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Comm470: Communication Studies Senior Seminar 2019: Doing a Literature Review

What is a Literature Review?

Purpose: "To summarize what is known about some issue or field on the basis of research evidence, and/or what lines of argument there are in relation to that issue or field." (from The Sage Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods).

Purpose (in more detail):*

  1. Distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done
  2. Discovering important variables relevant to the topic
  3. Synthesizing and gaining a new perspective
  4. Identifying relationships between idea and practice
  5. Establishing the context of the topic or problem
  6. Rationalizing the significance of the problem
  7. Enhancing and acquiring the subject vocabulary
  8. Understanding the structure of the subject
  9. Relating ideas and theory to applications
  10. Identifying the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used
  11. Placing the research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments

*from Doing a Literature Review (Hart, 1998, p. 27)


  • Stand-alone articles (e.g., articles in the Communication Yearbook, located in the 1st-floor reference section at P87 C5974)
  • In theses and dissertations (to see examples, look in the Dissertations Online database -- most will have a named "Literature Review" section)
  • Section of an article or book, setting the stage to show how a new study fits into the existing literature (nearly all scholarly journal articles will include portion(s) devoted to the lit review.)

Choosing Your Sources

You probably can't be exhaustive, so selectivity is key.

Try to cite the most relevant and important articles. (Look at information in Google Scholar on how often the article has been cited).

Tracing citations both backward and forward is a key element: look at both an article's bibliography, and the articles citing that article.

Writing the lit review

  • Organize into sections that present themes or identify trends (a literature review is NOT a list describing one piece of literature after another). Possibilities for organizing the body of the literature review include:
  • Chronological
  • Thematic
  • Methodological
  • Within any such organizational scheme, you might further divide the works reviewed into categories (e.g., those in support of a particular argument and those against).
  • Other sections you might want to include:
  • Methods/Standards: How did you select your sources (e.g., did you only use peer-reviewed journals)? How did you decide to present your information (e.g., you present your information thematically, to address one question at a time)?
  • Questions for Further Research: Do you see unanswered questions in the field?
  • Use direct quotations sparingly, and also be succinct in describing the literature you are citing. Report the methodologies, the key measurements, and the findings.   

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