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Mechanical Engineering

Introduction to Literature Reviews

This comprehensive guide is designed for students preparing an honours thesis, graduating paper, Master's thesis or doctoral dissertation.  

What is a literature review?

"Literature review" typically refers to work produced in the context of an article in an academic publication or as part of a Master's thesis or doctoral dissertation.

"A literature review is an evaluative report of information found in the literature related to your selected area of study. The review should describe, summarize, evaluate and clarify this literature. It should give a theoretical base for the research and help you (the author) determine the nature of your research."1

For information on systematic reviews - a particular type of literature review used primarily in health sciences - please refer to this guide: Knowledge Synthesis: Systematic, Scoping & Other Reviews.

What are the purposes of a literature review?

  • situate your work in its discipline/area/subfield 
  • develop an understanding of how knowledge in your discipline/field/area has changed over time
  • develop mastery of what's known in your area, and part of the larger discipline that contains it
  • compare different conceptual or sub-disciplinary approaches to your topic
  • compare and contrast different theoretical schools or leading researchers in your area
  • identify methodologies that you might use in your work

Types of Literature Reviews

"Traditional Review: adopts a critical approach, which might assess theories or hypotheses by critically examining the methods and results of single primary studies, with an emphasis on background and contextual material.

Conceptual Review: synthesizes areas of conceptual knowledge that contribute to a better understanding of the issues. State of the art: brings readers up to date on the most recent research on the subject.  Could be a useful beginning to your research project.

Scoping Review: sets the scene for a future research agenda.  This review documents what is already known and then, using a critical analysis of gaps in knowledge, helps to refine the research questions,  concepts and theories to point the way to future research." 1 

Systematic Review: "attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question [about health care or health policy]. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making."2  More info at guide: Knowledge Synthesis: Systematic, Scoping & Other Reviews.

1. Jesson, Jill, Lydia Matheson, and Fiona M. Lacey.  Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2011. Print.

2. About Cochrane Systematic Reviews