The literature review

Get used to uncertainty in the weather and the lit review

In their much-cited 2005 article, “Scholars before Researchers,” Boote and Beile argue that “a substantive, thorough, sophisticated literature review is a pre-condition for doing substantive, thorough, sophisticated research” (p. 3). Such statements can strike fear into the heart of a doctoral researcher.  Expectations like “substantive” and “sophisticated” can be paralyzing when you’re not even sure how to construct good search terms! And the very phrase “the literature review” suggests that a monolithic entity—the literature—must be surmounted and mastered. The reality is quite different. As with any writing process, reviewing the literature can be a messy experience riddled with uncertainty and self doubt. Rest assured there are ways of coping with the stress.

In the following discussion, I borrow heavily from Thomson and Kamler’s (2016) approach to getting familiar with the literature surrounding your topic.  I describe their strategy for reading (scanning) and notetaking.  Following that guide, I describe their Scope, Map, Focus (ScoMaFo) method for the LR and outline some of the problems they diagnose in LR writing.

At the end of this discussion, I provide several resources about writing the literature review. Please email me your favourite resource with an annotation so I can include it here.

Knowing and not knowing

The purpose of the literature review (LR) is to examine what has been written about a topic. The LR often occupies Chapter Two of the dissertation; however, in some fields a discrete literature review chapter is not expected. For example, in Literary Studies the review of relevant literature might be spread throughout the dissertation as appropriate.

In your lit review and research as a whole, you will need to demonstrate your understanding of your field and the significant debates, figures, and studies. But you must not simply summarize or even synthesize: You must also evaluate the work of others and establish a position in relation to what you have read.

You may feel confused and overwhelmed by this momentous task. What do you read (what’s relevant?) and when do you stop? How can you judge other scholars who are so seasoned compared to you? One of the problems facing new Doctoral Researchers (or DRs—borrowing  Thomson and Kamler’s term) is that they don’t know what they don’t know, so it will only be after a great deal of reading that a DR can look back and see some patterns emerging in the literature. And remember, your sense of authority grows slowly (sometimes you have to fake it until you make it–see the page on performing scholarly identity).

There is no particular time when you will know it all, and there is no way that you can keep up with the proliferating literature.  Thomson and Kamler write that feeling uncertain is part of the process. They encourage DRs to not fight this feeling of uncertainty. Rather, they advise, get used it.  Pat Thomson uses Rugg and Petrie’s (2010) stages of knowing and not knowing chart, which may be reassuring because it shows you never really reach a stage of “knowing”; your knowledge is always a work in progress.

What does reviewing the literature really mean?

Acknowledging that you can’t read it all is an important first step.   Nick Hopwood describes how deciding what you won’t read is a vital step in the LR. Once you’ve set your parameters, how do you read?

Use a citation management tool to keep track of what you’ve read and how each text is relevant—there are several products free to UVic students. Here is a reading and note-taking system recommended by Thomson and Kamler (pp. 53-58):


  1. Articles: read title, abstract, intro, headings, first and last sentence of each paragraph and the conclusion
  2. Do not write a single word!
  3. Tell a colleague what you think the article is about
  4. For books, you can read title, blurb on back, chapter titles, and then if book is of interest do a bit of pre-reading – so you can locate book’s disciplinary location and intended contribution
  5. Return to articles and books that look promising and make notes

Note taking

  1. For those articles and books worth reading:
  2. Write the argument and/or claim in 3-4 sentences (requires disciplined thinking)
  3. How does this article or book connect to your work?
  4. Record this information in your citation management tool right away.
  5. My thought: you may also want to construct a mind map or chart of readings as you go, if this is the way you like to work. CMap is free. Use Excel or Word’s table feature to make a chart (more on how to use a chart in Feak and Swales book, Telling a research story, listed in resources).

Critical thinking

  1. If the article or book deserves more study, ask following questions: is the text in your field or another? What aspect of your topic does the text address? What definition is offered of the topic? What concepts/ language are used that might be helpful? What kind of text? Theory building? Meta study? Empirical? How does this research connect with your study? What categorizations are offered/ what key concepts? What connections does this text make? (from p. 56, Table 3.1)

Ultimately, you should only do a close reading of very few texts (p. 57). Although you may feel lost when starting to read, one realistic approach is to accept that uncertainty will come and go, but won’t go away entirely and the best antidote is to set up excellent systems so you can track progress as you build your literature review.

Scoping, Mapping and Focusing (ScoMaFo) (pp. 62-71)

This is Thomson and Kamler’s three-pronged approach to “attacking a relatively defined topic” (p. 62):

  • Scoping: Approach your topic with a wide lens—what has been written about it? Who has been writing about it? Where is the literature located?
  • Generate a rich list of sources
  • Do an initial sort by relevant criteria, for example, chronology, discipline, methodology (Other thoughts: ask your supervisor/professors, cannibalize the reference lists of key books and articles)
  • Research librarians can help with searches and keywords
  • Different approaches to search – databases, Google Scholar, following up on references, visiting the stacks
  • Use WorldCat and ILL to get books not in library
  • Keep track of terms and database details so search can be replicated
  • Mapping: Setting out the basic features of the research landscape
  • Identify work that has been done
  • Map the trends and connections
  • Decide what to screen out
  • Map can be represented in a table, chart, or with “mind map” software (see above)
  • Focusing in: Finally, focus in – get the big picture and the small picture at once.
  • Move in: See the finer details
  • Move back and
  • see the history and genealogy of the research
  • Identify the key debates
  • Identify the key figures or studies and why they are key
  • Textualizing your ScoMaFo: You don’t need to list everything you’ve read
  • You’ll end up leaving out a lot of “evidence” – only write about what is relevant

Another good “chunking” method that breaks the LR into steps (six) is described by Get a Life, PhD blogger.    

The LR as a site for identity work and argument

Your lit review is expected to lead “the reader through your analysis, interpretation and evaluation of other people’s work in relation to your own. You are making a case for the significance of your work”  (Thomson & Kamler, 2016, p. 84). You are making an argument, and therefore the lit review can be an important site of establishing your scholarly authority.

Your scholarly authority is nascent, so insecurities and overconfidence can both show up on the page.  Thomson and Kamler are excellent at diagnosing what these problems look like in LR writing, grouping them as “he said, she said,” “new buds on the family tree,” and “quotomania.” See pages 76-82 for examples of these, but for now let me summarize:

  • “He said, she said” is–you guessed it–a laundry list of who said what. Often the result of inexperience, this kind of writing shows that the DR is not sure how to organize and evaluate the material, nor how to insert her own voice. One of the symptoms of this approach is that every new paragraph starts with the name of another scholar instead of a strong topic sentence announcing an idea.
  • “New buds on the family tree” happens when the DR attempts to locate herself in a family tree of scholarship, but she gets lost under the dense foliage.
  • “Quotomania” has two varieties–“embroidery” of quotations that are sometimes inaccurate or misleading and the “quote dump” when the DR does not contextualize quotations in a sandwich.

See one of your writing problems here? To examine textual examples and read Thomson and Kamler’s solutions, check out their e-book in our library.

Resources–some mentioned in the post and some not

Boote, D., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before Researchers: On the Centrality of the Dissertation Literature Review in Research Preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6), 3-15. Retrieved from

Feak, C.B. & Swales, J.M. (2009). Telling a research story: Writing a literature review.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. This short book is a great tool for writing the LR. The authors, acknowledging there are many types of literature review, suggest the reader take an à la carte approach–just use what’s useful for your situation. They are great on selection criteria, using a chart, metadiscourse, citation patterns, and taking a stance toward the literature.

Get a Life, Ph.d. blogger summarizes the six-step lit review process from Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation, by Sonja Foss and William Walters.

Luker, K. (2008). Salsa dancing into the social sciences. Research in an age of info-glut. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.  Luker uses a Venn diagram approach to the literature review.

Post written by Madeline Walker

last updated December 20, 2016