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What is a Literature Review?

The scholarly conversation.

A literature review provides an overview of previous research on a topic that critically evaluates, classifies, and compares what has already been published on a particular topic. It allows the author to synthesize and place into context the research and scholarly literature relevant to the topic. It helps map the different approaches to a given question and reveals patterns. It forms the foundation for the author’s subsequent research and justifies the significance of the new investigation.

A literature review can be a short introductory section of a research article or a report or policy paper that focuses on recent research. Or, in the case of dissertations, theses, and review articles, it can be an extensive review of all relevant research.

Key Questions for a Literature Review

A literature review should try to answer questions such as

Examples of Literature Reviews

Example of a literature review at the beginning of an article: Forbes, C. C., Blanchard, C. M., Mummery, W. K., & Courneya, K. S. (2015, March). Prevalence and correlates of strength exercise among breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer survivors . Oncology Nursing Forum, 42(2), 118+. Retrieved from Example of a comprehensive review of the literature: Wilson, J. L. (2016). An exploration of bullying behaviours in nursing: a review of the literature.   British Journal Of Nursing ,  25 (6), 303-306. For additional examples, see:

Galvan, J., Galvan, M., & ProQuest. (2017). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences (Seventh ed.). [Electronic book]

Pan, M., & Lopez, M. (2008). Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Pub. [ Q180.55.E9 P36 2008]

Useful Links

Evidence Matrix for Literature Reviews

The  Evidence Matrix  can help you  organize your research  before writing your lit review.  Use it to  identify patterns  and commonalities in the articles you have found--similar methodologies ?  common  theoretical frameworks ? It helps you make sure that all your major concepts covered. It also helps you see how your research fits into the context  of the overall topic.

Penfield Library Home Page

Psychology Research Guide

Conducting Literature Reviews

Finding literature reviews in psycinfo, more help on conducting literature reviews.

Quick Links

The APA definition of a literature review (from ):

 Survey of previously published literature on a particular topic to define and clarify a particular problem; summarize previous investigations; and to identify relations, contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies in the literature, and suggest the next step in solving the problem.

 Literature Reviews should:

Because literature reviews are a major part of research in psychology, Psycinfo allows you to easily limit to literature reviews.  In the advanced search screen, you can select "literature review" as the methodology.

Now all you'll need to do is enter your search terms, and your results should show you many literature reviews conducted by professionals on your topic.

When you find an literature review article that is relevant to your topic, you should look at who the authors cite and who is citing the author, so that you can begin to use their research to help you locate sources and conduct your own literature review.  The best way to do that is to use the "Cited References" and "Times Cited" links in Psycinfo, which is pictured below.

This article on procrastination has 423 references, and 48 other articles in psycinfo are citing this literature review.  And, the citations are either available in full text or to request through ILL.  Check out  the article "The Nature of Procrastination" to see how these features work.

By searching for existing literature reviews, and then using the references of those literature reviews to begin your own literature search, you can efficiently gather the best research on a topic.  You'll want to keep in mind that you'll need to summarize and analyze the articles you read, and won't be able to use every single article you choose.

You can use the search box below to get started.

Adelphi Library's tutorial, Conducting a Literature Review in Education and the Behavioral Sciences covers how to gather sources from library databases for your literature review.

The University of Toronto also provides "A Few Tips on Conducting a Literature Review" that offers some good advice and questions to ask when conducting a literature review.

Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL) has several resources that discuss literature reviews:   (for grad students, but is still offers some good tips and advice for anyone writing a literature review)

Journal articles (covers more than 1,700 periodicals), chapters, books, dissertations and reports on psychology and related fields.

Writing Research Papers

When writing a research paper on a specific topic, you will often need to include an overview of any prior research that has been conducted on that topic.  For example, if your research paper is describing an experiment on fear conditioning, then you will probably need to provide an overview of prior research on fear conditioning.  That overview is typically known as a literature review.  

Please note that a full-length literature review article may be suitable for fulfilling the requirements for the Psychology B.S. Degree Research Paper .  For further details, please check with your faculty advisor.

Different Types of Literature Reviews

Literature reviews come in many forms.  They can be part of a research paper, for example as part of the Introduction section.  They can be one chapter of a doctoral dissertation.  Literature reviews can also “stand alone” as separate articles by themselves.  For instance, some journals such as Annual Review of Psychology , Psychological Bulletin , and others typically publish full-length review articles.  Similarly, in courses at UCSD, you may be asked to write a research paper that is itself a literature review (such as, with an instructor’s permission, in fulfillment of the B.S. Degree Research Paper requirement). Alternatively, you may be expected to include a literature review as part of a larger research paper (such as part of an Honors Thesis). 

Literature reviews can be written using a variety of different styles.  These may differ in the way prior research is reviewed as well as the way in which the literature review is organized.  Examples of stylistic variations in literature reviews include: 

Overall, all literature reviews, whether they are written as a part of a larger work or as separate articles unto themselves, have a common feature: they do not present new research; rather, they provide an overview of prior research on a specific topic . 

How to Write a Literature Review

When writing a literature review, it can be helpful to rely on the following steps.  Please note that these procedures are not necessarily only for writing a literature review that becomes part of a larger article; they can also be used for writing a full-length article that is itself a literature review (although such reviews are typically more detailed and exhaustive; for more information please refer to the Further Resources section of this page).

Steps for Writing a Literature Review

1. Identify and define the topic that you will be reviewing.

The topic, which is commonly a research question (or problem) of some kind, needs to be identified and defined as clearly as possible.  You need to have an idea of what you will be reviewing in order to effectively search for references and to write a coherent summary of the research on it.  At this stage it can be helpful to write down a description of the research question, area, or topic that you will be reviewing, as well as to identify any keywords that you will be using to search for relevant research.

2. Conduct a literature search.

Use a range of keywords to search databases such as PsycINFO and any others that may contain relevant articles.  You should focus on peer-reviewed, scholarly articles.  Published books may also be helpful, but keep in mind that peer-reviewed articles are widely considered to be the “gold standard” of scientific research.  Read through titles and abstracts, select and obtain articles (that is, download, copy, or print them out), and save your searches as needed.  For more information about this step, please see the Using Databases and Finding Scholarly References section of this website.

3. Read through the research that you have found and take notes.

Absorb as much information as you can.  Read through the articles and books that you have found, and as you do, take notes.  The notes should include anything that will be helpful in advancing your own thinking about the topic and in helping you write the literature review (such as key points, ideas, or even page numbers that index key information).  Some references may turn out to be more helpful than others; you may notice patterns or striking contrasts between different sources ; and some sources may refer to yet other sources of potential interest.  This is often the most time-consuming part of the review process.  However, it is also where you get to learn about the topic in great detail.  For more details about taking notes, please see the “Reading Sources and Taking Notes” section of the Finding Scholarly References page of this website.

4. Organize your notes and thoughts; create an outline.

At this stage, you are close to writing the review itself.  However, it is often helpful to first reflect on all the reading that you have done.  What patterns stand out?  Do the different sources converge on a consensus?  Or not?  What unresolved questions still remain?  You should look over your notes (it may also be helpful to reorganize them), and as you do, to think about how you will present this research in your literature review.  Are you going to summarize or critically evaluate?  Are you going to use a chronological or other type of organizational structure?  It can also be helpful to create an outline of how your literature review will be structured.

5. Write the literature review itself and edit and revise as needed.

The final stage involves writing.  When writing, keep in mind that literature reviews are generally characterized by a summary style in which prior research is described sufficiently to explain critical findings but does not include a high level of detail (if readers want to learn about all the specific details of a study, then they can look up the references that you cite and read the original articles themselves).  However, the degree of emphasis that is given to individual studies may vary (more or less detail may be warranted depending on how critical or unique a given study was).   After you have written a first draft, you should read it carefully and then edit and revise as needed.  You may need to repeat this process more than once.  It may be helpful to have another person read through your draft(s) and provide feedback.

6. Incorporate the literature review into your research paper draft.

After the literature review is complete, you should incorporate it into your research paper (if you are writing the review as one component of a larger paper).  Depending on the stage at which your paper is at, this may involve merging your literature review into a partially complete Introduction section, writing the rest of the paper around the literature review, or other processes.

Further Tips for Writing a Literature Review

Full-length literature reviews

Literature reviews as part of a larger paper

Benefits of Literature Reviews

By summarizing prior research on a topic, literature reviews have multiple benefits.  These include:

Downloadable Resources

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

External Resources

1 Ashton, W. Writing a short literature review . [PDF]     

2 carver, l. (2014).  writing the research paper [workshop]. , prepared by s. c. pan for ucsd psychology.

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PSY 306: Cognitive Psychology

What purpose does a literature review serve?

literature review psychology meaning


Psychology - How to Write a Literature Review

Subject guide.

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What is a literature review? 

A literature review discusses published research studies on a specific topic or subject area.  

What is the purpose of writing it?

The goal of the lit review is to describe, summarize, and evaluate previous research in a given area.  It should explain important conclusions about your topic as well as identify any gaps in the research or areas for future study.

Choose a Topic and Find Articles

Choose a topic that interests you and remember to keep an open mind.  Depending on how much research there is, you may need to narrow or broaden your topic.  

Cover Art

Read the Articles

You want to read and understand each of your articles.  A good starting point is to answer these 3 questions about each article:

1. What was the study's research question?  In other words, what were they trying to find out?

2. What was the study's method?  Briefly describe HOW they collected data and WHO their participant group was.

3. What do the results mean?  Or what conclusions can we draw from the results?

Write the Lit Review

Connect:   Think about what YOUR research question is for your lit review.  Each article you found should connect to your topic/theme in some way and you should be able to describe your topic as a research question and your articles as answers to that question.  Your summary for each article should show how they further our knowledge in relation to your topic.

Organize:   Can you organize your articles into a few distinct groups?  It could be by treatment method or age/ethnic group or other factor.  The way you organize will depend on your topic and the research, but it will help you if you can group articles in some way.  

Analyze:  Think beyond just summary and about what we still don't know about this topic.  Are there gaps in the research?  Do too many studies use just one method of gathering data?  What else is important to know?  The "Discussion" section of your articles may help guide you in your analysis.

Additional Sources

Psychology Research Portal

It is the University’s expectation that only those who are well and not presenting with COVID-19 symptoms attend a Monash campus or location. View our latest updates .

C. The literature review

A good literature review synthesizes the research and presents an overview of the current level of understanding in a particular field to form the context for your research project. Once you have done an initial search of the literature to narrow down your ideas, it is time to conduct a more thorough review of the literature. Understanding the literature requires you to read, re-read, and think about complex ideas to help formulate a comprehensive review.

Literature reviews generally start with more general ideas and then become more specific. They usually start with an overview of the field and then funnel down into your specific research question. When discussing past research, the emphasis is on integration and interpretation of primary research articles by identifying key themes, trends, issues or comparisons. It is not simply a summary of each individual article. Below are some key components of the literature review.

A thorough literature search is essential in ensuring a comprehensive review. There should be sufficient research evidence on the subject in terms of both the quantity and diversity of sources.

Research should be synthesized and wide-ranging. Ideas should be presented in terms of themes rather than just a summary of individual studies.

Critical thinking

There should be a degree of critical thinking including evaluations and questions of the literature.

The review should lead logically into your specific research question.

Click the button below to view a general literature review structure. Please note that the required structure may vary depending on your enrolled course.


All sources should be adequately referenced. For information on how to cite and reference, review Monash Library's "Psychology Citing and Referencing guide."

University of Houston Libraries

Psyc 2305 - introduction to research methods in psychology.

What is a Literature Review?

If this is your first time having to do a literature review, you might be wondering what a "literature review" actually is. This page will help you gain a better understanding of what a literature review is, why it is helpful to do one, and how you might go about it. Watch the following video to start learning more.

Video Transcript

Beginning Your Search

Once you have refined your topic into a proper research question, you can begin your search for your literature review. The first step in this process is deciding where is the best place for you to search to find the information that you need. The following video explains the difference between what you can find with Google and what you can find in the libraries' research databases.

Ultimately, because you are primarily searching for academic literature related to your research topic in psychology, you'll mostly be looking in the libraries' research databases. The following databases are a good place to start to find scholarly articles and other research literature that might relate to your topic for PSYC 2305. Read the database descriptions to decide which are the most appropriate databases for you to search in.

Full Text

Searching in Databases

As you start to search in library databases, you’ll be making use of search terms to help you find what you need. Keep in mind that when you want to do a narrower, more focused search that gives you highly relevant results, you will want to combine multiple search terms or phrases. The downside of this approach can be that you may only get a few results or none at all. When combining search terms, you will need to be careful about which words you combine, how many you use, and how you combine them. It’s generally best practice to keep it limited to 2 to 4 words or phrases. The important thing to remember is that a literature search is an iterative process.   Expect yourself to test different search terms back and forth a couple of times in different databases.

Watch the following video to learn more about developing effective search terms:

If you want to learn more about developing search terms and other search strategies that will help you find the information you need, you can complete the Search Terms and Strategies online lesson, or use the worksheet to guide your process.

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Literature Review - Psychology

steps for literature review

This page provides some literature review pointers, including links to resources that provide in-depth literature review help. For one-to-one support, please get in touch with the Library here . 

Start your literature review early

Your literature review will help you to find out what is already known about the topic you are investigating and will enable you to understand your research topic thoroughly. It may help you to avoid inadvertently replicating work that has already been done. It will help you to answer that important question: Which areas deserve further investigation? 

You can learn more about the  literature review in this handy video from North Carolina State University Library:

Be systematic


steps for literature review

Approach your literature review in an objective, methodical and structured manner. Plan what you are doing in a way that you could describe so that somebody else could replicate what you have done.

Define your research topic, and frame it as a question

Clarify your research question. What is the scope and purpose of your research topic? What criteria are you including and excluding in your question?

Stay current

For longer pieces of work, set up current awareness alerts in the major databases.


books with a mouse

❗Where to find resources?

To search for peer-reviewed journal articles, make use of the variety of databases available to you, including PsycINFO, PubMed, Scopus and Web of Science. They do not all index the same material, so by interrogating them all, you will cover more bases. Also  visit A-Z Databases, for Psychology subject, and access the list of databases the University of Cambridge offer to you.

Identify the key journal/s in your area of interest and look through some individual issues to get a broader perspective on the area.

To search for books, try major catalogues such as  COPAC  or  WorldCat .

Consider other sources, such as websites and blogs. Google Scholar is worth searching, but bear in mind its limitations. It has limited ontological knowledge, and it searches broadly. It will also retrieve non-peer reviewed material.

Cambridge Libraries catalogue 

A-z databases libguide.

If you are having difficulty retrieving the full text of relevant material, please get in touch with the  Library by email here .

❗Searching the literature

The LibGuide for student skills has excellent content to support you during your literature searching.

❗ Manage your results

The recommended style for citations and referencing for research projects or dissertations for the undergraduate courses offered by the Department of Psychology is APA.

Use reference management software, such as Zotero , Mendeley or EndNote. The UIS provides software training (self-paced) for referencing management software (Zotero, Mendeley and EndNote).

If you need extra help, go to  the comprehensive guide to referencing,   Cite Them Right Online avaliable here .

Extra help needed? 

There is help on how to critically appraise material on the  Psychology Library Guide.

Please book 1/1 support with the Librarian,  contact us .

Links to literature review chapters

Ford, N. (2012). How to do a literature review. In The essential guide to using the web for research. SAGE.

Reardon, D.F. (2006). The literature review. In Doing your undergraduate research project. SAGE.

Thomas, D.R. and Hodges, I.D. (2010). Doing a literature review. In Designing and Managing Your Research Project: Core Skills for Social and Health Research. SAGE.

Bell, J. (2010). Doing your research project: A guide for first-time researchers in education, health and social science (5th ed.). Open University Press.   See especially Part 1, Chapter 5.

The Psychology Library has multiple copies of Sternberg, R.J. and Sternberg, K. (2010). The psychologist's companion: a guide to writing scientific papers for students and researchers . 5th edition. Cambridge University Press (Psychology Main Library class mark T.1.2 ). This book gives excellent advice on how to write clearly, and it includes a chapter on commonly misused words.  It is also available as an ebook ; to access this, go to  IDiscover .

SAGE Research Methods Online

A fabulous  library  of over 800 books on all aspects of research, including:.

The Sage Handbook of Early Childhood Research

Restarting Stalled Research

Creating and Verifying Data Sets with Excel

Research Ethics and Integrity for Social Scientist: Beyond Regulatory Compliance


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