The hardest chapter or section to write for any doctoral student is the literature review. In your studies you won’t have written anything quite like it, which makes it difficult to write and difficult to successfully complete. As a dissertation editor I read about four dissertations per week and of those four, usually only one will have a true literature review.
A true literature review is text that synthesizes and analyzes all the available current research from peer-reviewed sources. Seems pretty straightforward, so why is it so hard to write? Let’s talk about all the things that the literature review will or will not include, and you'll start to see the difficulties.
First, your literature review will not include dissertations or theses—these documents would not be considered peer reviewed. Your literature review will include sources that have been published within the last 5 years. The majority of these sources will be articles retrieved from an online database.
Second, your literature review will not be ordered according to researcher or research study. Your literature review will be ordered according to major themes that emerge from the research and clearly show—by using many sources in a single paragraph—how researchers or research studies are similar or dissimilar.
Third, your literature review will not have a minimum or maximum page count. It will, however, have a suggested minimum number of sources—for most schools the minimum sources required in the literature review is 75, 80% of which must come from a peer-reviewed source.
So what else will a true literature review have? Most schools require writers to include their research strategy, which is generally a good idea even if it isn’t a rubric-required element. When describing your research strategy, include the names of the databases searched, the key search terms, and how you determined which articles to use of those that emerged. Most schools also require a separate literature review that will come just before your summary section related to the methodology used in the study. This means conducting a literature review on case studies, archival data, or whatever specific methodology (more specific than qualitative or quantitative) you will use in your study. The goal of this section of your literature review is to show how that methodology is currently being used by the academic community.
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