A literature review serves several purposes:
Looking at existing examples of literature reviews is beneficial to get a clear understanding of what they entail. Find examples of a literature review by using an academic search engine (e.g. Google Scholar). As a starting point, search for your keyword or topic along with the term "literature review".
Let's walk through the steps in the process with this literature review example.
Identify the research question or topic, making it as narrow as possible. In this example of a literature review, we review the anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) activity of Piper methysticum, or Kava.
Searching for relevant studies is arguably the most important aspect of the literature review.
Start by identifying keywords and phrases related to the topic and use them to search academic journals and databases (Google Scholar, BASE, PubMed, etc.). For our example, the initial search terms are "Piper methysticum anxiety" or "Piper methysticum anxiolytic", although these may change over time. For instance, kavalactones are the primary active ingredient in kava, so we may also search for "kavalactones anxiety".
Tools like the Litmaps Seed Map provide an efficient way to discover new sources by visualizing connected papers based on the number of citations and their date of publication.
Evaluate the relevance and quality of the sources found by reading abstracts of the most relevant articles. Additionally, consider the publication venue, year of publication and other salient measures to identify the reliability and relevance of the source.
Take notes on the key findings, methodologies, and theoretical frameworks used in the studies.
Use a research-friendly note-taking software, like Obsidian, that provide #tags to keep track of key concepts.
Organize the literature according to themes, subtopics, or categories, which will help outline the layout of the literature review.
Summarize and synthesize the findings from the sources analyzed. Start with an introduction that defines the research question, followed by the themes, subtopics, or categories identified. After that, provide a discussion or conclusion that addresses any gaps in the literature to motivate future research. Lastly, edit and revise your review to ensure it is well-structured, clear, and concise, like this example literature review on Kava.
Lastly, cite and reference the sources used in the literature review. Consider any referencing style requirements of the institution or journal you're submitting to. APA is the most common. However, you may need to familiarize yourself with other citation styles such as MLA, Chicago, or MHRA depending on your venue. See the image below for a literature review example APA of references.
A successful literature review tells a brief story about the topic at hand and leaves the reader a clear notion of what has been covered. Most importantly, a literature review addresses any gaps in the field and frames newly presented research. Understand the key steps and look at literature review examples in order to create a high quality review.
Header image Forest & Kim Starr, used under Creative Commons BY 3.0