Literature Reviews

During the Research & Writing Process...

The research and writing process is iterative—as you gain understanding, you’ll return to earlier steps to rethink, refine, and rework your review:

  • Remember the purpose of your review
  • Analyze sources with that purpose in mind:
    • Is the topic relevant to my research problem or question?
    • Is the source credible and reliable?
    • Where was the information published?
    • How was the study conducted?
  • Write with a purpose:
    • Use your own voice, in first-person tense if you prefer
    • Use supporting evidence

*Adapted from "Writing a Literature Review," a presentation by Aggie Legaspi and Scott Henwood of Applied Research & Evaluation at Bow Valley College.

A 5-Step Guide to the Literature Review

The first step is to determine your topic and frame the scope of the review:

  • Find a topic(s) that interests you and explore the literature
  • Establish the scope of the review using Cooper's Taxonomy (1988) to determine the focus, goal, perspective, coverage, organization and audience

H.M. Cooper's taxonomy of literature reviews classifies the major characteristics, categories and aspects drawn from coding and analyzing 103 meta-analyses.

This chart outlines the taxonomy as a tool to help reader assess the quality of reviews and providing a guiding framework for those conducting their own studies:

What is the primary focus of attention?

  • Research methods
  • Research outcomes
  • Theories
  • Practices or applications

What is the overall goal of the synthesis?

  • Integration, for example:
    • Generalization
    • Conflict resolution
    • Linguistic bridge-building
  • Criticism
  • Identification of central issues

What is the perspective on the literature?

  • Neutral representation
  • Espousal of position

How is the coverage of the literature defined?

  • Exhaustive
  • Exhaustive with selective citation
  • Representative
  • Central or pivotal

How will the review be organized?

  • Historical
  • Conceptual
  • Methodological

Who is the intended audience or reader?

  • Specialized scholars
  • General scholars
  • Practitioners or policy-makers
  • General public


Cooper, H.M. (1988). Organizing Knowledge Synthesis: A Taxonomy of Literature Reviews." Knowledge in Society 1, 104-126.

The most important and time-consuming step is to gather sources. Consider and search for all the formats that may be relevant to your topic and research question. Follow these links to search the library's resources and beyond:

The following document is a handout accompanying Bow Valley College's Literature Reviews workshop offered through Applied Research & Evaluation:

One of the greatest challenges of research is managing sources electronically. Here are some options that are freely available to faculty and staff at Bow Valley College:

A good literature review is not just a summary of studies, but rather a synthesis of information and research methods in those studies. To synthesize is to combine two or more elements to form a new whole. In the literature review, the “elements” are the findings of the literature you gather and read; the “new whole” is the conclusion you draw from those findings.

Synthesis requires comparing themes, methods, and conclusions among the authors. One way to keep track of it all is to create a research matrix or table. For example:

In general, the composition of a literature review will include the following components:


  • Identifies and discusses importance of the research topic or question
  • Presents a thesis establishing the author's purpose and point of view, outlining the conclusion that will be drawn through synthesis of the selected literature 
  • Describes the inclusion/exclusion criteria, scope, and organization of the literature review
  • If part of a larger work (such as a dissertation), details the importance of the review to the research question​

Body & Structure

  • Presents author's summary, analysis and synthesis of selected literature, typically according to a chosen organizational structure, such as:
    • Thematic
    • Methodological
    • Chronological
  • Groups research studies and other types of sources according to commonalities such as findings of the author(s), purposes, proximity, and research method
  • Provides "signposts" and "umbrella" statements throughout in order to present a clear and logical flow for the reader


  • Provides a summary of key findings from the literature review
  • Describes the overall context of the literature as whole by explaining what is included and what gaps or methodological flaws may exist
  • May recommend directions for future research that will address emerging issues or fill existing gaps in the literature


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