How to write a literature review?

A literature review is one of the most important things you must do when you do research. It is important because it will justify the need to do the research and show that there is a problem or gap that should be solved.

To write a literature review you must consider three main points: theoretical framework, a review of relevant published research that addresses the problem you want to solve, and lastly, write a critical analysis of that relevant work. The theoretical framework sometimes is omitted in research papers and research proposals because of length restrictions, but it is usually present in thesis dissertations. Some students miss the point of critical analysis. This is a big mistake because if there is nothing to criticize, there is no gap, and there is no need to do any research on that topic.

Table of Contents

The theoretical framework

Maybe, this is the easiest part of a literature review.

When you write a dissertation, this is usually the first section of the Literature Review Chapter.

Why is this section important?

Well, in some areas you can find several definitions referring to the same concept. Because of this, is of utmost importance that you clarify the definitions you are going to use in your research. This will help the readers to better understand what you mean and especially will help the examiners or reviewers (you definitely want to help these last two).

As an example, mathematicians do not agree whether the number 0 belongs to the set of natural numbers or not.

So, if you are planning to use natural numbers as part of your research, you should define the set of natural numbers in the theoretical framework.

Notice that a proof you write can be right or wrong just depending on if the 0 is included or not in the set.

When you use definitions, theorems, etc. that are already in the literature, don’t forget to cite them. Otherwise, is considered plagiarism.

Search for relevant published research

In this step, you will search for publications that address the same problem you want to address. It is kind of difficult at the stage that science is, that you just find a problem that is 100% new.

There are two main things to consider in this step.

The first one is the source of the publication. Do not use blogs or websites that don’t have authority in your area or that are too general.

Do not use Wikipedia as a source (this one applies also for the theoretical framework). Even though Wikipedia can save you a lot of time, do not cite it in your academic work as a general rule. One trick here is to check the references on the Wikipedia article, download it, and if it fits your situation, then you can cite that document.

Sources for relevant research

Your main sources for your academic research must be the following:

  • Journal papers
  • Scientific conference papers
  • Books

In all cases, you should use publications that have trusted publishers. In computing, some examples of big publishers are ACM, IEEE, Springer, Taylor and Francis, Wiley, among others.

You can start your search for information in several directories, some of them are:

A great to start is to check your University Library website and find out what directories they are subscribed to. Universities usually pay directories (i.e., ACM and IEEE) and databases (i.e., EBSCO) for the staff members and students.

Also, in ResearchGate you can find several full papers that were published in paid scientific journals. This is a platform that several researchers use daily.

At this moment, don’t try to read or understand every paper or book you find. Just download them so you start studying them at the next step.

It is a must, for the literature to be considered relevant, that most of it are from the last five years. You can use old books that are considered classic on the topic, but you should also include recent research papers.

How many are enough?

There is no number to answer this question. You should use as many as needed to prove that there is a need for the research you intend to do.

Once you obtain a relevant number of research results that were published, you are ready to go to the next step.

Critical analysis of the literature

At this step, you should start reading the papers and/or books you downloaded. Once you understand the results of those materials, you should summarize them and critically state why each result is not the solution to the problem you want to solve.

Remember that you there are results that already address the (or a similar) problem you want to solve, then there is no need for the research you pretend to carry on.

With this critical analysis, you can also start identifying some theories, features, techniques, algorithms, etc. that can be part of the solution to your problem.

Reading several research results, can and should guide you on the right path to solve your research problem.

Don’t forget to cite the original research publication every time you mention or criticize a solution. Otherwise, is considered plagiarism

At the end of your literature review, write your conclusions. The conclusions will explicitly address the need to carry on the research you are proposing.


To write a literature review you must follow three main steps:

  • Theoretical framework. Optional in research papers and research proposals. However, even if you don’t include it in your literature review, you must have it somewhere. So, you can understand the research results that you have to analyze.
  • Do a literature search. Search for journal papers, conferences papers, and books. Make sure most of them are from the last five years.
  • Write a critical analysis of the documents you found in the previous step.
  • Write your conclusions.

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