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Literature review

The review of existing data and information is performed after the research problem has been identified and the research area or topic has been defined.

The purpose of carrying out a review of the literature is to identify the main ideas that exist in your research area or topic, and to integrate information from different sources.

The literature review is also called secondary research because it deals with information that already exists, i.e. publications, reports, books, databases, articles, and not primary data collected via surveys, observation, experiments, etc. (primary research).

The stages of a literature review are:

1. Search for information

2. Collect information and literature

3. Analyse the information collected from the literature

4. Organize the information

5. Summarize the findings


Step 1. Search for information

After you decided upon the research problem that needs to be investigated in your research study, you have a general research area. You then need to brainstorm to refine the research problem and develop research questions and working hypotheses for your study.

The search for information starts with identifying several key words relevant to your topic and selecting the places where to search (online platforms, libraries, etc).

For an academic research study, the sources you will need for your secondary research must be reliable and relevant, for example books, scientific journals, scientific articles, theses and dissertations, databases. Do not consider news, newspapers, blogs, websites without authorship, in general avoid sources where you cannot verify the accuracy, trustworthiness and reliability.



​Step 2. Collect information and literature



Searching for information will presumably lead to a high number of sources (articles, books, reports, etc). You will need to collect all of them in a way that will allow you to analyse them further and decide what you keep and what you need to discard.


There are several ways of collecting the literature sources. A simple one, that can be used further in the analysis stage, is Excel. You can create an initial Excel spreadsheet (a master spreadsheet) with the following headings:

  • ID number (the number of the source)

  • Year

  • Author(s)

  • Title

  • APA Reference

  • Type of Resource

  • Abstract

  • Keywords

  • Country

  • Purpose/Objectives

  • Research Questions

  • Survey/Interview/Focus Group Questions

  • Sample

  • Quantitative/Qualitative Design

  • Main Findings

  • Notes (where you can put quotations you may want to use eventually)

Of course, you can adapt the headings according to your needs, however a more complete initial spreadsheet will facilitate the analysis of sources.


Step 3. Analysis of literature

This step represents the actual literature review. You need to read all the sources you collected in the previous steps, write notes, formulate ideas. You should take a snapshot of the book, article, report, etc, write down main ideas and concepts (see headings in the master Excel spreadsheet above), and select what you think is important and relevant to your study and discard the rest.

For this step, you may want to use a citation management tool, for example Refwors, Endnote, Zotero.

The objectives of the review stage are:

- Select only the relevant sources

- Identify important concepts

- Critically analyse the information

- Find connections between ideas and pubkications

- Find gaps in the existing knowledge


Step 4. Organize materials

The sources that you decide to keep for your literature review can be organized:

- Chronologically (by the year of publications)

- Geographically (by the region that was investigated in the publications)

- Conceptually (by main concepts analysed in the literature)


Regardless of the way you choose to organize de sources, at the end you should be able to identify several main themes or concepts brought up by the literature that are relevant for your topic. For each of such main concept you identified, you should be able to list several of your bibliographic sources.

Step 5. Summarize the findings

The summary of the literature analysis should identify the main concepts of your review, listing the bibliographic sources for each concept, should write in brief the main ideas and the main findings of each source and establish correlations between the sources.

When writing the summary of the literature review, you should not simply list the bibliographic sources but use a structure such as: Introduction, Main Concept A, Main Concept B, Main Concept C, etc., Conclusions. The conclusions should be your own findings based on the analysis of literature you carried out.


Creswell, J.W. (2012). Educational Research. Planning, Conducting and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research. 4th edition. Boston, USA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Creswell, J.W. (2014). Research Design. Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. 4th edition. USA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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