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Literature Review

English 127
Research Writing

Points & Length:  240 points; 5-6 pages (1500-1800 words)
Double space; include heading on the first page (top left); place shortened title and page number in the header of every page (top right); see Format Instructions
Title:  Include an informative, interesting, provocative and/or creative title that reflects your narrowed topic (see CR, p. 247)
Drafts:  First draft to be copied and pasted into a forum window; final draft to be submitted as an uploaded file on Canvas.
Student Sample Literature Review

The Literature Review consists of an introduction, summary of scholarly sources, a discussion and evaluation of the sources (including disputes and disagreements), and a conclusion in which you put forth your own potential original research questions that will contribute something new to the available understanding on the topic.  A minimum of five scholarly sources (not the same ones you used in the Background Essay) are required for this essay.  See the "Find scholarly articles" tab from our Holman Library Class GuideAt least two of your scholarly articles must come from the online database Academic Search Premier (available from the class guide); other scholarly sources can come from Google Scholar, scholarly book chapters (published by university presses), or research studies published by credible organizations.  

The Literature Review in the Research Process

A literature review is a section of a final research report, and can also be a stand-alone essay; both are required for your topic in this class.  "Literature" refers to the scholarly writing, published (original) research study results, and other important analyses on a particular aspect of a topic.  So you are not going to write an essay on a Shakespearean play or some other literary text. 

A scholarly literature review is part of any final research study or report since it demonstrates that you are familiar with what other other scholars have already studied and published on your subject, and allows you then to map out what new arena or question you would like to pursue.  There is, after all, no point in reinventing the wheel, i.e., undertaking a study that someone else has already done or trying to answer a question that has already been adequately explored.  And there's also no point in reaching your own interpretive conclusions without taking into account what others have already studied and argued.  You would lack credibility and appear naive and uninformed if your analysis has already been convincingly put forth or refuted. 

The purpose of a literature review is fourfold: 

  1. The first is to summarize and assess the state of existing knowledge on your narrowed topic.  What knowledge exists and is generally accepted with regard to your topic?  Are there important differences or disagreements among scholars?  Are there significant problems or limitations with any of the research studies?  Which research methods were employed in the various research studies, which were not, and with what consequences?  What questions remain unanswered?  What aspects or approaches seem relatively unexplored? 

  2. Through the process of reviewing existing knowledge you will also develop a more nuanced understanding of your topic, the second reason for conducting a literature review. 

  3. This new understanding leads to the third reason, to raise questions for further research.  In other words, what are you left wondering?  What questions or aspects of the issue do you find have been unanswered, underexplored or overlooked?  How would our understanding be improved by pursuing those questions or angles?  At the end of this process, you will hopefully find that you can identify several potential research questions. 

  4. The final purpose of the literature review, based on the sources that have been assessed and the new questions that have been raised, is to identify one specific and significant research question that identifies a gap in the current state of knowledge or analysis about your topic.  This research question will drive your research from this point forward as you build towards the Final Research Article, in which you present an argument that attempts to answer your own research question.

Review the Assignments page to get a sense of how this assignment fits in with the other major assignments this quarter, namely, the Background Essay and the Final Research Article.  Remember that you will continue learning about your research topic throughout the quarter, and you will revise this essay to include as a section in your Final Research Article.  Though the research process is recursive and, frankly, messy by nature, it is helpful to visualize and organize your progress through the various stages.

Required Elements of the Literature Review

Length:  At least five-six pages of APA-manuscript text (not including the References page).

Required Sources See the Holman Library Class Guide for this course.  At least five scholarly articles (must be different from those you used in the BE), from which you quote at least once.  At least two articles must come from the electronic database such as Academic Search Premier (select "peer-reviewed" from the search screens of these databases).  Others can come from Google Scholar, scholarly books, or research studies from credible organizations. See the Scholarly Sources webpage for a fuller discussion of the different kinds of sources.  Of the five required sources, one of them can be a scholarly article from Rereading America if it is relevant for your topic and research question (no newspaper articles, informational websites, Wikipedia, etc.).  At least two of your sources must be no older than two years.  The sources should be diverse; you should not have more than two (of the five) articles from the same author or periodical; if you do have more than two from the same author or periodical, then you should have more than the minimum five sources.  Ideally, your collection of scholarly sources should include a variety of social science disciplines as well as different research methods.  Abstracts and summaries of articles are not sufficient by themselves; you must have access to the entire article.  When you find interesting abstracts on the internet, you can use Interlibrary Loan to request the full-text articles or books from Holman Library. 

Introduction:  The introduction presents your narrowed topic or area of inquiry, whether from the conclusion of your Background Essay or based on a later formulation, and an overview of the various subtopics, issues, and problems that scholarly researchers have studied (which will also be reflected in the topic sentences of your Summary paragraphs).  Also include a thesis statement that provides your evaluation of the state of current knowledge and of what needs further study, which should anticipate the specific research question you will arrive at in the end.  Here is an example of a thesis statement that evluates the state of research and points to a proposed research question from a former student’s research project on domestic violence in the case of mail-order brides in the U.S.:  

"Although there have been many studies of domestic violence against women and programs adopted to reduce it, there are virtually no statistics documenting instances of abuse in the immigrant bride population."

Summary (include section heading; 3+ paragraphs):  The summary-of-sources section presents the research, knowledge, and analysis that the literature offers concerning your narrowed research topic.  Each Summary paragraph should have a clear topic sentence that clarifies the scholarly research on a particular subtopic you will be presenting.  The paragraphs in this section should be organized according to the issues or aspects studied, the accepted interpretations or theories, the disputed claims, and any unanswered questions.  Do not simply summarize each source in separate paragraphs.  The paragraphs in your summary should focus on specific issues, not necessarily on individual authors.  For example, if you were studying prison reform, one paragraph might present what three scholars have reported regarding education programs in prison, even though one or more of those authors might show up again in another paragraph on visitation rights.  If a paragraph happens to focus on only one author or article, make sure this is for a good reason, for example, the article represents the authoritative discussion of a particular issue; in such a case, the content of that paragraph should be limited to the issue and not turn into a general summary of the article.

Discussion and Evaluation (include section heading; 2+ paragraphs):  This section is your discussion and evaluation of the articles from your summary section and not your discussion of the issues themselves.  Instead, you are interpreting and evaluating the knowledge presented in the summary section in order to raise questions for further research (gaps in knowledge).  You may discuss and evaluate the significance of various conclusions and arguments, the completeness of individual studies, the research methods used, substantial areas of disagreement, debates over definitions of terms, and/or the consistency of the results with each other.  As you present your evaluation, do so cautiously with thorough analysis and explanation.  Challenging the results of a professional study with nothing but one isolated observation or opinion will reveal your naiveté more than any real weakness in the study.  Share your evaluation without using the first person (I, me, my, mine); doing so will shift the reader’s focus away from the subject and onto you, the writer.  As you discuss and evaluate the knowledge and issues with regard to your narrowed topic, raise questions for further study along the way.  Refer directly to all of the authors from your Summary section. Do not introduce new articles in this section that you haven't already covered in the Summary section. 

Please note that even though you may take issue with aspects of the research and findings in your sources, it is very rare for the discussion to include a complete dismissal of any one source.  If you read a source and find that it has nothing or little of value to offer on your topic and research question, then do not include it in the literature review in the first place.  By choosing to include sources in your literature review, you imply that you have already judged them to offer something that is worth consideration.

Further, it is important to distinguish between evaluation for analytical purposes and evaluation for entertainment purposes.  While this kind of essay is called a literature “review,” it is not a review in the sense of a movie review.  You should not be concerned with whether the material you have reviewed is entertaining.  The purpose, rather, is to demonstrate how considering various arguments and approaches improves our understanding and engages us in new questions.

Conclusion: Proposed Research Question and Significance (include section heading)The conclusion synthesizes the knowledge confirmed through the discussion and evaluation section while identifying areas for further research.  After reviewing the literature, what do we know?  What don’t we know (gaps in knowledge)?  There should be an apparent connection between the new areas of inquiry and the summary of existing knowledge.  Bring your conclusion to a close by identifying and discussing the significance of a specific research question that will drive the rest of your research project.   

Note:  The specific research question you present in your conclusion should be somewhat original.  It should NOT be a yes/no, good/bad, for/against, pro/con, either/or, right/wrong, or moral/immoral kind of question, nor should it try to solve a problem or predict the future.  Rather the research question should attempt to advance the already-existing knowledge and understanding around your narrowed topic.  This can include an inquiry into causes and effects; the evaluation of already-existing policies, programs or proposals; unforeseen or non-obvious connections and consequences; etc.  Hint:  Try coming up with a single sentence answer (hypothesis) to your own research question in order to assess its viability and originality.  Note that your Final Research Article will ask you to present your further investigation of your research question, and will ask you to develop an academic argument based on your best possible answer to it (the hypothesis). 

References and In-text Citations:  An APA-style References page, with all of the sources referred to in your literature review, must be included at the end of your essay. Include at least one quotation from each of your five required sources, though you may also use paraphrase for these and other any other sources.  Follow APA guidelines for in-text citations to set up each quotation or citation grammatically with a signal phrase or attributive tag, and include a comment or explanation for each major quoted passage. Include authors' last names only, year of publication, and page or paragraph numbers for EACH in-text citation. Do NOT include authors' first name, initials, or credentials in the body of the essay.  Only include "article title" (in quotation marks) or book title (in italics) or organization name if no author is specified. 

In your presentation and analysis of sources, avoid heavy reliance on quotations to present the ideas of others; excessive quoting can turn your literature review into a cacophony of different voices that frustrates the reader’s ability to find cohesion between the distinct ideas.  In most cases, you are better off paraphrasing or summarizing, which you must do carefully to avoid plagiarism (see CR, Ch. 14).  Quote other authors sparingly and with purpose:  to convey an idea that cannot be paraphrased without losing meaning or to convey the power of the original language.  Remember that the proper use of citations is a very important part of your grade!

Additional Considerations

Search Strategies:  Whether in the Academic Search Premier database (with the scholarly (peer reviewed) journals box checked from your search window) or in Google Scholar, try a wide variety of search terms.  For example, combine your topic (somewhat narrowed) with only one of the following additional search terms at a time:  Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science, Economics, and History.  Then conduct even more searches by combining your narrowed topic with one of the following research methods at a time:  ethnography, observation, survey, questionnaire, case study, interview, focus group, primary source, content analysis, archive, archival, statistics, statistical, research study, theory, and experiment. You may need to place some phrases in quotation marks to signal to the search engines that you are looking for a particular group of words, e.g., "focus group" or "prison education." 

Audience:  The audience for a literature review is a somewhat hypothetical body of fellow researchers.  These are people interested in the same issues and who are usually working in a similar field.  Thus, you are expected to use vocabulary appropriate to your subject matter.  For example, the term “reentry” has a specific set of meanings and connotations within criminal justice.  If you choose to write about this subject, then you are expected to familiarize yourself with that word and others and use them accurately in your explanations and analysis.  Note and look up commonly used terms as you run across them in your reading.  Consider how they are used in context and with what connotations.  Acquiring the vocabulary of the discussion is an important part of being able to express yourself with clarity and precision.  Showing that you are conversant with the vocabulary and concepts common to the discussion is also an important part of establishing your authority to analyze the contributions of others.

Style and Tone:  In tone, consider that you are writing for a body of professionals.  They want to see that you are reasonably objective.  Betraying a strong emotional investment may cast doubt on your credibility.  Thus, your tone and style should emphasize that you are interested in furthering understanding rather than establishing that you are right or winning an argument.  Moreover, the focus in this essay is not on you; it is on the texts and topic you are analyzing and synthesizing.  Therefore, do not use the first person (I, me, my, mine).  Nor should you find occasion to use the second person (you, your, you’re), for example, to address the reader directly as in, “Having considered the many facets of this problem, you may wonder how it can possibly be solved.”  Such language is overly informal for this kind of academic writing and shifts the focus to the reader and away from the topic of your essay.  A possible revision could be:  “A consideration of the many facets of this problem clearly indicates that solving it will be difficult.”

Paragraph form:  Each of your body paragraphs should have a topic sentence.  Paragraphs in academic writing are (usually) between 1/3 - 3/4 of a page long.  If they're shorter than that, you may not be adequately developing your ideas.  If the ideas or information don't deserve to be developed further, then you might consider combining the content of the short paragraph with another paragraph; in such a case, you would need to revise the topic sentence so that it covers the combined materials.  If a paragraph is much longer than 3/4 of a page, you risk losing the attention of your reader as well as losing focus in your paragraph itself.  Of course, there are exceptions to the 1/3-3/4 page guideline.  See the Paragraph Development page for further explanation. 

CQ Researcher:  If you happen to find an article from CQ Researcher that includes an overview article for your topic area, this may be useful since it would have done some of the work for you in offering an account of various studies, articles and common issues.  However, an article from CQR is not itself considered a scholarly source; therefore, you may use a CQR article for your Background Essay and background section of the FRA as a "Reference article," but not for the Literature Review.