Language of the literature review

The language that you use in a literature review is important for informing readers where you stand on relevant debates on your topic or issue. In a writer-responsible academic culture, it is your job to lead readers to the meanings and conclusions that you want them to make. Since literature reviews can involve complex ideas and various bodies of literature, it is necessary to be explicit about how the the studies that you cite are connected to each other and are relevant for your own research, and how the ideas introduced are relevant for developing your argument. You can achieve this by using language that clearly indicates your position and strengthens your voice in relation to others'.

In your introduction, you should make it clear what the purpose of the literature review is, as in the following.

Sample introduction 1
This chapter reviews some of the epidemiological literature on the high prevalence of non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and on the aetiology of diabetes in these communities. After examining the differing accounts of aetiology, the chapter examines the interventions that the literature suggests. The aim of the chapter is to define the kinds of intervention that will have the most beneficial impact. Answers to these questions are found in accounts of both cause and action. The features of cause and action identified here form the basis of the evaluation of the case study X in chapters three and four.

Note how the author explains the purpose of the literature review ("The aim of the chapter is to define the kinds of intervention that will have the most beneficial impact"). The author also generally identifies the literature review's key message ("Answers to these questions are found in accounts of both cause and action"). In your own introduction, you could go into more detail about your argument. For example, consider the introduction below, which explains the key points more directly.

Sample introduction 2
Recent advances in numerical and computational technology and the increasing concern about optimal production of hydrocarbon fluids have given rise to an upsurge of interest in reservoir connectivity. Two key problems in the understanding of reservoir connectivity are the inference of the shapes and the interconnectedness of the sedimentary bodies, and the numerical solution of the partial differential equations describing the behaviour of the fluids. These two problems are the main points addressed in this review.

To see how other people in your field write literature reviews in a thesis, check out the ANU Digital Thesis Collection to find other theses, and ask your supervisor to show you some past samples.

Within paragraphs, your choice of language can help you to explain connections between the literature's concepts. Take a look at the words in bold in the sample text below, and note how they help the author to guide you through the ideas.

Sample text 1

(Para 1)  Within the literature there are a number of different explanatory models . . .

(Para 2)  In the early 1960s, X provided the theoretical explanation for....In Australia, Y has pointed out....She has, however, supported the presence of....

(Para 3)  In a 1992 article, Z and X used the epidemicity index, applied by B and his colleagues to compare....Their hypothesis was that....The opposite finding would falsify a significant genetic influence.

(Para 4)  Their results were not conclusive....They were not able to falsify....Above, I have already considered limitations to the application of.... ....Z & Y also pointed out the methodological differences limiting comparability of....In fact this last factor probably does not work as they intuitively predict....Longer term admixture probably coincides with....Nonetheless, the result remains that Z & Y's meta-analysis does not resolve the question of....

(Para 5)  Others have argued....

(Para 6)  Two alternative theories explain....

(Para 7) The poor in utero nutrition theory, expressed through low birth weight, has not been proposed principally in relation to glucose intolerance. British research correlates...

Critically evaluating the literature

A key role of your literature review is to show your critical interpretation and evaluation of the literature. When taking notes and researching, you can develop this critical evaluation by asking yourself questions such as:

  • what are the strengths and weaknesses/limitations of the different bodies of literature/studies you are reviewing?
  • what accounts for authors' different findings-how can these be explained (e.g. theory or methodology adopted etc.)? (Hold your sources in relation)
  • to which issues, gaps, ambiguities, unresolved problems, etc. in the literature do you wish to particularly draw attention and why?
  • what are the implications of your discussions? (Don't leave your reader thinking: "This is an interesting piece of critical analysis, but what's the point of it all?" "So what?")

When it comes to writing up your literature review, you can use language to show your critical interpretation and evaluation. For example, take a look at the words in bold in the sample text below. How do they show interpretation and evaluation?

Sample text 2

(Para 1) While providing sound reasons for the eruption of the conflict, none of these arguments adequately engage the critical issue of the entrenched ethnic tensions in the region.

(Para 2) The advantage of X's work is that these observations are lodged within a perspective built up in the course of a survey of processes that shaped the categorization of old age in a single culture, over a long period of time. . . .X's work is important for the purposes of this thesis, not only because of. . . .More importantly, the broad sweep of her study highlights the systemic changes that underpin shifts in the experience of old age and public understanding of it.

(Para 3) Such clinical interpretations overlook the fact that mutuality and sociality make us human as much as extendable knowledge. Human personhood is shaped as much through the symbolic mediation of social relations as it is through the mediation of human, knowing relations with the non-sentient world. In short, sociality can be built through restricted codes even though these codes remain restricted.

Positioning your research in relation to the literature

It could be that you are expected to reserve detailed discussion of your own research for a distinct section within or following your literature review. More likely though, you will be expected to situate your own research in relation to the literature during the review. The examples below shows how the authors relate their own research to the literature they review. Note how they tell you what they are doing, why they are doing it, where they are going, and where you can find more detailed information within other areas of the thesis.


Sprinkled throughout a sociology review

To begin with, this thesis questions the notion that third generation theories of revolution are necessarily incompatible with some of the second generation theories.

This thesis will demonstrate that purposive factors are essential components of any adequate understanding of the causes of socialist revolutions.

This thesis will present a more urban-centred model of modern revolutions.

Insufficient attention is paid to the mobilisation and organisation of contenders. As the above critique suggests, this thesis will attempt to correct this deficiency through greater sensitivity to the politics of mass mobilisation and the struggle between the polity and contenders.


Resource management

From a resource management and environmental science review

The latter form of intraspecific competition may intensify as a result of resource limitation, and may result in a reduction in the contribution of individuals [mice] to the next generation. This may be relevant in the present study if high-quality food is limiting, particularly if this resource is found to have a positive correlation with breeding success.



From a geology review

However, this thesis developed an algorithm for the solution of the PDEs with X's type of boundary condition instead of Y's type, which was used by Z (ref).



From an economics review

What does this all mean for the model to be analysed here? I would like to use the structure of  X's model but adapt it to focus on the determination of the capital stock and the real exchange rate, rather than the net foreign asset position and the real exchange rate....


Computer science

From a computer science review

It is not clear how much weight to give to the results. Further, most studies published so far have assumed search server cooperation, possibly including the running of homogeneous retrieval systems. By contrast X (ref.) and Chapter 5 compare vG1OSS, CVV and a modification of CORI. The experiment models an environment where servers do not cooperate and have heterogeneous retrieval systems.



From a law review

The broader implications of this ruling for international law are well documented, as shown above. In terms of this research, however, an important issue is the extent of controversy occasioned by the case. Just why the case has generated so much debate is itself a matter of debate, one that requires some scrutiny before proceeding with this review.