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CMST 365 (Mullan)

A research guide for CMST 365 students at ESU.

Literature Reviews

A literature review is a systematic examination of the existing research on a particular topic. It acknowledges the work of previous researchers and puts that work in the context of a particular research problem. It is often used to provide the framework for a particular topic. A good literature review will incorporate the following:

  • analyze the research already done,
  • identify strengths and weaknesses in that research,
  • see the connections and discrepancies in the research, and
  • identify gaps where further research is needed.


Additionally, writing a literature review demonstrates that you are familiar with the scholarly body of work in your area of interest. It is usually written in essay style and is often organized by themes or trends in the research.


When writing a literature review, your observations and analysis of the research you are describing are expected. If someone is reading your review, they don't want to have to go read all of the original articles. You should have fair summations of what each article you're describing concluded and be able to describe how that conclusion is or is not relevant/important.


Literature reviews should not be persuasive arguments. They don't pick sides, but discuss the points of views on all sides of a debate/issue.

It is not a list of resources, a bibliography, or an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography is a list of citations to resources that includes a brief descriptive or evaluative summary of that resource. It is generally arranged alphabetically.

Writing a literature review will take time. You have to collect and analyze multiple articles, books, etc. to ensure you are reviewing all the research relevant to your topic, so it best to start early. The process of writing a literature review usually involves the following steps:

  1. Defining your research question
  2. Planning your approach to your research & your review
  3. Searching the literature
  4. Analyzing the literature you’ve found
  5. Managing the results of your research
  6. Writing your review

Steps 4 and 5 are interchangeable.  You'll want to manage your citations and searches as you go so you don't have to repeat your work.

Before you begin writing your literature review, I recommend reading a few, particularly those in your topic field.

  • Here is a link to Justus J. Randolph of Walden University's article A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review which you may find to have some useful information. He goes into Cooper's Taxonomy more as well.
  • You may also find this guide by Helen Mongan-Rallis at Duluth UMN to have good advice.

Want to see an example of a literature review?

  • Check out one of the ESU masters theses available at the library.
  • Go to ProQuests Open Dissertation (PQDT Openweb site where you can read the full text of dissertations, including the literature review chapter
  • For an example of a review article check out the Annual Review of Psychology which published review articles on specific topics in psychology.
  • This meta-analysis of OER literature by John Hilton III is a type of literature review

The below chart, called Copper's Taxonomy, lists some questions you should ask yourself before beginning a Literature Review.

For example, the first row, "FOCUS," is asking what outcomes, methods, theories or practices your literature review is about. Are you tracking the outcomes of previous studies, the methods that have been used over time, or something else?

Using this chart can help you organize your thoughts both before and as you perform your research.

CHARACTERISTIC                       CATEGORIES (only some will apply)

Research Methods

Research Outcomes


Practices or Applications



  (a) Generalization

  (b) Conflict Resolution

  (c) Linguistic bridge-building


Identification of Central Issues


Neutral Representation

Espousal of Position



Exhaustive with Selective Citation


Central or Pivotal






Specialized Scholars

General Scholars

Practitioners or Policymakers

General Public

Source: “Organizing Knowledge Synthesis: A Taxonomy of Literature Reviews,” by H.M. Cooper, 1988, Knowledge in Society, 1, p. 109.

These are questions to consider when doing your research. They don't all need to be answered, but they will help you focus your research:

  • Which of these characteristics seem to fit within your field?
  • What would you like your Literature Review/thesis/dissertation to accomplish?
  • Is your aim to influence theory within your field, or have specific application?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Does your field necessitate a particular perspective?
  • How does your field typically organize its findings?
  • What is known about the subject?
  • Are there any gaps in the research of/on the subject?
  • Have areas of further study been identified by other researchers that you may want to consider?
  • Who are the significant research individuals in this area?
  • Is there consensus about the topic?
  • What aspects have generated significant debate on the topic?
  • What methods or problems were identified by others studying in the field and how might they impact your research?
  • What is the most productive methodology for your research based on the literature you have reviewed?
  • What is the current status of research in this area?
  • What sources of information or data were identified that might be useful to you?
  • How detailed? Will it be a review of ALL relevant material or will the scope be limited to more recent material, e.g., the last five years.
  • Are you focusing on methodological approaches; on theoretical issues; on qualitative or quantitative research?