Criteria of a Good Literature Review

The literature review has been reported as the second most deficient chapter in theses by examiners [1]

 Areas in the literature review which are commonly regarded as deficient include the following:

  • Exclusion of landmark studies
  • Emphasis on outdated material
  • Adopting a parochial perspective
    • Not being critical
    • Not discriminating between relevant and irrelevant material
    • Lacking synthesis [1,2]

 There are  three suggestions on how to develop a good literature review:

  • make sure that things aren’t left out by keeping up with all relevant studies in the field.
  • keep reading throughout your thesis production so that your ideas are current.
  • avoid being boring by arranging your review in themes, highlighting findings that are relevant to your thesis. You should be critical of the literature, not just report it.

Your literature review should be something which you, yourself, enjoy reading rather than a boring list of summaries of what you have read. You are an emerging expert on your topic and must show this. You have to be able to demonstrate to fellow scholars that you are familiar with the academic debates in the field, have defined your topic of investigation in an appropriate way and that you have a (albeit modest) contribution to make to the field.

You should be able to show why anyone should care about your topic, raise the problem you have found, and pave the way for an interesting and sound investigation. At Master’s level you are not expected to make an original contribution, develop a new approach or solve a problem in an innovative way. What is expected, is a demonstration of the main academic skills you should have “mastered” at this level.

You should be able to organise the main academic debates and findings in the field. Discuss these in a logical and meaningful structure, i.e. one that has a specific purpose it steers towards and a conceptual thread that binds the sections together. Of course, you should correctly cite all sources mentioned. There are software packages e.g. Endnote or Research Toolbox used for constructing references.

 In a well-constructed literature review, you should demonstrate that you are able to identify:

  1. the major context into which your work will fit
  2. the major stages, developments of the field
  3. the major issues, problems, controversies
  4. the major texts, personalities, and schools
  5. the major methodologies and approaches

Your review should cover the main aspects of the study and be fair in its treatment of authors. The literature review should do justice to the author’s arguments before critiquing them. (You can’t agree or disagree with something if you don’t have a clear idea of what it is you are agreeing or disagreeing with!) It should be topical. It shouldn’t be confined to Internet sources. It should be well organised around the research questions and key concepts rather than being summaries of what you have read. Take note of the authority of authors and the reliability and validity of their methods.

There’s a delicate balance between discussing what others have said and found, and developing your own “voice”. You are neither just listing what others have said, nor are you merely “telling your own story” – you need to demonstrate that you have an informed voice. So, don’t quote too many studies or always begin with “Smith (1999) found that ……”, as it takes away the focus of your own argument onto that of others. It is better to develop a theme and then cite the work of relevant authors to buttress your argument. Using your own words to describe difficult concepts will help convince yourself and others that you really understand the material.

In summary:

  • The literature review should be specific, current and of historical interest, coherent, interesting and well organised around the research questions and key concepts rather than being summaries of what you have read. It should be a critical discussion of relevant information from different sources.
  • Don’t be tempted to report everything you know – be selective about what you report.
  • Every reference you use must build on the evidence you are presenting to support your ‘case’.


Bak, N. (2003). Guide to academic writing (pp.29-30).University of the Western Cape. retrieved from link

 The references listed by the auther:

  1. Bruce, C. S. (1996). Supervising Literature Reviews. In O. Zuber-Skerritt and Y. Ryan (eds.) Quality in Postgraduate Education. London: Kegan Page. Pp 213-222.
  2. Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (1997). Supervising the PhD: A Guide to Success.Buckingham: Open University Press.

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