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PLS399 - Senior Seminar

Senior Seminar

The Process of Writing a Literature Review

Mastering synthetic writing is key to a successful literature review. Use these resources to learn how to analyze the articles you want to use for your literature review, keep track of common themes using an article analysis matrix, and how to convert the notes in the analysis matrix into a piece of synthetic writing.

Think of working on your literature review as a multi-step process:

  1. Identify a topic.
  2. Find research articles on that topic.
  3. Read and analyze each article.
  4. Compare all of the themes addressed in the articles, as well as methodology/findings/limitations.
  5. Use your notes from the article analysis matrix to decide how to organize your literature review.
  6. Write your literature review by discussing one theme at a time--how is this theme covered in the literature?
  7. Your literature review will also need an introduction and a conclusion. Some students like to start with the introduction, while others find it is easier to write the introduction after they have written the body of their literature review.
  8. Don't forget to include References at the end of your paper (and to cite them properly within the text)!

Synthetic Writing

A literature review is not the same as a research paper. The point of a literature review is to synthesize the research of others without making a new argument or scholarly contribution. A literature review is also not an annotated bibliography. You should not write about each study you are reviewing in turn, but instead write synthetically to highlight the current state of the literature.

Key Points to Consider:

  • The purpose of a literature review is to report the current state of the topic. Literature reviewed should be relatively recent, unless you are delving into the history of the topic.
  • Discuss different themes within your literature review rather than individual articles. It will help if you pull information from at least 2-3 articles for each theme you discuss.
  • All works cited should be both in the text of the literature review and the bibliography
  • Avoid passive voice (ex: It was found that...); Use active voice ("Smith (2013) reported that...")
  • Report what the literature says, not what you think

Looking at Models

Examine the model literature review below (pgs 378-380).

  • Look for major ideas.
  • Determine how (and why) the author organized the literature review - thematically, chronologically, or methodologically.
  • Consider what rhetorical devices the author used to walk the reader through this section of their paper.

Ask the following questions as you read. Reflect on why the author made specific decisions in their writing.

Did the literature review...?

- big picture stuff -

  • engage with specialists in one discipline, or generalists in more than one discipline?
  • contain headings throughout to identify different themes/concepts?

- writing conventions -

  • flow in an engaging manner?
  • contain topic and transition sentences in each paragraph?
  • use appropriate citations?
  • put key words or concepts in italics/bold, making them easy to identify?

- analysis/evaluation -

  • describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration, noting contradictory studies?
  • include major debates among scholars?
  • provide a new interpretation of the topic, or new solution to a problem?
  • trace the intellectual progression of the field, or reveal a new trend in the field?
  • highlight an aspect of the field that is missing?
  • discuss seminal works (influential studies that changed the direction of the field)?
  • explain how the existing literature intersects with their project, and/or how their project complements the existing literature?

Article Analysis Matrix

Create a matrix by listing the articles you want to analyze in the top row of the matrix, and the major themes in the far left column. You will then review each article to see what themes are covered in that article. Describe how the themes are discussed in each article. When you are done, you will be able to easily see which articles share common themes, and where there are gaps in the research regarding coverage of certain concepts.

  Article 1 Article 2 Article 3 Article 4 Article 5
Article Analysis Matrix Example: The impact of social media on political participation
Online vs. Offline Participation   Subjects age 21-35 increase their social media use by 30% in the 6 months leading up to a federal election Political discourse on social media platforms does not differ by age of the subject Young people are more engaged in politics because of social media use Traditional methods of political participation (ex: canvassing) made subjects feel more connected to a campaign or candidate Subjects age 55+ were more likely to engage in political discourse on social media platforms than younger users
Social media sites - Multiple     Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat     did not examine social media  
Social media sites - Individual      Facebook Twitter did not examine social media Facebook
Level of Government     federal state federal federal state and federal
Activism did not discuss did not discuss examined comments about issues, shares of political articles or videos (ex: primary debates), likes on campaign pages       examined canvassing, volunteering at polling centers, letter writing to legislators examined comments about issues
Trust in Government    65% of young adults do not trust the government did not discuss 54% of young adults believe the government will abide by the will of the people voters who feel more connected to a campaign, trust the government more than  76% of voters age 55+ trust the government

What does this example matrix tell you? What themes are well covered in the literature? Which are lacking? What do the different articles have in common?

It may be beneficial to add additional columns (for more articles) or additional rows (to include a place to record each study's research method, findings, or limitations). The more work you do on the front end, thoroughly analyzing various aspects of each article, the easier it will be to pull it all together in the end for your literature review.

Writing Your Literature Review

The sites below offer a range of considerations and steps for writing the literature review.