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FAQs about writing a Literature review

How many studies should I include in my Literature review?

There is no predetermined acceptable number of studies you should include in your review. The most important thing is to ensure you provide an accurate and representative overview, making sure to include seminal works. You should also ensure your review is up-to-date and includes recently published works. The number of studies you include in your review will, to some extent, depend on the word count at your disposal. In a PhD thesis, you will include many more references than in a journal article, for instance.

Which studies should I include in my Literature review?

To provide a representative overview of the literature, you should select papers based on criteria such as direct relevance to your field of study and/or research questions, importance in contributing knowledge to the field, choice of a robust and/or innovative methodology, and important implications for the work you are conducting. Follow the tips we give here to make sure you’re not missing any relevant references.

In many cases, people use the number of citations and prestige of the journal/authors as proxies for research quality. This is often a good indicator, but don’t automatically dismiss works on the basis that they have no star authors or appeared in a less-recognized journal. They might still be rigorous and provide useful insights. At the same time, a high citation rate doesn’t mean all these citations are positive.

Do I have to read all of the articles mentioned in my Literature review?

You should make sure that you at least skim the articles you mention in your Literature review. By only reading the Abstract and Conclusion, say, you may miss out on some methodology details that may skew your assessment of a paper. To be able to discuss the merits of a study, pay specific attention to its Methodology, Results, and Discussion sections. Note that the above does not mean that everything you have read should be included in your Literature review!

How can I assess papers critically in my literature review?

Keep in mind that the point of a Literature review is to analyze, not describe. So it is crucial to have a critical eye, including on widely praised/cited papers. Critical doesn’t always mean negative: it’s about placing yourself in a distanced, objective and analytical position through which you are able to recognize the merits and faults of a paper, and draw parallels or point discrepancies between different studies.

To do this, ask yourself the following: To what extent does the paper contribute to knowledge in the field? Are the research questions worth investigating? How sound is the methodology used to answer these research questions? Are the conclusions reached by the authors supported by the results? If not, what is missing from the analysis or interpretation, or could be improved in the methodology? How do these findings support or contradict what others have shown? Is the consensus across authors and studies solid enough to support a particular conclusion, or not?

How do I report results and findings from other studies without plagiarizing?

To avoid plagiarizing, make sure you add a reference whenever you mention other authors’ ideas or results. If you want to report someone else's words verbatim, put these words in quotation marks followed by the citation (e.g. Smith, 2018). If you are reporting someone’s findings using your own words, you still need to include a citation (but without quotation marks). Don’t forget that paraphrasing is no substitute for referencing; you always need to cite your source. Note that each and every in-text citation should be listed in your references at the end of your thesis or paper, unless there is no actual reference available (for example, when you cite personal communication).

Need help with paraphrasing a sentence when discussing the literature? Use Writefull’s Paraphraser, available in Writefull for Word, Writefull for Overleaf, and the browser.

Structuring your Literature Review

Useful phrases for your Literature review

Literature review examples with explanations