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Social Work--Masters

Basic search tips and strategies for Master of Social Work students

Literature Reviews

A literature review is a means of demonstrating an author's knowledge about a particular field of study, including vocabulary, theories, key variables and phenomena, and its methods and history. Conducting a literature review also informs the student of the influential researchers and research groups in the field.

Randolph, Justus J. "A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review." Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation 14.13 (2009): 1-13.

What is a Literature Review?

At the top of this page is a general definition for what a literature review can encompass. Here are some additional criteria for you to consider as you begin to consider research studies to use in the paper that you will write:

  • What has been done: this includes methods, populations, when was it studied?
  • What are the gaps: what aspects haven't been researched?
  • What are you going to do with the information you have found?

When you begin writing your literature review, it should be more than just a summary of what others have done. You need to interact with the research that you find. 

What does this mean for you as a student researcher?

  1. Don't settle for the quickest and easiest search results that you run across.
  2. Research the books and journal articles that you use in a deliberate way (this guide will help with that aspect).
  3. Think critically about the information that you find. What you're doing is much more than just a simple summary of other people's research.
  4. Be able to justify why you are including a research study in your review. How does it influence the research study you would plan or hope to do?
  5. Identify potential risks or benefits of the research methods used and how they might have impacted the study.

What is the Purpose of a Literature Review?

  • distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done
  • discovering important variable relevant to the topic
  • synthesizing and gaining a new perspective
  • identifying relationships between ideas and practices
  • establishing the context of the topic or problem
  • rationalizing the significance of the problem
  • enhancing and acquiring the subject vocabulary
  • understanding the structure of the subject
  • relating ideas and theory to application
  • identifying the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used
  • placing the research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the art developments

Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination. London: Sage Publications, 1998, p.27.

What is Peer-Review?

Peer-reviewed journals and articles are a way of communicating ideas and information within a specific field of study or academic discipline.

Key features:

  • use specialized vocabulary
  • written by scholars and experts for other scholars and experts
  • assumes that readers have basic knowledge of subject area
  • they serve to advance knowledge by introducing new ideas and points of view while remaining in the known field of study
  • articles have been through a screening process to:
    • evaluate the quality of manuscript
    • validate the accuracy of the research methodology and procedures
    •  it may also have been revised under advisement of the peer reviewers
  • articles that don’t meet the standards set by a journal or association are not published

Identifying Peer-Review Articles & Research Studies

A research article is a scholarly article that essentially reports the results of original, primary research and typically appears in peer-reviewed or refereed periodicals. For this reason, research articles are considered the pinnacle of information sources. Research articles are almost always written in the same format. Understanding the format of research articles should help you to more easily navigate databases and select appropriate sources for you to use for your research. Most research articles incorporate five standard elements. The format that research articles follow mirror the research process.

  1. Introduction: summarizes the problem researched, its significance, and the nature of the study
  2. Literature review: provides a framework for understanding the problem and the theoretical rationale behind conducting the study; sources cited are typically listed at the end in some sort of reference page
  3. Methodology: describes how the data were collected, including things like the population studies and the data collection instrument used
  4. Results/findings: presents a summary of the data collected, typically in the form of charts and tables with accompanying narrative
  5. Discussion/conclusion: includes such information as the interpretation of the data, recommendations for further study, and limitations of the study.

Other elements that you many find in research articles are an abstract or summary, information about the author(s), and a list of references. The references can be very helpful in directing your to other possible sources of information.

"The student's survival guide to research," M.L. McAdoo, p. 123-4.

Books About Literature Reviews and Thesis Writing


Source: McLean, Lindsey. "Literature Review." CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments), 2015.