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University of Minnesota

Writing a literature review

Review components

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A literature review is commonly one of two things: 1) a free-standing paper where you deliver a comprehensive analysis of the state of the art in a given field or 2) a section within a research paper where you set out the big picture of your research with respect to work that other people are doing. You answer the following questions with a lit review:


Moreover, your answers to these questions must be understood by the "intelligent layperson" - someone who is intelligent and reasonably well informed about a wide variety of issues but who is unlikely to have more than a passing familiarity with your issue in particular. Your job is to bring this person up to speed quickly while still impressing upon experts in the field that you have done your homework. In the review body you can fold in more specialized references, but always within a larger framework that the intelligent layperson can understand.

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In preparing for the lit review, you must first be up to date with research in your chosen field. In the end, it is up to you to determine how many papers to include (unless otherwise directed by your instructor). A minimum for a literature review term paper is about twenty to fifty, while a literature review component of a larger research paper term paper may include ten to thirty. A graduate thesis (e.g., MS, MA, MGIS) will usually have thirty to sixty while a dissertation (PhD) will likely require at least a hundred but maybe many more. Regardless of number of sources to which you cite in your literature review, acquiring and reading them is usually a task that requires a fair amount of time; a term paper realistically requires a minimum of four to six weeks, while gathering literature for a dissertation may take years.

Library. Consult the Resources page for hints on searching the library for information, particularly books and journal articles that are germane to your research (See Research guides and Writing guides). Make special note of using UMN Library resources to conduct research.

For example, if you are at UMN, try using online indexes of subjects and keywords.

  1. Go to the main library page
  2. Choose Indexes (Under "Articles and More")
  3. Try General Indexes first, specific ones later. Read the help on searching and then experiment with a variety of search terms.
  4. When you find links to articles, some will be free full text versions, and some may be offered to sale. Instead of buying the articles, however, see if UMN subscribes to tech paper version (check in MNCAT) or the online version (check in E-Journals (Under "Articles and More"))

Tracking references. Make notes about papers that are important, either in a general sense or important to your particular project (e.g., people using methods close to yours or people who have looked at similar issues in a different area). Good paper summaries (in your words, not just the paper abstracts) give you a good place to begin the review.

Use a system to keep track of your references This may be as straightforward as keeping notes on 3x5 cards, but there advantages to a program to manage references. Generic spreadsheet and database packages are fine, if a little labor intensive. Better yet are bibliographic software packages that help you search, organize your finding, import citations automatically, and create bibliographies. Good bets include Endnote, (, RefWorks (U has a subscription, RefWorks), or Zotero (open source, online).

Skim then read. Before bothering to read any paper, make sure it's worth your time. Scan the title and abstract and skim the introduction and conclusions. If you feel that it is still worth it, skim the whole piece, and try to get a feel for the most important points. If it still seems worthwhile and relevant, go back and read the whole thing. Many people find it useful to take notes while they read. Even if you don't go back later and reread them, it helps to focus your attention and forces you to summarize as you read. And if you do need to refresh your memory later, rereading your notes is much easier and faster than reading the whole paper.

At the very least, when you read a paper that you think is even remotely related to your current or future work, make note of the information you would need to construct a bibliographic citation.


Ideally, you should also write


Make sure you perform the above steps! There is almost nothing more irritating than not being able to quickly find the page numbers for an article or not being able to find that one article you read last year that you now realize would be perfect.

Sources. In terms of sources, you should draw on peer-reviewed academic sources for the most part. This basically means journal articles and books from academic presses. Personal communications, web pages, the gray/white literature (chiefly working papers), popular books, and metadata are other sources that can be used sparingly. Under no circumstances should you have more than one-third of your materials from these venues, and even then, be prepared to justify why you are using non-peer reviewed sources. The same rules apply to non-English language publications. If the paper is being written in English, its sources must be largely in English as well. Keep in mind this is a literature review, not a research paper. For the latter, use of these sources can be quite appropriate, but less so for a literature review.

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Writing: Review Components

Note: for advice on formatting your review, see the page on writing a paper.

Abstract/Introduction: set out your issue in relation to the big picture and then give a short summary of your review findings (next).

You DO NOT need to have your references in a bibliography for the abstract. I would say that, maybe a fifth of the time, people will cite to a source in an abstract, but they generally do not, so you don't need to do so either (although if you want to append a few citations of particularly important pieces, it can't hurt). The key exception tends to be when you are reacting to a particular piece (e.g., Manson (2005) states that "GIS for use in habitat restoration projects is a 'monumental waste of time" (p. 56). Contrary to this assertion, there are three bodies of research that ably demonstrate that GIS has an expanding role in habitat restoration across a number of scales and policy regimes.).

Consider the following abstract, which would also serve as the beginnings of an introduction.

"This paper presents an overview of multi-agent system models of land-use/cover change (MAS/LUCC models). This special class of LUCC models combines a cellular landscape model with agent-based representations of decision-making, integrating the two components through specification of interdependencies and feedbacks between agents and their environment."

NOTE: Lay out exactly what you are talking about

"The authors review alternative LUCC modeling techniques and discuss the ways in which MAS/LUCC models may overcome some important limitations of existing techniques. We briefly review ongoing MAS/LUCC modeling efforts in four research areas. We discuss the potential strengths of MAS/LUCC models and suggest that these strengths guide researchers in assessing the appropriate choice of model for their particular research question."

NOTE: Establish the scope of the review. Note how the authors lay out several interlinked frameworks for analysis: considering different techniques, comparing techniques to more traditional methods, and saying that the review will consider four different application areas. The final sentence lets the reader know that this paper is oriented more towards a research audience. Your audience may instead be policy makers (e.g., "and suggest how these strengths may guide policy formation at the state and regional level) or practitioners (e.g., "and suggest how these methods may be used most effectively in the field").

"We find that MAS/LUCC models are particularly well suited for representing complex spatial interactions under heterogeneous conditions and for modeling decentralized, autonomous decision making. We discuss a range of possible roles for MAS/LUCC models, from abstract models designed to derive stylized hypotheses to empirically detailed simulation models appropriate for scenario and policy analysis. We also discuss the challenge of validation and verification for MAS/LUCC models. Finally, we outline important challenges and open research questions in this new field."

NOTE: This second section is a "teaser" in that it lays out some of the important findings/assertions in order to pique interest, provides a little more detail on some parts of the review (e.g., the validation parts or tie-ins to policy/scenario construction), and alludes to how the authors will provide a sense of where the field is going (e.g., "... we outline important challenges and open research questions in this new field").

"We conclude that, while significant challenges exist, these models offer a promising new tool for researchers whose goal is to create fine-scale models of LUCC phenomena that focus on human-environment interactions."

NOTE: Try to have a snappy ending that uses much of the same terminology that the beginning sentences used - this way you tie up the abstract into a neat package.

Introduction: set out your issue in relation to the big picture and then give a short summary of your review findings (next). The literature review lays the ground work for the rest of the piece, and later sections will go into greater detail.

Body: you must accomplish the following tasks in the body of the review:


NB: Don't title the body of your paper "Body". Use instead groups of headings that map onto logical conceptual breaks in your work.

Conclusion: this is your opportunity to recap the main arguments and sketch out future directions for research. In the review body, you will have demonstrated that you fully appreciate the breadth of the field relative to your thesis. More importantly, you have started to win the reader over to a particular combination of theories or ideas that support your thesis.