fulfilling a need for additional research
  • Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies

The analytical features of a literature review might:

  • Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations
  • Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates
  • Depending on the situation, evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant
  • Identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date

Be sure to check out the Literature Review Template linked below to help you construct and organize your review! 

Literature Review Process

Development of the Literature Review

Four Stages:

  1. Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
    • The purpose of a problem statement is to:
      • Introduce the reader to the importance of the topic being studied. The reader is oriented to the significance of the study and the research questions or hypotheses to follow.
      • Places the problem into a particular context that defines the parameters of what is to be investigated.
      • Provides the framework for reporting the results and indicates what is probably necessary to conduct the study and explain how the findings will present this information.
  2. Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored.
  3. Evaluation of resources -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic.
  4. Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.

Consider the following issues before writing the literature review:

  • Sources and Expectations. If your assignment is not very specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions:
  1. Roughly how many sources should I include?
  2. What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites)?
  3. Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique your sources by discussing a common theme or issue?
  4. Should I evaluate the sources?
  5. Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history?
  • Find Models. When reviewing the current literature, examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have organized their literature reviews. Read not only for information, but also to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research review.
  • Narrow the Topic. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources.
  • Consider Whether Your Sources are Current and Applicable. Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is very common in the sciences where research conducted only two years ago could be obsolete. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be what is needed because what is important is how perspectives have changed over the years or within a certain time period. Try sorting through some other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to consider what is consider by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.
  • Follow the Bread Crumb Trail. The bibliography or reference section of sources you read are excellent entry points for further exploration. You might find resourced listed in a bibliography that points you in the direction you wish to take your own research.

Ways to Organize Your Literature Review


If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published or the time period they cover.

By Publication: 

Order your sources chronologically by publication date, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.

Conceptual Categories:

The literature review is organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it will still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The only difference here between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most.


A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher.  A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

Sections of Your Literature Review: 

Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy.

Here are examples of other sections you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:

  • Current Situation: information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
  • History: the chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Selection Methods: the criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.
  • Standards: the way in which you present your information.
  • Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

Writing Your Literature Review

Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.

Use Evidence:

A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.

Be Selective: 

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.

Use Quotes Sparingly: 

Some short quotes are okay if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute your own summary and interpretation of the literature.

Summarize and Synthesize: 

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to their own work.

Keep Your Own Voice: 

While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice (the writer's) should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording.

Use Caution When Paraphrasing: 

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.

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