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How to Write a Literature Review: What Is the Literature

What Is the Literature

The "literature" that is reviewed is the collection of publications (academic journal articles, books, conference proceedings, association papers, dissertations, etc) written by scholars and researchers for scholars and researchers. The professional literature is one (very significant) source of information for researchers, typically referred to as the secondary literature, or secondary sources. To use it, it is useful to know how it is created and how to access it.


The "Information Cycle"

The diagram below is a brief general picture of how scholarly literature is produced and used. Research does not have a beginning or an end; researchers build on work that has already been done in order to add to it, thus providing more resources for other researchers to build on. They read the professional literature of their field to see what issues, questions, and problems are current, then formulate a plan to address one or a few of those issues. Then they make a more focused review of the literature, which they use to refine their research plan. After carrying out the research, they present their results (presentations at conferences, published articles, etc) to other scholars in the field, i.e. they add to the general subject reading ("the literature").


Research may not have a beginning or an end, but researchers have to begin somewhere. As noted above, the professional literature is typically referred to as secondary sources. Primary and tertiary sources also play important roles in research. Note, though, that these labels are not rigid distinctions; the same resource can overlap categories.

  • Primary- Direct, uninterpreted records of the subject of your research project. Primary sources, then, are what you perform your research work on. As such, a primary source can be almost anything, depending on the subject and purpose of your research. Here are a very few examples of what can count as primary sources in:
    • Sciences-
      • Lab reports (yours or someone else's) - Records of the results of experiments.
      • Field notes, measurements, etc (yours or someone else's) - Records of observations of the natural world (electrons, elephants, earthquakes, etc).
    • Social Sciences-
      • Historical documents - Official papers, maps, treaties, etc.
      • Government publications - Census statistics, economic data, court reports, etc.
      • First-person accounts - Diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews, surveys, speeches
      • Newspapers - Some types of articles, e.g. stories on a breaking issue, or journalists reporting the results of their investigations.
    • Humanities-
      • Published writings - Novels, stories, poems, essays, philosophical treatises, etc
      • Works of art - Paintings, sculptures, etc.
      • Recordings - audio, video, photographic
    • All/General-
      • Conference proceedings - Scholars and researchers getting together and presenting their latest ideas and findings
      • Internet - Web sites that publish the author's findings or research; e.g. your professor's home page listing research results. Note: use extreme caution when using the Internet as a primary source … remember, anyone with a computer and a modem can put up a web site.
      • Archives - Records (minutes of meetings, purchase invoices, financial statements, etc.) of an organization (e.g. The Nature Conservancy), institution (e.g. Wesleyan University), business, or other group entity (even the Grateful Dead has an archivist on staff).
      • Artifacts - manufactured items such as clothing, furniture, tools, buildings
      • Manuscript collections - Collected writings, notes, letters, diaries, and other unpublished works.
      • Books or articles - Depending on the purpose and perspective of your project, secondary sources can serve as primary sources for your research. For example, you can critique a scientist's published theory concerning a set of phenomena, a sociologist's analysis of a situation, or a philosopher's critique of another philosopher's critique of yet another philosopher's treatise.
  • Secondary - Books, articles, and other writings by scholars and researchers reporting their work to others. They may be reporting the results of their own primary research or critiquing the work of others. As such, these sources are the focus of a literature review: this is where you go to find out in detail what has been and is being done in a field, and thus to see how your work can contribute to the field.   
  • Tertiary- Encyclopedias, indexes, textbooks, and other reference sources. In general, there are two types of tertiary (reference) sources:
    • Summaries / Introductions - Encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, yearbooks, and other sources which provide an introductory or summary state of the art of the research in the subject areas covered. They are an efficient means to quickly build a general framework for understanding a field.
    • Indexes to publications - Provide lists of primary and secondary sources of more extensive information. They are an efficient means of finding books, articles, conference proceedings, and other publications in which scholars report the results of their research.


Work backwards. Usually, your research should begin with tertiary sources:

  1. Tertiary - Start by finding background information on your topic by consulting reference sources for introductions and summaries, and to find bibliographies or citations of secondary and primary sources.
  2. Secondary - Find books, articles, and other sources providing more extensive and thorough analyses of a topic. Check to see what other scholars have to say about your topic, find out what has been done and where there is a need for further research, and discover appropriate methodologies for carrying out that research. 
  3. Primary - Now that you have a solid background knowledge of your topic and a plan for your own research, you are better able to understand, interpret, and analyze the primary source information. See if you can find primary source evidence to support or refute what other scholars have said about your topic, or posit an interpretation of your own and look for more primary sources or create more original data to confirm or refute your thesis. When you present your conclusions, you will have produced another secondary source to aid others in their research.


Publishing the Literature

There are a variety of avenues for scholars to report the results of their research, and each has a role to play in scholarly communication. Not all of these avenues result in official or easily findable publications, or even any publication at all. The categories of scholarly communication listed here are a general outline; keep in mind that they can vary in type and importance between disciplines.

Peer Review - An important part of academic publishing is the peer review, or refereeing,  process. When a scholar submits an article to an academic journal or a book manuscript to a university publisher, the editors or publishers will send copies to other scholars and experts in that field who will review it. The reviewers will check to make sure the author has used methodologies appropriate to the topic, used those methodologies properly, taken other relevant work into account, and adequately supported the conclusions, as well as consider the relevance and importance to the field. A submission may be rejected, or sent back for revisions before being accepted for publication.

Peer review does not guarantee that an article or book is 100% correct. Rather, it provides a "stamp of approval" saying that experts in the field have judged this to be a worthy contribution to the professional discussion of an academic field.

Peer reviewed journals typically note that they are peer reviewed, usually somewhere in the first few pages of each issue. Books published by university presses typically go through a similar review process. Other book publishers may also have a peer review process. But the quality of the reviewing can vary among different book or journal publishers. Use academic book reviews or check how often and in what sources articles in a journal are cited, or ask a professor or two in the field, to get an idea of the reliability and importance of different authors, journals, and publishers.

Informal Sharing - In person or online, researchers discuss their ongoing projects to let others know what they are up to or to give or receive assistance in their work. Conferences, listservs, and online discussion boards are common avenues for these discussions. Increasingly, scholars are using personal web sites to present their work.

Conference Presentations - Many academic organizations sponsor conferences at which scholars read papers, display at poster sessions, or otherwise present the results of their work. To give a presentation, scholars must submit a proposal which is reviewed by those sponsoring the conference. Unless a presentation is published in another venue, it will likely be difficult to find a copy, or even to know what was presented. Some subject specific indexes and other sources list conference proceedings along with the author and contact information.

Conference Papers / Association Papers / Working Papers - Papers presented at a conference, submitted but not yet accepted for publication, works in progress, or not otherwise published are sometimes made available by academic associations. These are often not easy to find, but many are indexed in subject specific indexes or available in subject databases. Sometimes a collection of papers presented at a conference will be published in a book.

Journals - Articles in journals contain specific analyses of particular aspects of a topic. Since journal articles can be written and published more quickly than books, academic libraries subscribe to many journals, and the contents of these journals are indexed in a variety of sources so others can easily find them, researchers commonly use articles to report their findings to a wide audience. Thus journals are also a good readily available source for current information on a topic.

  • Academic/Scholarly journals - Usually (but not always) peer reviewed, they come in a few different types:
    • News/Letters journals - News reports, brief research reports, short discussions of current issues.
    • Proceedings/Transactions journals - A common venue for publishing conference papers or other proceedings of academic conferences.
    • Research journals - Articles reporting in detail the results of research.
    • Review journals - Articles reviewing the literature and work done on particular topics.
  • General interest magazines - News and other magazines that report scholarly findings for a general, nonacademic audience. These are usually written by journalists (who are usually not academically trained in the field), but sometimes are written by researchers (or at least by journalists with training in the field). Magazines are not peer reviewed, and are usually not academically useful sources of information for research purposes, but they can alert you to work being done in your field and give you a quick summary.

Books - Books take a longer time to get from research to publication, but they can cover a broader range of topics, or cover a topic much more thoroughly, than articles or conference presentations. University press books typically go through some sort of a peer review process. There is a wide range of review processes (from rigorous to none at all) among other book publishers.

Dissertations/Theses - Graduate students working on advanced degrees typically must perform a substantial piece of original work, and then present the results in the form of a thesis or dissertation. Usually, only the library and/or department at the school where the work was done has copies of the dissertation, though especially significant ones are often collected by other libraries.

Web sites - In addition to researchers informally presenting and discussing their work on personal web pages, there are an increasing number of peer reviewed web sites publishing academic work. The rigor, and even existence, of peer reviewing can vary widely on the web, and it can be difficult to determine the reliability of information presented on the web, so always be careful in relying on a web-based information source. Do your own checking and reviewing to make sure the web site and the information it presents are reliable.

Reference Sources - Subject encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference sources present brief introductions to or summaries of the current work in a field or on a topic. These are typically produced by a scholar and/or publisher serving as an editor who invites submissions for articles from experts on the topics covered.


How to Find the Literature

Just as there are many avenues for the literature to be published and disseminated, there are many avenues for searching for and finding the literature. There are, for example, a variety of general and subject specific indexes which list citations to publications (books, articles, conference proceedings, dissertations, etc). The MSU Billings Library website has links to the library catalog and many indexes and databases in which to search for resources, along with subject guides to list resources appropriate for specific academic disciplines. When you find some appropriate books, articles, etc, look in their bibliographies for other publications and also for other authors writing about the same topics. For research assistance tailored to your topic, you can sign up for a Personal Research Session with a librarian. Contact the Ask Here Desk at 406-657-1662 or send an email to