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Conduct a Literature Review: How Do I Write a Literature Review?

Learn how to conduct and write literature reviews.

The Four Parts of a Literature Review

Now that you have prepared to write your literature review by finding articles and synthesizing key concepts, you're ready to begin writing your literature review. The following are four parts to cover in a literature review. It is important to note that creating a literature review is not formulaic. These four components are important to include but the order and amount of detail will depend on your project. Keep your project's guidelines in mind!

Introduce the General Research Topic

  • Introduce your key concept(s)
  • You can include references to other sources
  • Know your audience: provide enough detail for a researcher who is in your field but may not know the specifics of your research topic. For formal writing, you can assume that your reader has considerable background knowledge of the topic.

Example introductory paragraph:

HIV remains a significant public health problem, with more than 1 million people infected and approximately 14% of infected individuals in the United States unaware of their HIV status. Early and rapid identification of risk behaviors could help to reduce the spread of HIV and prevent outbreaks. HIV researchers, including state and local health departments, commonly use surveys, interviews, and HIV diagnoses data as surveillance tools to monitor HIV epidemiology and risk behaviors.

Young, S. D, Yu, W., & Wang, W. (2019). Toward Automating HIV Identification: Machine learning for rapid identification of HIV Outcomes. UC Office of the President: Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI); a funding opportunity through UC Research Initiatives (UCRI). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1np8x2np.

Discuss and Organize Previous Research

This is the part where you review the literature (articles) you've found. What previous research, perspectives, and/or theories inform your research? There are three main ways you can organize your sources:

Thematically Methodologically Chronologically
Organize your literature review by topic/theme. For example, if your article is about using machine learning to identify risk-behaviors for HIV on social media, you might organize your research into three themes: HIV, machine learning, and gathering data from social media. Focus on the methodologies of previous researchers, especially if your research offers a different methodology. For example, you might present different methodologies for identifying HIV risk-behaviors, and then explain what your methodology has to offer. Present sources in the order that they were published, especially if you want to highlight a trend or development. For example, you might review the evolution of applications of machine learning over the past several years.

*IMPORTANT*: Organization may depend on how your professor has outlined it in your project directions.

Identify a Gap in Previous Research

This is the part where you explain how your research will contribute to current knowledge, or do something that hasn't been done before. You can do this by:

  • Identifying a research area that hasn't been explored
  • Challenging the assumptions or methodologies of previous researchers
  • Proposing an alternative way of examining a particular topic.

You can also agree with another scholar and say you're aiming to demonstrate the validity of their findings.

Example of a researcher challenging the methodologies of previous research:

Although these methods are established and have been generally successful, they also have limitations, including 1) a lag time in reporting, as the tools provide data on behaviors and diagnoses that have already occurred, and typically report these cases months or years after they occur; 2) data quality issues, as existing tools can have missing and/or biased data; and 3) extensive time involvement, as these methods require researchers to engage in a substantial number of hours collecting, analyzing, and reporting data. Therefore, innovative approaches are needed to supplement existing tools and improve HIV surveillance systems.

Young, S. D, Yu, W., & Wang, W. (2019). Toward Automating HIV Identification: Machine learning for rapid identification of HIV Outcomes. UC Office of the President: Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI); a funding opportunity through UC Research Initiatives (UCRI). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1np8x2np

State Your Specific Research Focus

What specific issue or question will your paper address? This part is a response to your identification of the knowledge gap - how does your research fill the gap?

The example below includes information about their methodology because it relates to the knowledge gap they identified:

The objective of this study was to identify whether machine learning approaches can be used to assist a domain expert who manually searches social data for HIV-related content. The machine learning tool would be able to extract free-text social data (e.g., tweets), learn from the coding of a domain expert who identifies HIV-related tweets, and automate this process on a large scale so that it could be conducted rapdily. In order for a machine learning tool to be incorporated into public health settings, the method would need to be both accurate and fast. We therefore sought to test a variety of machine learning methods to determine whether a machine could be given HIV-related tweets and learn how to quickly and accurately use a training dataset to identify new HIV-related social media content.

Young, S. D, Yu, W., & Wang, W. (2019). Toward Automating HIV Identification: Machine learning for rapid identification of HIV Outcomes. UC Office of the President: Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI); a funding opportunity through UC Research Initiatives (UCRI). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1np8x2np

Find a Model

One of the best ways to write a literature review is to use another literature review in your field as a model. Use one of our databases to locate an article that includes a literature review. The literature review is usually included in the introductory section of an article. Sometimes a whole article is a literature review too.

When looking at the example, ask yourself:

  • What is the general research topic?
  • How do they organize their sources?
  • What gap are they trying to fill?
  • What is their thesis, hypothesis, or specific research focus?

Information on this guide was taken from Writing a Literature Review by Kian Ravaei and Taylor Harber from the Writing Instruction + Research Education at UCLA. All content is under a Creative Commons license https://uclalibrary.github.io/research-tips/workshops/writing-a-literature-review/.