CHS 211 literature review

Contributed By: Nina Machin

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a comprehensive study and interpretation of the literature (articles, studies, journals) for a specific topic (Aveyard 2014).

 The primary role of the researcher when conducting a literature review is to try and make sense of all the research. Imagine that a journal article is a single puzzle piece; when you are writing a literature review you are taking all of these different puzzle pieces, trying to get them to fit together to ultimately answer your research question. 

 According to the Royal Literary Fund, a literature review has four main objectives:

  • Survey the research in a given field
  • Synthesize that information
  • Extract the key components
  • Critically analyze the information presented.

 This is done by looking at new relationships among the data, finding and discussing areas where further research could be conducted, analyzing the limitations placed upon the researchers, and addressing gaps in the research,

 Things to expect from a literature review:

  1. Provide an overview of the data in a given field
  2. Discover or establish new relationships among the data collected
  3. Build upon previous research and look at it in a new manner

Research question

All literature reviews have a research question which helps guide the analysis of sources such as journal articles—both scholarly and peer-reviewed.

Formulating a research question

What is the purpose of a research question?

Researchers use research questions to help guide their research and the writing process itself. A research question should be a focused, concise, complex and arguable question, answered with the help of the sources you gather.

How do I come up with a research question?

Find a research topic

  • Choose a subject that is interesting to you
  • Read (a lot). Find articles to see what scholars and other researchers are talking about
  • Select a topic that can be attainably answered in the given time period

Ask questions open-ended questions such as “how” and “why”


  • “How do cultural barriers affect the development of postpartum depressive symptoms in Hispanic women?”
  • “Why are the combination of anti-depressants and therapy a more effective combination for individuals suffering from depression over other alternative forms of treatment?”

Avoid bias— remain as neutral as possible to any results that may come from your research


  • To what extent is cognitive behavioral therapy better than medications for treating depression

Avoid questions that can be answered with yes or no


  • “Is football more dangerous of a sport compared to baseball or tennis”

Developing your question using the PICOT method

The PICOT method can help you in structuring your research question. PICOT stands for

Intervention or issue
Comparison or context

In theory, a research question using the PICOT method would address each of these areas of focus.

An example research question following the PICOT method is

To what extent is the development and exacerbation of postpartum depression in LATINA WOMEN shaped by cultural factors during their pregnancies and after?

  • Population: LATINA WOMEN
  • Issue: of postpartum depression
  • Context: development and exacerbation
  • Outcome: cultural factors
  • Time: during their pregnancies and after

The anatomy of a research question

“To what extent does depression affect the quality of school work and social relations in college aged individuals?”

To what extent does depression

  • This first part of the question addresses the “how” of your research question. This is how you will be looking at the subject of your literature review

the quality of school work and social relations

  • Next you have your “what” section. What relationship are you trying to establish, or what variables are you looking at?

college aged individuals

  • Here is the “who” of your question. The “who” includes both the subject that you are looking at as well as the demographic affected by the issue that you are looking at.

Words and phrases to include in a research question


  • To what extent…?
  • What is the relationship…?
  • What factors lead to…?
  • What are the main (factors, causalities, variables) …?
  • How does (x) affect…?


These are:

  • Factors
  • Barriers
  • Cultural contexts,
  • Social relations,
  • Work
  • Attitudes,
  • Personal beliefs that affect the subject of your research question.


The demographic of your research question can be based on sex, age, income level, geographic location, or ethnic group.

Finding sources

Finding good sources is arguably one of the most important things to your success in writing your literature review. Without solid sources that actually pertain to your topic, you will find writing your review difficult.

The first thing you want to start with are databases. Google will not do the job, as it does not filter for the type of sources you will need. Literature reviews primarily use scholarly or peer-reviewed articles. You can find these types of sources through accessing Google Scholar, UNR Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center Database, or Pub Med to begin your search.

Learn more in our fully comprehensive resource on databases.

How do I figure out what a good resource is?

There is unfortunately no magic trick in finding good sources for a literature review. It takes time and patience to find articles that will help in answering your research question.

However, here are some tips that help in making your search easier:

  1. Choose recent articles. The more recent the better. A general rule of thumb is to look within a ten-year window—however that can easily change based upon the subject of your review.

Ex: If you are looking at the benefits of organic farming practices, you are better off choosing an article from 2012 versus 1995, as more recent articles will be a better reflection of the field currently.

  1. Read the abstracts. Abstracts are the SparkNotes of a journal article. They are beneficial in that that give you a rough idea of what the article is about. However, be careful with relying only on abstracts as they do not tell you all the important findings in an article. They are best used when you are in the initial stages of your research need to choose articles
  2. Read the discussion section. The discussion section is where you will find analysis about the findings of the research. It will help you establish whether or not this article will work as one your sources to for your literature review. Going through the discussion gives you the implications of the research; telling you, the reader, why it was important that the researchers did x, y, and z.

Important note: These suggestions are meant to make your life easier when you are in the preliminary stages of research. However, once you start writing the actual literature review it is crucial that you read the entire article to have a complete understanding of what is going on in the research.

What are the different types of research?

  1. Systematic reviews
  2. Quantitative research
  3. Qualitative research

Systematic reviews

 Systematic reviews are also known as literature reviews (something you are doing yourself). They have detailed research methodologies and aim to summarize a body of knowledge. They are best used to assist the researcher in gaining a cohesive image of the problem, as well as provide more sources that can be potentially used in their own literature review.

Quantitative research

Quantitative research is known for its use of numerical data and experimental methods. Quantitative research is broken down into several different categories which include randomized controlled trials, cohort and case control studies, and cross-sectional studies.

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) 

RCTs are a form of clinical trials, which aim to look at the effectiveness of treatment or medicine. They are best used if your literature review is comparing whether X is better than Y or if X is effective or not.

Cohort and case control studies

Cohort and case control trials are forms of observational studies; this means that these studies aim to establish a relationship between different variables. They seek to determine if a certain variable is the cause of something else. These are best used if you are trying to find the cause and association between different variables.

Cross-sectional studies

Cross-sectional studies utilize a sample (group of individuals) to answer a survey or questionnaire. Cross-sectional studies are used to provide a glimpse into the characteristics of a sample of the population at a given time. They are best used when you are trying to measure the behaviors, actions or beliefs of a group of individuals.

Qualitative research

Qualitative research aims to explore meaning and occurrence of a particular issue within its natural setting. The main concern of qualitative research is to gather information on the experience of an individual in a given setting. This type of research is best used when you aim to explore an issue rather than quantitatively measure it through the use of statistics.

Important note: It is important to know what type of research studies you want to look at as the research method does not provide a one-size-fits-all approach for all literature reviews.

What is a critical appraisal?

A critical appraisal is a structured assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the articles collected during research and an analysis of the article and its relevance to your own literature review.

There are several things that should be kept in mind while doing a critical appraisal

  1. Does the article hold any relevance? Will it help answer my research question?
  2. Is this article well-researched and free of bias?
  3. Is my understanding of the article furthered? Do I understand the choices the researcher made and how it ultimately affected their perception of the data?

Questions to ask yourself while doing a critical appraisal

 (adapted from How to write a literature review in health care)

  • Where did you find the information?
  • Did you find it in a database? Was it published in a scientific journal? Was it pulled from a news article?
  • What type of article is it? What are the key findings or results?
  • Is it a research study or discussion post? Can the results or findings from this information be useful for certain groups or even the general population?
  • How did the author(s) come to the conclusions stated in their work?
  • Does their reasoning/logic make sense? Do the conclusions of the research line up with the findings?
  • When was this written?
  • Older information shouldn’t be immediately disregarded; however, the more recent the better.
  • Who wrote it?
  • Was the research carried out by a single individual or a group of researchers? Did they receive funding from an organization that could have influenced their findings? Are there any biases that the researcher(s) could have?
  • Why was it written?
  • What group was this information intended to benefit? Who was it written for?


In the most basic of terms, the main purpose of the introduction section of a literature review is to introduce the topic. John Swales, a British linguist detailed a set of steps that are commonly seen within the introductory section of a literature review or journal article. These steps have been dubbed as “Swales Moves.”

What do I include in my introduction?

The first move is to Establish the territory (the situation)

  • Establishing the territory is done by demonstrating why the general area of interest you are researching has value to a broad audience (i.e. think the general public interested in health, not just your professor)
  • Ask yourself what problem you are attempting to address with your literature review (e.g. AIDS education for recent generations that did not experience the AIDS epidemic).
  • Additionally, you should synthesize areas of previous research that will be relevant in your literature review.
  • This synthesis should not be a drawn-out in-depth analysis, instead it is brief look at the area of focus and other studies that have also looked at this area of focus.

The second move is to Establish a niche (the problem)

  • Think of establishing the niche as creating the argument of why the research is important and why it needs to be done.
  • This is can be done by referencing gaps in previous research, providing concerns about assumptions in the field, or raising a question.
  • Are there areas in prior research that were overlooked (gap)?
  • Have researchers not examined the relationship between a problem and variable (x)?

The third and final move is Occupying the niche (the solution)

  • This is where you will verbatim state the purpose of the study and what new knowledge you aim to find or present through your literature review.
  • It often follows the format of “this literature review aims to look at…” or “this literature review will…” or “this literature review aims to analyze…”. Any variant of the aforementioned phrases will work clarify to your reader what the literature review will be looking at.

For a literature review focused on depression, an example of “occupying the niche” for your introduction would look like:

“The aim of this literature review is to analyze to what extent depression affects the quality of school work and social relations in college-aged individuals” 


The methods are the how-to book of a literature review. Methods sections are not meant to be a master piece of writing; they are a set of directions that could be followed by another researcher if they wished to replicate your research. The methods also contribute to your ethos as a researcher, demonstrating that you understand how to conduct and analyze data in the ways that are expected for a literature review.

What do I put in my methods section?

Methods sections typically contain the following criteria:

Where you conducted your research

  • databases, search engines (Google Scholar, PubMed, Medline)

What keywords were used in the search bar

  • Using an example of depression in college students, potential keywords you would use while searching would be “depression” “college-aged” “effects of depression” “depression in social life” “depression and school.”

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

  • The most important takeaway for this section is to let the audience know what articles you did or did not use.
  • If you included all articles that pertained to college-aged individuals that would be your inclusion criteria.
  • However, if you did not use articles that looked at adults over a certain age, or articles that mentioned other mental disorders, that would be a part of your exclusion
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria can also include the structure of the study (cohort, RCT, etc.) age of the study, year range, populations studied and region the study was conducted in.  


One of the main objectives of the results section is to report the findings of the study; this should be done in a way where the author’s own point of view or their analysis of the data is not provided.

What do I include in my results section?

  1. Charts, figures, tables (if relevant to the topic; they’re not always necessary)
  2. Detailed description of the results gathered from the different articles used. Note the most important topics and details from each.

Typically, the structure of the results section goes something like this:

Present a result, explain what is means (without providing too much analysis—save that for the discussion), then present the next result and so forth.

Here are some key rules for the results section:

  1. Present your results in an objective manner.
  2. DO include negative results, or results that contradict what you initially thought. This will show areas for possible further research.
  3. Do NOT include your own interpretation of the data.
  4. Avoid including data that does not directly answer your research question(s).

How do I cite my sources in the results?

If you are writing specifically in APA style, make sure that each of your results has the following elements: 1) has the proper citation 2) paraphrased (do not use direct quotations). There are a few ways you can cite in APA. Notice the different places that you can put the citation, based on how you format the sentence.

In the following examples notice the different ways you can cite.

Example 1:

In Coburn, Gonzales, Luecken, and Crnic (2016) their study demonstrated that overall family stress was positively associated with depressive symptoms at the 6-week mark after giving birth.

Example 2:

Prenatal life stress domains were the main indicators that predicted the development of depressive symptoms (Liu, Giallo, Doan, Seidman, & Tronick, 2016).

Example 3:

In Abrams et al. (2009), researchers noted that providers considered the strong family ethic or “familism” found in Latin families is a barrier that inhibits Latina women from seeking formal help.

More information on in-text citations in APA

More information on in-text citations in AMA.

How do I break up all my research?

An important aspect of breaking down and organizing your findings results is to identify themes; these will be headings and subheadings when you format your paper. Themes are developed from the main findings of the results; they are concepts or ideas that reoccur throughout your study of the literature.

It is crucial that before you develop themes that you have first read ALL of the articles you intend to use in your literature review, so you have a clear understanding of the information.

For example, if we look back to our earlier example of postpartum depression in Hispanic women, hypothetical themes that could be drawn from the research are as follows:

  • Negative perceptions of health care professionals
  • Role of family in the development of postpartum depression
  • Perception of mental illness in Latin culture

An example of what would NOT be a theme is

  • Postpartum depression
  • Stress
  • Family

These themes are derived from reoccurring topics that appear in the articles found. It is not possible to develop themes until you have read all the articles—they are shaped by the research itself.

How to format headings and subheadings in APA.

How to format headings and subheadings in AMA.


While the results were meant to report the findings of the study, the discussion is intended to interpret and describe the significance of your findings (USC Libraries). In the most basic of terms your discussion tells the reader the connections (or lack of) between the findings of all the various literature (the studies) you reviewed.

What should I include in my discussion section?

  • Explanation of the major results: This is where you would tell the reader whether or not the results you found are what you expected; make sure to note any surprising findings, or any unexpected patterns and trends.
  • Lots of analysis: Your results section was a fact dump— you were presenting the reader with a lot of information and there was little to no analysis. Your discussion should be the opposite. Analysis is important because it tells the reader what the information you found means. It’s especially important to address any unexpected findings from the articles and interpret what that could potentially mean.
  • Limitations and weaknesses: A sign of a good researcher is being able to acknowledge areas in your research that may have weaknesses. That includes potential biases that would skew your interpretation of the data, or other outside forces that would affect data collection (think time constraints, man-power, funding).
  • Areas for further research: Literature reviews do not intend to give a completely comprehensive understanding of a particular topic. Instead, literature reviews are giving the researcher a better understanding of a topic. By stating areas where further research could be done, you the researcher are opening up the possibility for more research to be conducted, as well as recognizing that your literature review did not answer everything.


The conclusion in the most basic of terms is the wrap up of your literature review. The main thing that should be accomplished in the conclusion is to summarize the main points from your review.

Depending on the expectations of your professor or advisor, the content of the discussion can vary. The conclusion section can also include the following elements:

  • Limitations and weaknesses of the study
  • Areas for further research
  • Gaps in the research


The abstract of a literature review is like the summary on the back of a book. It’s not meant to divulge all the details of the literature review, but it should give the reader an idea of whether or not it is something that pertains to their interests.

Abstracts should include the following:

  • Reason for writing your literature review (Why is there a “need” for this research)
  • Statement the research question(s)
  • Methods used to conduct research (database, keywords)
  • Results (what were the most important or interesting findings from the entire results section?)
  • Significance (what takeaways from your research are important? Is there anything from your research that should be implemented into practice?)


USC Libraries (2020, August 6). Organizing your social sciences research paper.

USC Libraries (2020, August 6). Organizing your social sciences research CARS model paper.

University of Minnesota (2020). Conducting a systematic review.