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How to Write a Literature Review

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Abstract

Learning how to effectively write a literature review is a critical tool for success for an academic, and perhaps even professional career. Being able to summarize and synthesize prior research pertaining to a certain topic not only demonstrates having a good grasp on available information for a topic, but it also assists in the learning process. Although literature reviews are important for one’s academic career, they are often misunderstood and underdeveloped. This article is intended to provide both undergraduate and graduate students in the criminal justice field specifically, and social sciences more generally, skills and perspectives on how to develop and/or strengthen their skills in writing a literature review. Included in this discussion are foci on the structure, process, and art of writing a literature review.
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How to Write a Literature Review
Andrew S. Denney & Richard Tewksbury
Version of record first published: 11 Oct 2012.
To cite this article: Andrew S. Denney & Richard Tewksbury (2012): How to Write a Literature
Review, Journal of Criminal Justice Education, DOI:10.1080/10511253.2012.730617
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How to Write a Literature Review
Andrew S. Denney and Richard Tewksbury
Learning how to effectively write a literature review is a critical tool for
success for an academic, and perhaps even professional career. Being able to
summarize and synthesize prior research pertaining to a certain topic not only
demonstrates having a good grasp on available information for a topic, but it
also assists in the learning process. Although literature reviews are important
for one’s academic career, they are often misunderstood and underdeveloped.
This article is intended to provide both undergraduate and graduate students
in the criminal justice field specifically, and social sciences more generally,
skills and perspectives on how to develop and/or strengthen their skills in
writing a literature review. Included in this discussion are foci on the struc-
ture, process, and art of writing a literature review.
What is a Literature Review?
In essence, a litera ture review is a comprehensive overview of prior research
regarding a specific topic. The overview both shows the reader what is known
about a topic, and what is not yet known, thereby setting up the rationale or
need for a new investigation, which is what the actual study to which the liter-
ature review is attached seeks to do. Stated a bit differently (Creswell 1994,
pp. 20, 21) explains:
The literature in a research study accomplishes several purposes: (a) It
shares with the reader the results of other studies that are closely related
to the study being reported (Fraenkel & Wallen, 1990. (b) It relates a study
to the larger, ongoing dialog in the literature about a topic, filling in gaps
and extending prior studies (Marshall & Rossman, 1989). (c) It provides a
framework for establishing the importance of the study.
As an overview, a well done literature review includes all of the main
themes and subthemes found within the general topic chosen for the study.
These themes and subthemes are usually interwoven with the methods or find-
ings of the prior research. Als o, a literature review sets the stage for and
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offers readers justifications for the purpose and methods of the original
research being reported in a manuscript. Said a bit differently, “The literature
review is where you identify the theories and previous research which have
influenced your choice of research topic and the methodology you are choosing
to adopt” (Ridley, 2008, p. 2).
The most common and most appropriate sources to draw upon and use as
evidence in a review of a topic are articles found in academic journals and
books. Howeve r, the availability of academic journal articles may vary tremen-
dously depending on the research topic chosen. Other commonly accepted
resources to use are governmental publications and newspaper articles to just
name a few. The literature review needs to identify and discuss/explain all of
the main points or findings of a specific topic. Also, both classic (if available)
and the most recent studies need to be included to demonstrate an in-depth
understanding of the topic at hand.
Why is it Important?
Literature reviews are important for a number of reasons. Primarily, literature
reviews force a writer to educate him/herself on as much information as possi-
ble pertaining to the topic chosen. This will both assist in the learning process,
and it will also help make the writing as strong as possible by knowing what
has/has not been both studied and established as knowledge in prior research.
Second, literature reviews demonstrate to readers that the author has a firm
understanding of the topic. This provides credibility to the author and integrity
to the work’s overall argument. And, by reviewing and reporting on all prior
literature, weaknesses and shortcomings of prior literature will become more
apparent. This will not only assist in finding or arguing for the need for a par-
ticular research question to explore, but will also help in better forming the
argument for why further research is needed. In this way, the literature review
of a research report “foreshadows the researcher’s own study” (Berg, 2009,
p. 388).
It is important to keep in mind that it is not realistic to expect readers to
be familiar w ith all of the relevant background and pre-existing knowledge
about any topic. Scientific knowledge (about all topics) accumulates rapidly,
and keeping up on any topic can be a challenge. This is not a new idea, three
decades ago (Cooper, 1984, p. 9) argued:
Given the cumulative nature of science, trustworthy accounts of past
research form a necessary condition for orderly knowledge building. Yet,
research methods textbooks in the social sciences show a remarkable lack
of attention to how an inquirer finds, evaluates, and integrates past
research. This inattention is especially troubling today because the social
sciences have recently undergone a huge increase in the amount of research
being conducted (T)he need for trustworthy accounts of past research is
also strengthened by growing specialization with the social sciences.
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In regards to the professional importance of a good literature review for a
manuscript that reports on the results of an original research project, it may
be important to know that literature reviews are commonly focused upon com-
ponents of manuscripts under review for publication. In a survey of criminal
justice and criminology journal manuscript, reviewers Mustaine and Tewksbury
(2008) reported that more than three-quarters (76.9%) of manuscript reviewers
say that the quality of a manuscript’s literature review is an important influ-
ence on their review. Similarly, surveyed criminal justice and sociology journal
editors report that the literature review in a manuscript is a highly important
aspect of a manuscript (Mustaine & Tewksbury, in press). And, when looking
just at the content of reviews for manuscripts at the top tier journal Justice
Quarterly, problems with literature reviews are the fourth (of nine) most com-
monly criticized portions of reviewed manuscripts , with fully 57% of manu-
scripts cited for problems in the literature review (Tewksbury & Mustaine,
2012). Interestingly, it is the graduate students and assistant professors who,
as manuscript reviewers, are most likely to cite problems with reviewed manu-
scripts’ literature reviews.
What Does a Literature Review Include?
First and foremost, literature reviews include a comprehensive overview of a
general topic. For example, if there was a study on whether alcohol abuse
leads to the tendency to c ommit violent crimes, then it would need to have an
overview of substance abuse issues (not just alcohol abuse) and how such may
influence all types of crime. First, the review of this literature should start
with the general topic of substance abuse and how it influences committing all
types of crime. Then, it should discuss different types of substance abuse (i.e.
prescription drug abuse, alcohol abuse, etc.). Next, it would need to discuss
the influence of substance abuse on general types of crime (i.e. petty theft,
property crimes, violent crimes, etc.). Finally, it would need to focus on the
primary subtopics of alco hol abuse (i.e. psychological affects, behavioral
affects, etc.) and its direct influence on committing violent crimes. In essence,
the literature review goes from a broad overview to a specific focus by using
subtopics of the general research question to guide the focus to a specific
research question that the author wants to address.
One important characteristic of the review of the literature on a particular
topic that is somewhat different from articles or manuscripts that report on
the findings of individual studies is that whereas reports of individual studies
almost always report findings that show the existence of a relationship, a liter-
ature review may conclude that there actually is not a relationship between
particular concepts, variables, or issues (Baumeister & Leary, 1997). In this
way, a literature review may be important for what it tells readers we know is
not present in the social world.
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What Various Foci Should a Literature Review Take?
Literature reviews can take on a number of different focuses that vary accord-
ing to the type of research question that the review functions to set up in the
current study. The primary focus will be related to the individual concepts of
the general research question. However, how this is done will differ from study
to study. Also, it is important that these concepts cover the entire (relevant
and related) scope of previous literature pertaining to the current research
topic, even if it does not directly coincide with it. When identify ing and dis-
cussing/explaining these concepts, be sure to emphasize the findings of prior
studies, or what the contribution to our knowledge about the topic is for each
study. These reported findings should fall under the overarching concepts for
the general research topic, and they should not be listed one after another.
Rather, a literature review should educate the reader about what individual
studies have contributed to our accumulated knowledge, but do so with a
focus on discussing concepts or themes or types of issues related to the gen-
eral topic. Generally speaking, literature reviews will have one of the three
types of focuses (Coope r, 1984). Reviews may be integrative (summarizing past
research based on overall conclusions of the past research), theor etical (iden-
tifying and critiquing the ability of different theories to explain a phenomenon,
or methodological (highlighting diffe rent methodological approaches used in
past research and the contributions of each type of research) in focus.
Regardless of the specific focus, it is crucial that there is a flow throughout
the literature review, connecting the concepts somewhat seamlessly. A com-
mon error that reflects a mistargeted literature review is to string together a
series of sentences or paragraphs that tell the reader study A found this, study
B found this, and study C found this. A literature review should not read like a
series of annotations about individual studies/articles. A litera ture review must
have a clear focus on what the research question is that is going to be studied,
and the organization of the discussion should lead the reader from the very
broad general topic down to the specific issue about which a manuscript is
going to report a new piece of research. In this way, by the end of the litera-
ture review, the reader should have a solid understanding of what is already
known about the topic, what is not yet known, and therefore a good idea of
what exactly the current study is going to examine, and why.
What are Qualitative and Quantitative studies?
All research studies fall into one of two bas ic categories. These are the two
categories of qualitative and quantita tive studies. Qualitative studies are
typically those that wish to gain understanding regarding the interactions
that take place within a certain social world. For example, someone wanting
to study how gang leaders function in their world, how they interact with
others (including gang members, leaders of other gangs, and regular people)
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and how they perceive their role in the community would find that a quali-
tative approach would be best. Some of the most common ways to conduct
a qualitative study are observation, participant observation, and interviews.
It is best to think of qualitative studies as wanting to understand the actual
ways that a social world functions and how the participants in a particular
social world go about living, working, interacting, and feeling about their
place in that setting.
A quantitative study is where researchers typically want to identify whether
or not a statistical relationship exists between variables and how strong or pre-
valent such a relationship is. For example, if someon e wants to understand the
relationship between individuals’ level of education and their tendency to
commit property crime, then they would most likely have to examine this rela-
tionship through the quantitative approach. The most common w ay that this
study would be conducted would be to use a survey or to construct measures
of educational achievement and crimes committed from official sources, and
then conduct statistical analyses to identify any potential relationships
between the variables of education and crime type. Surveys in criminal justice
and criminology official records are the most common form of data used for
statistical analysis in quantitative social science studies.
Whether the project at hand is a qualitative or quantitative study has a
strong influence on the general design of the literature review that accompa-
nies the reporting of a study (see Randolph, 2009). The research question typi-
cally dict ates what type of method s a study will have to use (i.e. qualitative
or quantitative). This topic will be addres sed in further detail in the section
below.
Differences Between Writing Literature Reviews for Quantitative and
Qualitative Studies
Qualitative
Whether the research question is qualitative or quantitative, heavily deter-
mines how a literature review should be constructed. For qualitative research
questions, literature reviews need to focus on how a research question—— that
is usually broader than a hypothesis to be tested in a quantitative study—— is
shown to be needed to be addressed. This means that in a literature review
for a qualitative study, there needs to be an all inclusive approach to the gen-
eral research topic. In continuance with the above example, if the research
question is how alco hol abuse influences the tendency to commit violent
crime, then it would be necessary to include the general theme of substance
abuse and how it influences committing all forms of crime. Additionally, there
needs to be only a minor degree of focus on the methods of previous studies
and more focus on the specific findings of prior studies. This is a key difference
between qualitative and quantitative that will be discussed in further detail in
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the quantitative section. It is also important to discuss whether or not prior
quantitative studies have been conducted on the current research topic. If
there has been, then it is essential that there is a discussion or an explanation
of why it is important for the re search question being set up by the literature
review to use a qualitative approach instead of a quantitative approach. This
will help strengthen the argument for the current research and convince a
reader that the new study being reported on is in fact important and contribut-
ing to the accumulation of knowledge about the topic at hand. Remember,
although different, the two types of studies (quantitative and qualitative) can
greatly strengthen each other and work together to provide a more complete
understanding of the desired research topic.
It is also important to remember that each research type has its own set of
limitations. For qualitative studies, the limitations generally are related to par-
ticularistic (i.e. small) samples or perhaps even a small scope of settings that
are examined. It is often the case with qualitative studies that the literature
review will borrow from several different themes or arguments to construct
one all-inclusive theme. This all-inclusive theme will help in demonstrating
why a new approach that prior studies have not done or completed is needed.
By drawing on multiple themes/arguments, it will simultaneously strengthen
the argument being made throughout the current study and give confidence to
the readers that the current topic has been researched in great depth.
Quantitative
Literature reviews for quantitative studies need to discuss both what previous
studies pertaining to the research topic have found/concluded and how such
studies were done in terms of the specific variables used and the operational-
izations of key (especially dependent) variables. Reviews used to introduce
and set up quantitative studies also focus more heavily on the methods used in
prior studies when compared to qualitative studies. The methods that need to
be present in the literature review are both those that in previous studies are
common as well as those that represent new “advances” in how to do a partic-
ular conceptual definition, measurement, or analysis. This will primarily
depend on the specific variables and how prior research has been conducted
on the resear ch topic.
It may be best to think of quantitative literature reviews as defining and
describing the shapes of pieces of a puzzle in order to construc t the complete
focus of the intended research topic. Here, the literature review will need to
show how particular variables and/or findings are common (or not) across the
field of existing studies about the current research topic. By providing
documentation of particular variables and findings, this approac h facilitates
readers having more confidence in the validity and reliability of the findings in
the current study.
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Outlining the Literature Review
Now that it is clear that literature reviews vary depending on the type of
research question being investigated by a study, it is necessary to discuss the
process of outlining. Outlining is perhaps the most important step in writing a
successful literature review. Having a well-thought and planned outline will
assist in searching for necessary types of information and sources, save time
while writing, and allow for a clearer and stronger argument for readers.
Although most people hear the word “ou tline” and become worried and
overwhelmed with properly ordering ideas, being certain they have a point #2
for every point #1, being sure that a subpoint A is followed by a subpoint B,
etc., such strict structures are not necessary. Outlines are important, for as
Machi and McEvoy (2009, p. 134) explain: “Outlining serves three purposes. It
acts as (a) a mechanism for integrating and transforming ideas, (b) a mecha-
nism of sequencing those ideas, and (c) a general plan for the composition.”
The outline is simply the map of what you intend to discuss, and how.
The first step in creating an outline is choosing a general topic to study. This
topic needs to be general because choosing a limited topic at the outset might
severely reduce the amount and quality of sources to be found, and might
even lead to wasting a fair amount of time. The key is choosing something of
interest without too specific of a focus. For example, if one’s interest was in
felon disenfranchisement, the y would not choose only felon disenfranchise-
ment as the topic to be reviewed. This is too narrow of a topic that is likely to
yield a relatively small body of wor k and sources to draw upon, and therefore,
will be too limiting in allowing the writer to establish an overview of the topic.
As a result, it would be more appropriate to focus on a topic such as collateral
consequences of felony convictions. These are two subcategories that are
somewhat broad, but not too much to where it will hinder the process of iden-
tifying and discussing existing knowledge and sources of information. Also,
each subcategory has several different subtopics/themes within that could be
the focus of an entirely new study. It is also important to remember that it is
okay to modify, revise, or refocus the topic after initially choosing one. This is
a natural progression of developing an outline. New ide as and research ques-
tions will likely emerge throughout the entire outlining process, perhaps even
when it is thought to be nearly complete. This emergence of new ideas and
research questions will do nothing but strengthen the scope and soundness of
the argument for the current study.
The second process in outlining is adding evidence to the general topic,
leading to a more specific focus. This will also become a natural progression
from finding what the general topic will be from the previous step and reading
the available literature that addresses the general topic. Think of this process
as similar to building a puzzle. Each source for the general topic will likely
lead to several other useful sources with their own set of themes or subtopics,
each being their own puzzle piece, until the entire picture is visible. These
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sources will also likely present nearly all of the subtopics for the relevant
topic, and will set the parameters for guiding where and how to look for other
applicable sources. It is also important to note that all of th e evidence needed
to produce an adequate literature review will very rarely be found prior to the
beginning of the writing pro cess. As with finding other relevant sources, this is
a natural progression of the writing process. New ideas will likely appear, and
gaps that need to be filled will becom e more apparent once writing begins.
This introduces the notion of the outline as being a “living” or “fluid” docu-
ment. It not only is acceptable to constantly be altering the outline once an
initial draft has been formed, but doing so is expected. Additionally, if an out-
line does not change once the writing process begins; it likely is going to be a
weak literature review with several noticeable flaws—— because the writer
failed to pursue and include ideas and areas of knowledge that emerged in the
writing process. Writers of literature reviews need to embrace the “living ” nat-
ure of the outline as each minor change is leading to a stronger and more com-
plete literature review. Similarly , when later working with your outline and
actually writing sentences, paragraphs, and sections, the process of revising
and moving portions of text to different locations is natural and expected.
Here, it is useful to think of the overall writing pro cess in the way suggested
by Machi and McEvoy (2009) who distinguish between the process of Writing to
Understand and Writing to be Understood. The first is the goal of your outline
and initial drafting of your manuscript. Once you have things down in a way
that you can understand, your task shifts (in your revised and final drafts of a
manuscript) to writing in such a way that a reader can and will understand.
In th e outlining process, once the initial subtopics and themes for the gen-
eral top ic have been identified, the next step is to simply place them in a logi-
cal order. In other words, the subtopics need to be sign posts that direct the
reader from the broad theme to the specific focus of what the current study
will be about. The first type of sequence can sometimes come from the main
topic itself as to what flow it will take. For example, if the current research
topic is about whether juvenile substance abuse rehabilitation centers reduce
recidivism, then the literature review could start with a brief history of juve-
nile substance abuse centers. The brief history section would then be followed
by, current numbers of juvenile substance abuse centers, known benefits of
these programs, programming impact on recidivism, and what variety of cen-
ters are most successful in reducing recidivism. A different type of sequence
for a literature review can be based on the commonality of themes. An exam-
ple of organizing the literature review from most common to least common is
doing a quantitative study on the relationship between education level and the
likelihood of committing violent crimes. The literature review would briefly
introduce and discuss the idea of education and the influence of education on
committing crime, then change focus from what the existing body of knowl-
edge has established as the most common ways that education influences
crime to the least common methods. As the ways by which education influ-
ences crime commission are chronicled within the discussion of each “way,”
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where there would be shown the studies that establish/support this as a means
by which education influences crime as well. A thir d type of sequence is going
from most positive issues to the most negative issues (or vice versa). An exam-
ple of this approach is when evaluating successful sex offender reentry pro-
grams to list the most successful programs to the least successful programs,
and within the discussion of each type of program identifying and showing
what previous research has established the fact that each particular type of
reentry program is (or is not) successful. In this way, the literature review
functions to establish and support the need for the research ques tion for the
present study. Although each type of sequence is useful, choosing the correc-
tion sequence will largely depend upon the current research question.
As stated above, it is important to remember that outlines are “living” or
“fluid” documents. The outline may seem complete, but obvious weaknesses
may appear once the writing process of the actual literature review begins. It
is inevitable that the subtopics, themes, organization, content, and even the
main topic itself may all change throughout the writing process. Even though
this may initially seem discouraging, it is as vital of a part to the writing pro-
cess as writing it self. If time allows, it is helpful to develop the outline and let
it sit a few days to help to make sure nothing obvious has been overlooked.
Sources
With the outline being the foundation, sources serve as the buil ding blocks
that construct the walls of the entire structure of the literature review. Ade-
quate sources not only tell the reader about prior research regarding a topic,
they also inform the author of prior research findings . Finding and reading the
sources is an extended process of developing the themes and subtopics of what
will be included within the literature review. Also, they help expand and elab-
orate upon the general research topic. However, it is essential to know where
the sources are located, and which sources are acceptable to use in the litera-
ture review.
Where Are Sources Found?
Sources can be found in a number of ways. The main way is through the online
databases at any university or college library website. These databases are
usually searchable through the traditional Boolean search process that allows
the user to enter key words of themes pertaining to the topic, resulting in a
return of resources that the particular institution may have. This datab ase pri-
marily will feature academic journal articles that the library either does or
does not subscribe to, and increasingly common with articles being available in
digital format for download instantly. Although the majority of recently
published articles are typically available for download, the availability of
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downloadable digital copies will vary from institution to institution, and from
source to source. Remember that even if a library does not have a digital copy,
they may very well have a physical copy of the journal in the library. At this
point, it would be best to make a photocopy of the physical journal article at
the library in order to be able to do work outside of the library. Also, this will
allow for future reference to the article if at any point certain findings within
it need to be clarified.
Most university libraries also have a system called Interlibrary Loan. This
system allows for a network of libraries—— often state school networks—— to
share their resources among one another. This becomes extrem ely helpful
since most institutional libraries do not have every single journal subscription,
article, and/or book needed. Each institution has their own way of requesting
documents through Interlibrary Loan, but they usually take no longer than a
few days to be available for pickup. This is why it is a key that if a literature
review is due for a class that the project is planned and sources are found well
in advance of the due date to avoid issues if Interlibrary Loan is needed.
Other sources, such as books and newspaper/magazine articles can also be
found through online databases. These databases will usually disclose whether or
not the institution has what is needed, and at many libraries it will also provide a
link to the Interlibrary Loan to request the exact item. Alternative databases
should be used with caution; however, they can still be helpful. Databases such
as Google Scholar have become extremely useful resources that may allow
access to journals that may not be possible through an institution’s library.
What Types of Sources are Appropriate to Use?
There are a number of appropriate types of sources that can be utilized to
make and support an argument in a literature review. Sources can be thought
of as having varying degree of value, or “strength,” in a literature rev iew. Berg
(2009, p. 389) listed the potential sources and their relative value in the order
of:
(1) Scholarly empirical articles, dissertations, and books.
(2) Scholarly, nonempirical articles and essays.
(3) Textbooks, encyclopedias, and dictionaries.
(4) Trade journal articles.
(5) Certain nationally and internationally recognized “good” newsmaga-
zines.
The top two most appropriate sources are academic journal articles and
academic books (not textbooks). Although textbooks can be helpful for identi-
fying basic information, they should not be used as citat ions in literature
reviews (although, they often cite or discuss major or classi c studies about a
topic). Therefore, it is most appropriate to use academic journal articles and
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books. The number and quality of these two types of sources will vary tremen-
dously from topic to topic.
Other appropriate sources are government publications (i.e. gray literature)
newspaper articles, and magazine articles. Government publications typically
cover program evaluations of certain programs operated by government agen-
cies and even up-to-date statistics on particular governmental agencies. For
example, the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (http://
www.bjs.gov) is an excellent source for governmental publications, especially
when seeking the most recent statistics regarding specific crimes, criminal jus-
tice processes, populations, or governmental programs. Another excellent
resource for criminal justice related documents is the Department of Justice
website (http://www.justice.gov/publications). Other common types of alter-
native sources—— newspaper and magazine articles—— should be used sparingly
and when no other information can be found. For example, if the current
research topic is on budget cuts to juvenile substance abuse programs and
anecdotal evidence is needed to support a theme found in research, then a
newspaper/magazi ne article might be an excellent source to make this point.
However, these supplementary sources should be used sparingly and with cau-
tion because heavily relyi ng on these sources may send a red flag to the reader
that (A) there may not be enough known about the current research topic to
do any sufficient in-depth studies and/or (B) the literature review may have
been constructed poorly (especially if other sources do exist and are not used).
Therefore, it is crucial that a delicate balance is found and that alternative
sources—— such as newspaper and magazine articles—— are only used when nec-
essary. When in doubt, it is safest to use academic journal articles and books
when available.
Inclusion of Classic/Major Pieces and More Recent Studies
The extensiveness of the available literature will vary tremendously from
topic-to-topic. An example of this is comparing the availability of literature for
a research question pertaining to social learning the ory vs. a research question
regarding computer privacy. In this case, it is purely a matter of the date when
the research or issue began. However, the availability can be for several rea-
sons. Other reasons for there being only a minimal amount of research avail-
able to draw upon include that perhaps the selected topic is a difficult subject
matter—— such as sexually deviant behaviors—— that may have less research on
them due to Institutional Review Board difficulties, lack of interest on the part
of researchers, or stigmas attached to those who do such work or even legal
and ethical reasons that limit the number of studies done on a topic.
Obviously, other topics, such as stress experiences of law enforcement officers
are likely to have much more research available. The refore, it is vital that
prior to beginning the outlining/writing process that the avai lability of sources
is taken into consideration. Additionally, it is important to assess what kind of
LITERATURE RE VIEW 11
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a timeline is possible to establish for a topic; if something is truly a new
phenomenon (such as, say the use of cell phones in prisons) there will be less
available literature to work with than for a more established topic that has
been a focus of research for a longer period of time. It is not necessary that
this timeline is written down; however, it can do nothing but help in conceptu-
ally placing the available information on a cont inuum for clarity sake.
Although it is important to include a mixture of classic and more recent
studies in the literature review, there also exists a balance that will vary from
topic-to-topic. The best framework to follow when deciding what/what not to
include in the classic studies is to only include the cornerstone research of the
topic. For example, if the curre nt topic was the stigm a of being labeled a con-
victed felon and the social disenfranchisement that can accompany that label,
then it would be necessary to include Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the
Management of Spoiled Identity. In addition, it may be useful to include
Herbert Blumer’s works on Symbolic Interactionism Theory that deals with
how individuals use symbols and verbal/nonverbal cues to interact and commu-
nicate with one another. By including classic pieces of research, it demon-
strates to readers that the author is well versed in the literature and has
consulted most prior literature when forming their research topic. Addition-
ally, this is a vital part of the learning process that will help in learning the
material throughout to better form the argument and be confident in contin-
uing with the current research question.
The inclusion of the most recent research is as vital, if not even more
important, than the inclusion of classic pieces. This is because it shows that
the author has consulted the most recent literature, and that the most up-to-
date methods have been used or perhaps that the specific focus of the current
study has not been examined previously. Consulting prior wor k is crucial
because there is a strong possibility that someone may have already done the
research question that was going to be examined; however, this does not mean
that one cannot continue with the current research question. This may mean
that one would have to look at a different angle of the research question, or
perhaps simply examining an area that was omitted in prior research.
Ultimately, the inclusion of the most recent research is just as important (if
not more so) to demonstrate to readers that prior literature has been
consulted in the formation of the current research topic.
What Needs to be Included from the Cited Studies?
First and foremost, the findings of the prior literature need to be the bulk of
what is included from the cited studies. Again, this may vary for each research
questions; however, this will almost always be the case. It is best to think of
findings as providing the “bi g picture” of the curren t research topic. Each
theme and subtopic needs to be supported by as many findings as possible, so
that both the author and the reader can have the entire picture of what is
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known regarding the current topic. Findings of studies in journa l articles are
almost always found under the “findings” or “results” heading located in the
second half of the journal article. For books, the location of findings varies,
but they are usually located under the relevant chapter heading from the table
of contents.
The literature reviews of other research can also be a valuable sou rce in
gaining insight into other relevant literature, themes/subtopics of the research
question, and information regarding other sources. If citat ions are found
through reading the literature reviews of prior research, it is important that
the citations are double-checked to ensure that they were correctly cited in
the original document. Also, the newly found resource may have other perti-
nent information that was left out of the literature review where the source
was found. It is even possible that the additional citations revealed by reading
additional literature reviews will bring awareness to a hole in the outlin e or
even a missed theme. Remember that this is alright; this occurring will only
further demonstrate the “fluid” nature of the “living” document that is the lit-
erature review being written.
Although the majority of literature reviews will focus on the findings of prior
research, there are times where literature reviews need to foc us on the meth-
odology of prior research. This instance is typically found in studies that want
to advance a new method for studying a certain topic or suggest a new way of
defining a critical concept/var iable. An example of this is a study that wants
to advance a different way of statistical analysis. This study would need to pri-
marily focus on the methodology of prior research since it is the subject of the
current research question. Here, it is a simple substitution of the methods for
the findings in what is presented to readers. Similarly, if a literature review is
being written to set up a study of sexual victimization of prison inmates in
which a new way of defining “sexual victimization” is used, it is important to
review how previous studies have defined the concept, focusing on what is and
is not included in the definitions previously use d. Even though substituting
methodology for the fin dings may seem to be a radically different approach to
reviewing literature, it is essentially the same idea and process, just with a
different aspect of previous work as the focal point. Whereas the previous
examples showed organizing findings to make an argume nt of what prior stud-
ies have not examined, this type of literature review makes the same type of
argument discussing what prior methodology is/has not been capable of doing.
By showing what prior methodological weaknesses exist, this helps establish
the argument that a new way of doing methodology or perhaps an entirely new
methodological concept is needed.
Theory
Theory is a highly developed form of reasoning for why certain events occur.
In the criminal justice field, theory typically applies to ideas of why people
LITERATURE RE VIEW 13
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commit crime and how the criminal justice agencies function. It is best to
think of theory as the conscience behind the reasoning, meth ods, and what is
ultimately found in the current study. Theory helps inform nearly all aspects
of not just the literature review, but also the methodology and how to ulti-
mately interpret the findings of the study.
The use of theory is not universal across all literature reviews. One example
of a type of literature review that does not need to include a large discussion
of theory is when a research question is new or in the early developmental
stages. This can be the case even more so in exploratory work; however, this
depends on how specific th e topic or research question is. If theory is used, it
is important that it is at least introduced and the reader told what the guiding
perspective is for the study in the first few paragraphs of the literature review.
This is important so as to establish a conceptual framework for the remaining
portions of the literature review. It is best to think of theory in this sense as a
lens to view the ent ire work through. This will help set up how and in what
light the prior literature will be evaluated.
After the theory is briefly introduced, it is important to be reintroduced
after a general overview of the topic has been discussed or outlined. This will
allow the reader to have a broad understanding of the research question for
the particular literature review without bogging them down with the theory as
soon as they begin to read it. In this way, both the entire literature review
and any actual section devoted to discussing a particular theory in specific can
be thought of as “the theoretical core of an article (Kotze, 2007, p. 19).
Next, the theory needs to be discussed in depth, and explicitly shown as rele-
vant to the topic at hand after the broad overview, in order for the reader to
have the proper lens to analyze the prior findings or employed methodologies.
It is similar to think of this as expecting someone to play football who has
never been exposed to the rules of the game before. They need to know how
the object ive of the game, how the game is played, what rules the game fol-
lows, and how their position fits into the big picture of the game. The best
way to ensure that information overload does not occur is to provide a general
overview of the theory, and then specifically how it applies to the current
research question by informing or providing the framework. If these two con-
cepts remain the focus, then the chances of overloading the reader with too
much information is greatly reduced.
There are two directions that the theory section can take once an overview
of why the theory pertain s to the current research topic has been discussed.
The first possible direction is to show why the theory that has been used in
previous studies needs to continue to be used in the same fashion. Another
option is how and why this theory is a productive way to approach the current
topic and research question. The second possible direction is to argue why a
new theory should be used and the shortcomings of other theories. If the latter
direction is chosen, arguments are made best if they are done so simulta-
neously. The primary way of ensuring this is if one gives strong support for one
particular theory, then this will simultaneously weaken the opposing view.
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Funneling Idea
As has been alluded to throughout this discussion, it is best to think of the
literature review collectively as a funnel that starts out as a big opening and
travels to a much narrower, finite end. In essence, this means that the litera-
ture review needs to go from broad to specific. The broad beginning needs to
open with a general research question, and then each theme/subtopic needs
to naturally narrow the focus to a specific research question that will be
addressed in the present study. After beginning the literature review by intro-
ducing the overall general idea, briefly discuss why the topic is important and
why more research needs to be conducted. The introduction also needs to
include a preview of each dimension of the topic that will be discussed in the
following paragraphs.
After the introduction, each theme/subtopic needs to be placed in a
sequential order that makes logical sense. This sequential order will vary from
study to study, but it will need to assist in narrowing the focus purely by the
themes or headings used. A helpful way of determining if a logical sequential
order has been achieved is to examine the outline of themes/subtopics to see
if these headings alone lea d to the desired focus of the cur rent research topic.
If the order and flow of the themes/subtopics goes from broad to narrow with
the desired outcome, then a correct order has been achieved. If not, then
experiment with reordering some of the concepts, or perhaps return to the
prior literature to see if there is a theme that was overlooked, or a logical
order that others have used and could be replicated. This will help ensure that
a key piece of information that will distract the reader if not discussed will be
included. Next, introduce the concept, briefly point out the relevance of the
concept, and discuss what is known about it. Each theme or subsection needs
to be ended by connecting it to the topic immediately following the cur rent
concept. It is best to think of this as welding the pieces of a stairway together.
Each weld needs to be as smooth as possible so that someone later examining
the finished product cannot identify weaknesses in connection that may lead
the stairway/discussion to collapse. Also, it is vital that the se topics are placed
in a logical order to both convey to the readers the intended argument and to
demonstrate a firm understanding of prior literature to the readers. The “fun-
neling concept” will assist in forming the literature review and making a coher-
ent argument throughout the entire work.
What is the Appropriate Way to End a Literature Review?
The end of the literature review serves as the bridge to the current study.
Therefore, it must be a clear and concise summary of what was present in
the literature review without getting bogged down with the extensive and too-
specific-to-be-useful details. There needs to be a delicate balance between
the primary findings/methodology of prior studies and demonstrating the need
LITERATURE RE VIEW 15
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for the continued study of a certain research topic or perhaps a new way of
methodology.
Up until this point, the argument of what the present study is examining has
been demonstrated in providing the weaknesses or gaps in findings or the
strengths/shortcomings of the methodology of prior research. However, it is at
this point where the w eaknesses in findings or the methodology of prior
research are explicitly stated. Think of this as a criminal prosecutor spending
several days describing to a jury that an individual is guilty of a crime. The
prosecutor may have had several days to present their belief in the guilt of the
individual to the jury (and do so by introducing then discussion/detailing indi-
vidual pieces of evidence), but then at the end (in the closing argument) the y
need to summ arize their argument and show the need for a particular outcome
(such as a guilty verdict) in a limited amount of time so as to drive home this
point to jurors. Readers are like the jurors in this example. They need to be
able to walk away from the literature review by understanding what the topic
is, all of the relevant literature on the topic, any weaknesses in prior findings/
methodology, and what this study is going to contribute to the further under-
standing of this topic.
If the above steps are followed, organizing and writing a literature review
will become a more natural process with practice. Writing a literature review
may never become easy because of the unique challenges that face each topic.
However, following the steps, processes, and organization discussed above will
help through out the entire process of ensuring what the focus of current topic
may be, and what types of necessary information to include. In addition,
knowing how to adequately write a literature review will greatly assist in
understanding and synthesizing vast amounts of information in addition to
being able to more clearly recognize arguments being made in readings across
all disciplines. Learning how to write a literature review greatly assists in the
learning process by being able to recognize the structure of others’ writings
that may have been less apparent beforehand. The imp ortance of understand-
ing, both as a researcher and as a reader of a research study, what is already
known about a topic is primary to doing high quality and useful research. As
Boote and Beile (2005, p. 3) explain it: “A substantive, thorough, sophisticated
literature review is a preco ndition for doing substantive, thorough, sophisti-
cated research.” Therefore, learning how to write a high quality literature
review is an invaluable tool for both the writing process and the learning
process.
References
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of General Psychology 1: 311-330.
Berg, B. L. 2009. Qualitative research methods for the social sciences (7th ed.). Boston,
MA: Allyn & Bacon.
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Boote, D. N., and P. Beile. 2005. Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the
dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher 34 (6):
3-15.
Cooper, H. M. 1984. The integrative research review: A systematic approach. Beverly
Hills, CA: Sage.
Creswell, J. W. 1994. Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thou-
sand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Frankel, J. R., and N. E. Wallen. 1990. How to design and evaluate research in educa-
tion. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Kotze, T. (2007). Guidelines on writing a first quantitative article (2nd ed.). Unpub-
lished manuscript, University of Pretoria. Retrieved from http://lincs.etsmtl.
ca/uploads/media/v14n13.pdf http://web.up.ac.za/sitefiles/file/40/753/writing_an_
academic_journal_article.pdf
Machi, L. A., and B. T. McEvoy. 2009. The literature review. Thousand Oaks, CA: Cor-
win Press.
Marshall, C., and G. B. Rossman. 1989. Designing qualitative research. Newbury Park,
CA: Sage.
Mustaine, E. E., and R. Tewksbury. 2008. Reviewers’ views on reviewing: An examina-
tion of the peer review process in criminal justice. Journal of Criminal Justice
Education 19: 351-365.
Mustaine, E. E., and R. Tewksbury. (in press). Exploring the black box of journal manu-
script review: A survey of social science journal editors. Journal of Criminal Justice
Education.
Randolph, J. J. 2009. A guide to writing the dissertation literature review. Practical
Assessment, Research & Evaluation 14 (13). Retrieved from http://lincs.etsmtl.ca/
uploads/media/v14n13.pdf
Ridley, D. 2008. The literature review: A step-by-step guide for students. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Sage.
Tewksbury, R., and E. E. Mustaine. (2012). Cracking open the black box of the manu-
script review process: A look inside Justice Quarterly. Journal of Criminal Justice
Education 23: 399-422.
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... It is useful to review previous literature on an area before commencing research (74)(75)(76) . Therefore, this thesis opens with a scoping literature review of discharge communication. ...
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... Furthermore, with this type of review, the reviewer is not confined to a single preset search methodology, as with a systematic review (77) . Literature review searching may not be rigorously systematic (77) but is still commonly acknowledged to be a "comprehensive overview" of evidence (76) . For these reasons, a scoping review was deemed an appropriate method to synthesise and analyse previous evidence surrounding discharge communication; the main purpose of the scoping review was to inform the direction of this research and select an appropriate area of focus. ...
Thesis
Background: Discharge letters are important for transferring information from the hospital to the GP. Patients are sometimes copied into these letters, but this is not standardised. Hence, many patients do not receive such letters, but the consequences of this remain unclear. Research Aim: To describe why patients currently receive discharge letters (or not) and how different stakeholder groups think this process should take place to optimise patient experiences and outcomes. Methods: The mixed methods design comprised four studies. Study 1 formed a realist review. Study 2 involved 53 GPs sampling and commenting on 489 discharge letters and GP interviews and focus groups. Letters were examined using content analysis. For study 3, patients to whom the sample letters related were interviewed (N=50). Interview and focus group data were analysed using corpus linguistics. For study 4, hospital professionals (N=46) who wrote the sample letters were surveyed and the data analysed using descriptive statistics. The studies were triangulated to build matched cases termed “quartets” which aligned the discharge letters with the viewpoints of the relating patients, GPs, and hospital professionals. Findings: Participants across groups were generally in support of patients receiving discharge letters, although some expressed reservations. Many patients favoured receiving a direct copy of the GP letter. However, to increase clarity and usefulness, letters should be written in a form accessible to both GPs and patients (e.g. avoid acronyms). Additional key findings were: patient understanding is perhaps greater than clinicians perceive, clinician attitudes are a barrier to patients receiving letters, and that, negative outcomes more commonly manifested in contexts where patients had not received letters, rather than when they had. Conclusion: This thesis suggests several ways in which processes of written discharge communication may be improved. Patients should be offered a choice of discharge letter receipt and their preferences should be recorded. The full thesis text is freely available to access at: https://pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/record=b3714883~S15 AND http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/160516/
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Narrative literature reviews serve a vital scientific function, but few resources help people learn to write them. As compared with empirical reports, literature reviews can tackle broader and more abstract questions, can engage in more post hoc theorizing without the danger of capitalizing on chance, can make a stronger case for a null-hypothesis conclusion, and can appreciate and use methodological diversity better. Also, literature reviews can draw any of 4 conclusions: The hypothesis is correct, it has not been conclusively established but is the currently best guess, it is false, or the evidence permits no conclusion. Common mistakes of authors of literature review manuscripts are described. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Book
How to Design and Evaluate Research in Education provides a comprehensive introduction to educational research. The text covers the most widely used research methodologies and discusses each step in the research process in detail. Step-by-step analysis of real research studies provides students with practical examples of how to prepare their work and read that of others. End-of-chapter problem sheets, comprehensive coverage of data analysis, and information on how to prepare research proposals and reports make it appropriate both for courses that focus on doing research and for those that stress how to read and understand research. The authors' writing is simple and direct and the presentations are enhanced with clarifying examples, summarizing charts, tables and diagrams, numerous illustrations of key concepts and ideas, and a friendly two-color design.
Article
Conducting and publishing research is one of the core responsibilities of academic researchers. Frequently, publications are commonly used measurements for assessing suitability for hiring, tenure, and promotion. Understanding the “black box” of the publication process is essential for budding and new scholars, who are often expected to publish at rapid paces. The current study seeks to provide information about the publication process and the editorial tasks of editors through the eyes of scholarly journal editors. We find it would benefit authors to carefully select the journal to which they will submit (making sure their manuscripts are “good fits” for the journals’ missions), focus their efforts on the initial stages of a research project (making sound decisions about methods), and remember that the scholars who are cited in their literature review sections will likely become the reviewers of their manuscripts.
Article
Scholarly examinations of the publishing process are relatively rare. But the misunderstanding and suspicion the process creates among authors and reviewers is unnecessary. The present study draws on data from reviews of manuscripts submitted for publication consideration to Justice Quarterly between 2007 and 2010. Characteristics of reviewers and the elements of manuscripts discussed in reviews are highlighted. Analysis also identifies factors noted in reviews that significantly influence the acceptance of a manuscript. The strongest predictors of manuscript acceptance are the recommendations contained in the reviews and the type of submission (first time submission, first time resubmission, second time resubmission) being reviewed. Interestingly, neither the number of reviewers writing reviews, length of time to complete reviews nor characteristics of reviewers are significant predictors of editorial decisions.
Article
The peer review process is at the heart of the scientific process. When peer review is used, it is usually for the purpose of providing quality control on the advancement of scientific ideas. In this manuscript we examine the experiences and perspectives of a sample of criminal justice scholars regarding their roles as reviewers for manuscripts submitted to scholarly journals. In general, we find that reviewers expect to review, feel it is a professional responsibility, and enjoy doing reviews. A majority of reviewers perceive peer review as fair and editors seriously consider reviews. Regarding patterns of writing reviews, respondents of higher rank and published more frequently complete more reviews. However, most receive no credit at their institutions for doing reviews, although many claim to derive importance for their own research from reviewing.