How to Review the Literature

[See also: How to write a research project. How to write the background, theory, method, analysis and discussion sections. How to write the introduction and conclusion. How to review the literature and how to structure a research paper. How to finish on time and how to reference properly. Part of the Craft of Research series. Full program here.]

Video from February 9, 2023

Near the end of the talk I moved out of the frame and drew a picture, which I’ve redrawn here. It refers to an example of what our citation databases like Web of Science and Scopus can help you find and is supposed to correlate roughly with the “sunset”. The point is that every article you read (black) will have references (red) in the past, and citations (blue) in the future. It will also have “related” articles (orange), which may be in the past or the future, and which may or may not cite the article directly. When reviewing the literature, you want to try to imagine the articles you read in this way, and you want to have the growing list of core articles with which you are familiar. Part of your familiarity with the literature is an awareness of the place of individual books and articles among other books and articles.

The scholarly literature frames your research questions and informs your thinking. When you do a literature review you are developing your understanding of the conversation that is going on among experts on your topic. The trick is to appreciate the finitude of the problem.

My advice is to begin with a small number of papers and books, which you can use to center your searches. You should try to find exemplars of the sort of research that you are going to be doing yourself, i.e., papers that apply the same kinds of theories to the analysis of the sort of data that you’ll be collecting too. (As Thomas Kuhn pointed out long ago, the authors of these papers are precisely the people that would have to change their mind in order for there to be a paradigm shift.) This means that the papers are ones that you have a certain familiarity with. Remember that the center of your iceberg is the methods section so you understand these papers at a somewhat deeper, more practical, level than papers that use methods you haven’t tried or frame the results with theories in ways you haven’t attempted yourself.

This gives you a good, intuitive sense of the relevant standards of quality. Try to hold your search results to this standard. Assess papers on the way they actually present their results, rather than merely on where they’ve been published and how often they’ve been cited.

People often ask me about “multi-paradigmatic” or “interdisciplinary” research, which implies the difficulty of reviewing two or more literatures. My answer is always, albeit somewhat ironically (because I know I will be ignored), to recommend against it all together. Don’t make the problem harder than it has to be, I say; framing your study within a single well-established body of research is already difficult enough. But if for some reason you must, I recommend, first, looking for research that already brings the two literatures together (there’s usually someone who has at least suggested the need to this before) and then working from the center of this “inter-discipline”. That failing, I caution you not to situate yourself alone, outside either body. Choose one as your home discipline and then introduce to the “other” to your “friends”.

I said to appreciate your finitude. Another way of putting this is to quote the recently departed Danish poet Henrik Nordbrandt: “Don’t overpopulate your hell.” The literature can sometimes appear overwhelming, like an ocean. Don’t think you have to exhaust it all in preparation for particular research project. Give yourself a certain amount of time to do the best you can. Once you’ve spent that time, accept that this will essentially be your frame of reference while you collect your data and carry out the analysis. Maybe a few articles will serendipitously cross your path in the later stages, but don’t spend any time looking for them. Address your reader as though this is the literature you share. Work from the center of your strength.

Finally, remember that “literature reviews” can be very boring to read if they’re just a summary of everything that’s been written on your topic. Instead, try to look for an unfolding story of the emergence of the compelling theory that your work will challenge and develop.

In the 2024 Q&A, responding to a question about using second hand sources, I mentioned Anne-Wil Harzing’s “Are our referencing errors undermining our scholarship and credibility?” It is very much recommended.

For CBS students: check out the library’s page on information retrieval at

Here are some posts on the subject:

“Never Write Literature Reviews”

“The Literature”

“Ezra Zuckerman and the Literature”

“Theory and Literature”

“Consensus, Controversy, Contribution”

“Kuhn’s Two Dozen”