Most undergraduate research papers, and many graduate and professional research papers as well, are based on literature reviews. The aims of a literature review are different from those of an empirical research paper, and hence the skills required differ somewhat as well. The goals of literature reviews are the following (American Psychological Association, 2009):
1. to define and clarify problems
2. to inform the reader about a subject by summarizing and evaluating studies
3. to identify inconsistencies, gaps, contradictions, and relationships in the literature
4. to suggest future steps and approaches to solve the issues identified.
There are five kinds of literature reviews that can be distinguished on the basis of the aim of the review. Reviews can strive to (a) generate new knowledge, (b) test theories, (c) integrate theories, (d) develop a new theory, or (e) integrate existing knowledge.
If you plan to submit your literature review to a journal and have to decide where to submit it, you may want to read some literature reviews that have been published in the journals you are considering to find out whether your paper is a good fit to the journal. Generally, the probability of an article being accepted is highest when you develop new knowledge, develop a new theory, or integrate several theories (instead of just reviewing and summarizing the literature on a particular topic) (Eisenberg, 2000). In general, the best literature reviews do not merely summarize literature; they also create new knowledge by placing the literature into a new framework or at least seeing the literature in a new way.
The literature review can proceed smoothly if you follow a sequence of simple steps:
1. Decide on a topic for a paper.
2. Organize and search the literature.
3. Prepare an outline.
4. Write the paper.
5. Evaluate the paper yourself and seek others’ feedback on it.
DECIDING ON A TOPIC FOR A PAPER
Your first task is to decide on a topic for a paper. This is, in a sense, the most important task because the paper can be no better than the topic.