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Writing A Literature Review: Introduction

This guide provides information and links on how to write literature reviews.

Writing the Literature Review: Step-by-Step Tutorial

Primary vs. secondary sources

Literature reviews use a combination of primary and secondary sources -- the purpose of a LR is to document and analyze what has been published on any given topic through time.

The sources are: print, electronic or visual materials necessary for your research.

Sources are classified into primary, secondary and tertiary. 

Watch this short video from University of Victoria for more details:

  • Examples of primary sources: research articles, letters/correspondence, diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, official reports, patents and designs.
  • Examples of secondary sourcesacademic journal articles (other than empirical research articles or reports), conference proceedings, books (monographs or chapters’ books), documentaries.
  • Examples of tertiary sources: Encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, atlas

Note: A source can be considered a primary source if it was created during a particular time, and it is documenting the "contemporary thinking" of that period. 

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a comprehensive survey of the scholarly research  (e.g. articles, books, dissertations, conference proceedings) published on a specific topic, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work.. It is:

  • a DESCRIPTIVE account of the focus of, the methods and processes and data sources used in, and the findings of past research projects on a specific topic,
  • a CRITICAL analysis of the focus of, the methods and processes and data sources used in, and the findings of past research projects on the topic,
  • PRESCRIPTIVE statement about the potential for further exploration and research on the topic.

Why Do a Literature Review?

The purpose of the literature review is to offer an account of how a topic has been researched and written about in the past and should identify and provide commentary on the processes and data sources that were used to reach the findings presented in the past research.


It should also feature analysis of how past research projects have influenced the current understanding of the topic.

Finally, a literature review should offer insight into how the topic can be further explored and researched in the future.

The 4 Steps of the Literature Review Process

The four steps of the literature review process are: 

  1. Identifying and defining a research topic,
  2. searching for and analyzing past research on your topic, 
  3. Evaluating and determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
  4. writing the review, discussing the findings, and citing the past research that reported upon.

These four steps are discussed in depth on subsequent pages of this guide.