What Is The Role Of The Introduction Of Literature Review In A Research Paper

(Edited by Guangbing Yang and Thai Bui)

    1 Introduction
    2 Presentation
          2.1 Purposes
          2.2 Literature Review Classifications
          2.3 Strategies for writing a literature review
          2.4 Tips for a good literature review
    3 Application
          3.1 Example 1
          3.2 Example 2
    4 Conclusion
    5 References


A literature review is study of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. It is often a part of the introduction to an essay, research report, or thesis. Taylor[4] mentioned that people writing the literature review try to convey to their readers what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are [4].

[4] argued one of main roles of the literature review is to enlarge people's knowledge about the topic. He also mentioned that conducting a literature review, an author can also gain and demonstrate skills in following two areas:

  • information seeking: the ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles and books
  • critical appraisal: the ability to apply principles of analysis to identify unbiased and valid studies.

When writing a literature review, the author shall consider these things:

  • tightly associate the review contents and context with the research questions
  • emphasizes the relationships between research problems and the outcomes of the literature review.
  • identify areas of controversy in the literature.
  • list the questions that need further research.
  • write solid and avoid abstract to show a full analysis path
  • write directly on the topic or sub-topics.
  • include an overall introduction and conclusion to state the scope of the research coverage.
  • formulate the review questions and problems.

Normally, a newcomer likely makes a mistake to list papers and researchers in each paragraph when she/he first write a literature review. The literature review is not a simple list describing or summarizing others' works. The literature review shall be organized into sections by concepts, themes or trends. It’s usually a bad sign to see every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher [4].

In this work, more intensive information about the role of literature review in research and how to reach the role will be presented in following three sections: presentation, application and conclusion. In the presentation part, the purposes of the literature review, possible types of the review, process in writing the literature (e.g. strategies), and some tips are addressed to help a novice researcher to understand the role of the literature review in turn to write a good review for a specific research topic. In the application part, two practical examples, which are presenting the literature reviews conducted by precedent researchers, are given to help novice researchers to imagine the realistic process in writing a review for a specific area. The last section is conclusion of our work.



A literature review goes beyond the information search. It helps you identify and articulate the relationships between the literature and your field of research. [10] have summarized following basic purposes for a literature review:

  • It provides a context for the research,
  • It justifies the research,
  • It ensures the research has not been done before (or that it is not just a "replication study") or there are gaps in previous researches,
  • It shows where the research fits into the existing body of knowledge,
  • It enables the researcher to learn from previous theory on the subject,
  • It illustrates how the subject has been studied previously,
  • It highlights flaws in previous research,
  • It outlines gaps in previous research,
  • It shows that the work is adding to the understanding and knowledge of the field, and
  • It assists on refining, refocusing or even changing the topic.

Besides these basic points, a literature review can also help the researcher to

  • identify the research trend in this area,
  • determine the definitions of the main terms appeared in previous researches
  • establish the knowledge base on the subject
  • adjust the scope of the research
Literature Review Classifications

Literature reviews can be classified based on Cooper's taxonomy of Literature Reviews [1]. The taxonomy proposed by Cooper has five characteristics for categorizing literature reviews, they are: focus, goal, perspective, coverage, organization, and audience. Depending on which characteristics a literature reviews concentrated on, there are various types of literature reviews. For instance, if a literature review concentrates mainly on focus characteristic, reviewers can be interested in one or more foci: Research outcomes, Research methods, Theories and Practices or applications [1]. The types of literature reviews are categorized corresponding with its characteristics shown in the Table 1 below.

Characteristic Category
Focus Research outcomes
Research methods
Practices or applications
Goal Integration
(a) Generalization
(b) Conflict resolution
(c) Linguistic bridge-building
Identification of central issues
Perspective Neutral representation
Espousal of position
Coverage Exhaustive
Exhaustive with selective citation
Central or pivotal
Organization Historical
Audience Specialized scholars
General scholars
Practitioners or policymakers
General public

A combination of these categories is also common cases. For instance, a literature review is a kind of research outcomes focus and its goal is also for integration to make generalization of a topic.To acquire more information about Cooper's Taxonomy of Literature Review, you can read more in [1] and [2].

Strategies for writing a literature review

One of the most difficult things in writing a literature review of novice researchers is that they do not know where to start and how to do it in an efficient way. To give some hints for the inexperienced researchers, this part describes briefly the process of conducting a literature review. Basically, there are 6 main steps (mainly extracted from [1]) in working on the literature. The process spreads from specifying type of the review to presenting the review.

i. Specifying type of the review
A literature review can be one or a combination of several types described in previous part (Cooper's Taxonomy of Literature review). Positioning your type of the review will help you to orientate your process of conducting the review, especially in the next step - choosing review questions.

ii. Choosing review questions
There is a distinction between review questions and empirical questions in a research [1]. The review questions refer to those questions which will be answered during the literature review while the empirical questions will be experimented and answered during the primary research conducted by researcher. At this stage, the review questions are concerned and formed. To form the review questions, two sub-steps are needed: Forming the questions and indicating filtering criteria [1].

  • Forming questions: Review questions are very essential and influence the whole process of the review. These questions are not only lightening your search but also directing you in evaluating, analyzing and interpreting collected data; It can be thought as compass for exploring "the forest" of knowledge and finding out your own path of the review. As mentioned, the review types influence this forming step largely. For example, "From the previous literature, what is the effect of intervention X on outcomes Y and Z" [1] is a question focusing on the goal of integrating research outcomes. In particular, a similar question can be "How can peer-communication influence to learning java programming in online manner?".
  • Filtering criteria for qualified data: While the review questions are useful to help the novice researchers to locate resources, filtering criteria are necessary and crucial in narrowing down or focusing on relevant resources. These kind of criteria are called criteria for inclusion and exclusion [1]. Indeed, these criteria should be considered as conditions for classifying collected resources (e.g. articles, papers...) into two folds: relevance (inclusion) and irrelevance (exclusion). The criteria are good enough if there is a similar classification result after giving the same set of resources to two persons classifying based on these criteria [1].

iii. Locating resources / data
The main aim of this stage is to collect relevant resources lightened by the review questions based on the established filtering criteria. Normally, this stage will consume large time of the whole process. Nowadays, locating resources is almost done based on internet search. The search can be varied from common and popular sources such as search engines (e.g. Google), pages (wiki, blogs, research group website...) to specific and more professional places like e-libraries (ACM, Springer Link, ...), specific online journals (e.g. Ed/ITLib, Journal of Interactive Online Learning...). There are some practical recommendations which the novice researchers need to be paid attention while doing the searches. More often than not, qualified and valuable data is found at professional places rather than from results given by common search engines. But the common search engines can give good clues for further searches.

  • Initializing the search from your existing knowledge, try to use keywords or combination of the keywords
  • Logging your searches as much informative as possible such as: where you found the articles, which articles relate to which concepts, what are your thinking and decisions from each paper, who are authors of the papers, which authors or research groups have had much influence in the specific areas, etc.
  • Expanding the searches by following references of valuable articles which have been found [1]
  • Asking and consulting colleagues and experts (e.g. your supervisors) about your search results periodically [1]
  • The search can be stopped when the researchers think that the collected data is rich enough to convince readers and that the questions are answered reasonably by the collected data [1].

iv. Evaluating data
This step is very important for convincing readers (e.g. reviewers, supervisors). In this step, the researcher has to inspect very careful and deeply the collected data retrieved in previous step. Here again the review types play a very important role in evaluation, it means the evaluated data must support the selected types of the review. For example, if the review is characterized by the focus and its goals are research outcomes and integration, the evaluated data retrieved from the articles must express the achieved results of previous researches and an integration of these results must be considered and obtained [1]. Moreover, the following aspects should also be investigated: what kind of the type of evaluated data is? How was the process or instrument used to gather data? What methodologies were used to analyze the collected data? etc. This information has to be recorded carefully in appropriate form, for example, coding book is recommended in [1].

v. Analyzing and synthesizing
This step is continuity of the evaluating step. In this stage, the author has to put her own ideas on the evaluated data. A holistic picture of the research area should be exposed such as what have been done by previous researches; what are the gaps and where are the problems which will be solved in the primary research. The synthesis of the review can be done in various ways decided by the collected data, these ways can be quantitative, qualitative or mixed approaches [1].

vi. Publishing the work
Finally, the whole work will be arranged and organized based on your purpose such as historically, conceptually and methodologically [1] then a presentation of the review can be published or sent to target readers.

Tips for a good literature review

Tips Methods
Ask yourself questions ask self questions about

purpose, like 'What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?'
type, like 'What type of literature review am I conduction? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research? qualitative research? etc.'
scope, 'What is the scope of my literature review?'
quality, 'How good was my information seeking?' wide enough to ensure I have found all the relevant material, and narrow enough to exclude irrelevant materials?
analysis, 'Have I critically analyzed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them?'
contrary, 'Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?

Quickly browse abstract, keywords, conclusion, and references first Do not read the entire paper right away. Read abstract first to discover the interests. Read the conclusion part to see what the authors have already done and what are left untouched.
Know key authors Find out all related works done by key authors in the certain time frame. Doing this, you will know how long the authors stay in this area and how deep they dig through.
Write down the main terms and their definitions Search for the same terms with various definitions, and at the meantime, search for the similar definitions with different terms. Then compare them to each other to find out the patterns and differences. From these patterns and differences you may find out some clues for your research.
Record key definitions and their context Look for patterns and frameworks in what is written about a topic such as the context – social, political, historical.
Create a map of your sources Going through these sources, you will find some gaps among them. Draw a map to show these 'holes' and link them with your sources.
Fill in the 'holes' in your source map[9] Link these 'holes' with your sources to see whether your existing sources can cover all holes. If not, you may think to expend your search range. Doing this way can help you to find out the research gaps, which might be your next research topics. Like [7] mentioned "in searching for information, be prepared to be simultaneously depressed and excited – depressed because you cannot find anything to match your needs exactly, and excited because this means that your line of inquiry could be unusual or even unique. Be prepared to step out of both your subject area…and even your discipline."
Start writing After analysis and evaluation of your literature, be attention to tell your audience that you are writing literature review. Very good tips about this step can be found at Boston College University Libraries’ list of caveats:


Organize your references in preferred bibliography style [8]


In this part, we present two practical examples to illustrate how to conduct a literature review and its role in research.

Example 1

The paper "Survey on Context-Aware Pervasive Learning Environments" [5] is a very good example of a literature review, I think. It has had a very clear structure and good approach to reach the aim - presenting the current state-of-the-art of Context-aware pervasive learning environment. In the introduction part of the paper, authors have specified very clear about type of the review, the goal of the review is integration and identification of central issues based on observing and evaluating research outcomes of existing applications and practices: "By reviewing existing work, we seek to build a solid ground for further research on how different learning models can be efficiently utilised in pervasive learning environments and what are the critical features of such an environment" [5]. The method used in the paper to conduct the survey is also similar with the strategies discussed above: formulating research questions, Collecting data, evaluating data and observing (analyzing and synthesizing). The followings are some particular examples extracted from the paper.

  • Research questions: These questions are very important for later steps. The questions are not primary research questions but they are for review research. The followings are 3 main questions created by the author of the paper [5].
1. What are the currently existing context-aware pervasive learning environments and how are they built?
2. What learning models, if any, have been established to support pervasive learning experiences in these environments?
3. What is the role of mobile devices in existing pervasive learning environments?
  • Data collection: Before gathering the data the authors has created a set of rules for inclusion, some example rules from the paper are: a) The work describes a design, implementation, analysis or test of a pervasive learning environment or system; b) The presented environment/system uses sensors or other technologies for smart environments to enable context-awareness; having people walking around with mobile devices connected to a wireless network was not enough as it is merely m-learning; etc.[5]

There were 18 qualified papers chosen for the survey from many papers or articles passing two phases. In the first phase, titles and abstracts of papers or articles in given forums were investigated. If there were relevance the papers were chosen to the next phase. In the second phase, the abstracts and introductions were read carefully. Just only those met the inclusion criteria were selected for the survey.

  • Data evaluation: to extract useful information from the selected papers, the authors has created a set of detail questions derived from the research questions. These detail questions have lightened the author to retrieve relevant information which supporting deeper analysis. Some example questions from the paper are: Q-A0: What are the description and purpose of the system/environment? Q-A1: Is it based on a client/server approach? If not, what is it based on? Q-A2: What is the hardware/software platform of the system? etc.[5]
  • Observations (analysis and synthesis): After extracting and evaluating based on the detail questions, the authors have established 5 observations as the result, some observations concluded by the author are:
    • Observation 1: RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) is the most prevalent sensor technology used in pervasive learning environments.
    • Observation 2: There are several learning models that are suitable for different learning activities in pervasive learning environments, but none of them was validated properly
    • Other observations: see in the paper [5]

The important thing is that these observations were made on the basic of the detail questions created in the data evaluation stage.

  • Presentation: The result of the review has been presented in the format of empirical paper including introduction, method, results, and discussion parts [1].
Example 2

A good example of literature review was done by Alex Wilson and Janet Sarson about "Participation of Aboriginal Students in Postsecondary Health Education Programs in Saskatchewan." [6]

The author started with the project/research goals and followed a brief hstory of the topic. And then the authors specified the problem statements that they planned to expend deeply and discuss more step by step.

After the Introduction section, the authors discussed the first problem related to the research topic. They presented their points in the first sentence directly, then followed the found from the article or paper, which was cited from (Aboriginal Population Profile, 2006 Census, 2008; Saskatchewan Bureau of Statistics, n.d.), and ended with another issue that would be ready for the discussion in the next paragraph. In the second section, the authors use the same style to directly state the problem and follow the facts found in articles, journal papers, and statistics reports from the grovernment.

So, the entire literature review is structured in this style:

  • Directly give out the research or project goals,
  • Clearly state the problems,
  • Briefly introduce the history related to the topic,
  • Deeply expend each problem statement with facts found in jpurnal papers and reports,
  • Intently identify areas of controversy in the literature,
  • The review synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known,
  • The review materials are organized around based on the themes and trends.

For instance, the project goal is “to improve coordination of health programming, reduce administrative duplication, better adapt programs to the needs of First Nations and address the gaps in health services for First Nations people” which was cited from (Government of Saskatchewan, 2008), and then in the next paragraph, the authors use these statistic data to support the prolem statement mentioned previously.

In addition, the authors referred wide enough and good quality resources for this review. For instance, statistic reports from Statistics Canada, research paper from Canadian Council on Learning, and journal paper from Canadian Journal of Native Education, etc.


Thought as the first important brick for building a solid base for a good research later, the literature review needs to be conducted by researcher in a very careful and deliberate manner before starting the primary research. Normally, novice researchers have very little experience in writing the literature review for their topics, they often feel confused and don't know where is the beginning point for conducting the review. The Cooper's taxonomy, the summary of strategies for writing a literature review (mainly extracted from [1]) and some useful tips described above can provide some hints for the newcomers in considering and making a convincible literature review. Moreover, the two presented examples are also practical works where the novice can find more useful experiences from precedent researchers. In our opinion, this work is not a comprehensive material for writing an excellent review but we believe that it can provide inexperienced researchers some clues for thinking and conducting a reasonable literature review which will be a solid ground for establishing the primary research later.


[1] Justus Randolph, A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review, http://www.cs.joensuu.fi.joecat.joensuu.fi:8080/impdet/uploads/literature_review_guide_Justus_Randolph.pdf (retrieved in May, 2010)
[2] Cooper, Harris M., A Taxanomy of Literature Review, Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (69th, Chicago, IL, March 31-April, 1985)
[3] Boote, D.N. & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher 34/6, 3-15.
[4] Taylor, D. (2010). The literature review: A few tips on conducting it. Retrieved from http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review at May 17th, 2010
[5] Teemu Henrikki Laine, Mike Joy, Survey on Context-Aware Pervasive Learning Environments, International Journal of Interactive Mobile Technologies (iJIM), Vol 3, No 1 (2009)
[6] Wilson, A. and Sarson, J. (2008). Literature Review on Participation of Aboriginal Students in Postsecondary Health Education Programs in Saskatchewan. A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 6(3) 2008. Retrieved at May 19th, 2010 at http://www.pimatisiwin.com.joecat.joensuu.fi:8080/uploads/1742634680.pdf
[7] Carole Gray and Julian Malins, Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004). p. 43.
[8] Boston College University Libraries’ list of caveats: Bibliography: http://libguides.bc.edu/content.php?pid=1194&sid=157358.
[9] Mattern, S. (2010). Literature Review Tips. Retrieved from http://www.wordsinspace.net/course_material/MatternLiteratureReviewTips.pdf at May 21th, 2010.
[10] Boote, D.N. & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher 34/6, 3-15.

I. Structure and Approach

The introduction is the broad beginning of the paper that answers three important questions for the reader:

  1. What is this?
  2. Why should I read it?
  3. What do you want me to think about / consider doing / react to?

Think of the structure of the introduction as an inverted triangle of information that lays a foundation for understanding the research problem. Organize the information so as to present the more general aspects of the topic early in the introduction, then narrow your analysis to more specific topical information that provides context, finally arriving at your research problem and the rationale for studying it [often written as a series of key questions] and, whenever possible, a description of the potential outcomes your study can reveal.

These are general phases associated with writing an introduction:

1.  Establish an area to research by:

  • Highlighting the importance of the topic, and/or
  • Making general statements about the topic, and/or
  • Presenting an overview on current research on the subject.

2.  Identify a research niche by:

  • Opposing an existing assumption, and/or
  • Revealing a gap in existing research, and/or
  • Formulating a research question or problem, and/or
  • Continuing a disciplinary tradition.

3.  Place your research within the research niche by:

  • Stating the intent of your study,
  • Outlining the key characteristics of your study,
  • Describing important results, and
  • Giving a brief overview of the structure of the paper.

NOTE:  Even though the introduction is the first main section of a research paper, it is often useful to finish the introduction late in the writing process because the structure of the paper, the reporting and analysis of results, and the conclusion will have been completed. Reviewing and, if necessary, rewriting the introduction ensures that it correctly matches the overall structure of your final paper.

II.  Delimitations of the Study

Delimitations refer to those characteristics that limit the scope and define the conceptual boundaries of your research. This is determined by the conscious exclusionary and inclusionary decisions you make about how to investigate the research problem. In other words, not only should you tell the reader what it is you are studying and why, but you must also acknowledge why you rejected alternative approaches that could have been used to examine the topic.

Obviously, the first limiting step was the choice of research problem itself. However, implicit are other, related problems that could have been chosen but were rejected. These should be noted in the conclusion of your introduction. For example, a delimitating statement could read, "Although many factors can be understood to impact the likelihood young people will vote, this study will focus on socioeconomic factors related to the need to work full-time while in school." The point is not to document every possible delimiting factor, but to highlight why previously researched issues related to the topic were not addressed.

Examples of delimitating choices would be:

  • The key aims and objectives of your study,
  • The research questions that you address,
  • The variables of interest [i.e., the various factors and features of the phenomenon being studied],
  • The method(s) of investigation,
  • The time period your study covers, and
  • Any relevant alternative theoretical frameworks that could have been adopted.

Review each of these decisions. Not only do you clearly establish what you intend to accomplish in your research, but you should also include a declaration of what the study does not intend to cover. In the latter case, your exclusionary decisions should be based upon criteria understood as, "not interesting"; "not directly relevant"; “too problematic because..."; "not feasible," and the like. Make this reasoning explicit!

NOTE:  Delimitations refer to the initial choices made about the broader, overall design of your study and should not be confused with documenting the limitiations of your study discovered after the research has been completed.

ANOTHER NOTE: Do not view delimitating statements as admitting to an inherent failing or shortcoming in your research. They are an accepted element of academic writing intended to keep the reader focused on the research problem by explicitly defining the conceptual boundaries and scope of your study. It addresses any critical questions in the reader's mind of, "Why the hell didn't the author examine this?"

III. The Narrative Flow

Issues to keep in mind that will help the narrative flow in your introduction:

  • Your introduction should clearly identify the subject area of interest. A simple strategy to follow is to use key words from your title in the first few sentences of the introduction. This will help focus the introduction on the topic at the appropriate level and ensures that you get to the subject matter quickly without losing focus, or discussing information that is too general.
  • Establish context by providing a brief and balanced review of the pertinent published literature that is available on the subject. The key is to summarize for the reader what is known about the specific research problem before you did your analysis. This part of your introduction should not represent a comprehensive literature review--that comes next. It consists of a general review of the important, foundational research literature [with citations] that establishes a foundation for understanding key elements of the research problem. See the drop-down menu under this tab for "Background Information" regarding types of contexts.
  • Clearly state the hypothesis that you investigated. When you are first learning to write in this format it is okay, and actually preferable, to use a past statement like, "The purpose of this study was to...." or "We investigated three possible mechanisms to explain the...."
  • Why did you choose this kind of research study or design? Provide a clear statement of the rationale for your approach to the problem studied. This will usually follow your statement of purpose in the last paragraph of the introduction.

IV. Engaging the Reader

The overarching goal of your introduction is to make your readers want to read your paper. The introduction should grab the reader's attention. Strategies for doing this can be to:

  1. Open with a compelling story,
  2. Include a strong quotation or a vivid, perhaps unexpected anecdote,
  3. Pose a provocative or thought-provoking question,
  4. Describe a puzzling scenario or incongruity, or
  5. Cite a stirring example or case study that illustrates why the research problem is important.

NOTE:  Choose only one strategy for engaging your readers; avoid giving an impression that your paper is more flash than substance.

Freedman, Leora  and Jerry Plotnick. Introductions and Conclusions. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Introduction. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Introductions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Introductions. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Introductions, Body Paragraphs, and Conclusions for an Argument Paper. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; “Writing Introductions.” In Good Essay Writing: A Social Sciences Guide. Peter Redman. 4th edition. (London: Sage, 2011), pp. 63-70; Resources for Writers: Introduction Strategies. Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sharpling, Gerald. Writing an Introduction. Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick; Samraj, B. “Introductions in Research Articles: Variations Across Disciplines.” English for Specific Purposes 21 (2002): 1–17; Swales, John and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Skills and Tasks. 2nd edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004; Writing Your Introduction. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University.

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