Monday, October 24, 2011


What most people do not understand about the output of a literature review leads them to the presentation of non-concurrent and poor articulation of facts, concepts and perspectives from what pertains to their research area. Literature review is supposed to reveal the cogent issues of theory and practice to the subject matter of ones research.Thus discussions must be founded on issues that are connected coherently to the research topic, problem statement and research questions or objectives.
In most cases, if one picks a discussion (write-up) on the issues presented as part of the literature review for a thesis, I should be able to appreciate the issues of on the subject matter from a theoretical, conceptual and practical perspective and from an international to a local perspective? This paper provides a resource base as to the whats and hows of a literature review.

Importance of Literature Review
Most individuals do not appreciate the essence of conducting a literature review. Yet a well written literature review provides an avenue to avoid research errors. In most cases, it may be very difficult to write one especially in the arena of newly developing research focus or investigation. Despite this, writing a literature can build a sound arguments for a research whether old or new.

The first importance relates to the knowledge gained as a result of the detailed research from what has already been done in the field. This knowledge therefore serves as a guide to enable one avoid research duplication, identify potential challenges to measurements, assess the pros and cons of a research methodology as well as expose the research to further areas that are important to the field being investigated. It thus enables the researcher to be pragmatic and proactive in his assessments and provides a basis for research innovation and creativity. Aside providing a solid background to a research it consequently becomes a useful set of information to inform both academia and professionals on the current state of issues on the subject matter and how challenges to measurement and streamlining of research processes can be managed adequately.

Similarly, a literature review can serve as an assignment for an academic course, help update current personal knowledge and practice on a topic, evaluate current practices, develop and update guidelines for practice, and develop work-related policies (Polit and Beck 2006)

In summary, a literature review would enable one to avoid duplication in a field of study, identify the appropriate methodology for the study by revealing the variables and indicators necessary for the study, identify possible challenges to the study and scope of the problem being studied, establish the importance of the study, and show the extent of availability of research into the field.

Nature of Literature Reviews
Just like any piece of writing, literature review can take different forms. There is no one way of presenting a literature review. Nonetheless the functions and purpose to which it serves must be satisfied by all undertaking such an exercise. The purpose is to convey to readers the knowledge and ideas that have been established on the topic articulating past and recent issues, concepts and theories as well as strength and weaknesses in methodology and findings. It must take its foundation from the objectives, questions and problem of the research being investigated.

Type One - Definition of Terminologies and Concepts
One form of a literature review is to present the definitions and applications of terminologies and key concepts on a particular topic. Most often this kind of approach are adopted by physical scientist whose field of knowledge are characterized by phrases and words that are not ordinary to the lane man. These are done to enhance flow of reading and appreciation of knowledge being presented by the writer. Similarly, these technique or approach can be adopted by individuals undertaking research into unfamiliar fields or phenomena.

Such discussions are descriptive and narrative in nature and present principles and assumptions underpinning them. These presentation are theoretical and abstract in form with little emphasis on practice and experiences. In addition, there is a low level of analysis without a cognitive argumentation on the topic and the variables being studied.

Type Two - Argumentative Literature Review
Cronin et al (2008) describes this type of literature review as 'Traditional or narrative literature review'. According to them, this type of review critiques and summarizes a body of literature and draws conclusions about the topic in question and is made up of the relevant studies and knowledge that address the subject area. As the name portrays it is a discussion that builds on the arguments for and against the processes and findings of past researches and how these lessons can inform new understandings. Such writings relates more to substantive discussions rather than procedural issues even though the later plays important role in such discussions.

The importance of this type of presentation is the understanding it presents on the subject matter from causes to consequences, scope of manifestation and effects and the role actors are playing to remedy negativity and enhance positivity. It is adopted by both social and physical sciences and builds on understanding how evolution of thought influences present and future phenomena.

Type 3 - Trend Analysis
An extensions of the argumentative type of literature review is the trend analysis. This relates to an assessment of the evolution of past to present issues in the field of the study or topic. It discusses changes in findings for the similar studies and what has informed the change and whether current trends would yield specific findings. Consequently it presents a context for new researches to prove changes or consistency in similar new studies. This type is also adopted by social and physical scientists. For physical scientist they may argue from the point of view to test theories while social scientist may argue whether changing trends may induce changes in social issues and how people behave.

This type of review is also associated with quantitative analysis where statistics for a particular variable are presented over definitive time periods for different regions, countries and or continents. All with the aim of understanding the intricacies and dynamics associated with the evolution of knowledge in the field from the past to the present. Cronin et al (2008) identifies a similar type of review dubbed "systematic review". A systematic review thus details the time frame within which the literature was selected, as well as the methods used to evaluate and synthesize findings of the studies in question (Parahoo 2006); just like a trend analysis.

Type 4 - Statistical Reviews
These are of two forms inferring from Cronin et al (2008). There are meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. Meta-analysis takes a large body of quantitative findings and conducting statistical analysis in order to integrate those findings and enhance understanding. It involves using quantitative data from similar fields to present a new perspective on the subject matter by establishing association, correlation or consequences between similar or varied variables studied. The objective is to establish patterns; divergence and convergence; on findings from other studies on a similar topic. Unlike trend analysis which collate and summaries findings, meta-analysis perform quantitative analysis on the data or information collated using standardized statistical procedures (Polit and Beck 2006).

On the other hand, meta-synthesis adopts non-statistical techniques to establish patterns and relationships by integrating, evaluating and interpreting the findings of multiple qualitative research studies on similar topics. Thus the only difference between these two are the type of data used in the analysis or review as meta-analysis adopts quantitative analysis while meta-synthesis adopts qualitative data or information. Polit and Beck (2006) discuss in details the similarities and differences between these types of discussions or review.

It must be noted that these typologies are not unique to one particular literature review as the adoption of the type is dependent on the kind of arguments or awareness the writer wants to raise. For these reason, the type of literary materials, the target audience, and the kind of study being undertaken may influence selection. Moreover, a combination of one or more of the techniques can be adopted as different issues may require different presentations and levels of analysis. However, the prerogative rests on the writer taking into cognizance the the object and available material at his/her disposal.

Searching for Literature Materials
The ability to write a good literature review rest on the availability of literature materials and the skill of the writer. The focus of this section is to discuss how to access literature materials. So often, people articulate the challenge with which they face in finding research materials relating to their field or topic and all these are related to the fact that they are not either able to identify sources or do not know how to search for information. This section attempts to eradicate this challenge or minimize its effects on writers.

There are various sources to access information for a literature review. Articles, books, news papers, pamphlets, handouts, manuals, audio discussions, debates and many others. The list may even be uncountable. The most recent tool for information access which I intentionally omitted is the World Wide Web. This has become the single most important source of literary materials in this modern age. Yet despite these potential students and professionals alike are still struggling with access to information for a literature review.

To access information is to appreciate the repository of the kind of information one would need. For instance, information on a school attendance cannot be gotten from a health facility and neither national education policies can be gotten from a military apparatus. Thus in searching for information there is the need to identify the source and place to gain what is being sort for. Libraries and registries of organisations to which certain data or information are managed by them should be our target.

After these repositories have been identified, then comes what information to access. This must be informed by a well structured list of issues to be discussed. Listing all possible topical issues and thematic areas would guide the search making it more refined and easy to seek. The implication is simple; that the writer must know what is being sort for and what kind and form of the data or information is needed for any discussion. In essence, Newell and Burnard (2006) suggest that comprehensiveness and relevance are what reviewers need to consider and add that the more specific the topic or question being searched is, the more focused the result will be. This is particularly true for computer based systems and databases where key words and phrase define the kind of output the comes out. Thus without clearly defining the kind of information or data needed, one may have a lot of redundancies as outputs. This is where key themes, words, issues and the overall structure of the literature review comes to the fore. Defining the specific issues to be discussed helps the database understand what kind of information or books that relates to each section of the literature review. Currently, there a lot of books that enhance understanding on how to use some of these electronic systems. Similarly, the help sections and guide on these pages provides guide as to how these systems operate. Read them as they are important to the information searching processes.

The World Wide Web provides such a potential. With so many search engines and repositories one may be privy to a lot of important as well as irrelevant information. Understanding how to use it is thus an imperative. In addition, individuals, organisations and agencies have on-line repositories to which one can have access to up-to date data and information. Knowing the kind of agency or organisation that deals with your area of study can help in this direction as their research documents can provide a good reference point for a literature review.

Hints on How to Write a Literature ReviewThis section begins with an understanding that the reader has identified the research topic and defined his research objectives, questions and problem adequately (For more information on this read "Writing A Research Proposal or Synopsis" on this blog). The next step after clearly having a research background is to present a literature review.

The following are hints as to how to go about the structure and the issues of a literature review using the case topic of rural poverty.
a. First identify the broad variables that underpin your research.
For this particular topic the main thrust embody rural areas, rural education, and rural poverty. If the topic were to embody the nature and causes of poor educational attainment, then the issue of "The Factors that determine Educational Attainment" would come to the fore. Similarly, if I were to look at the causes of poverty and their effects I would also need to establish from literature what have been the causes of poverty especially in rural areas and draw critical comparison with urban areas as the subject matter implies that possibly there are varying issues of poverty and education in urban and rural areas.
Because of these perspectives, the persons presenting his/her views on this topic would need to provide and discuss topics that would help anyone appreciate the subject matter being discussed as done below:
2.1. Introduction
2.2 Education and Development
2.3 Rural Education, Rural Development and Poverty
2.4 Rural Education and Rural Development in Ghana
2.5 Rural Education and Development Interventions
2.6 Emerging Issues of Rural Education and Rural Development
2.7 Lessons and Implications from Literature
2.8 A Conceptual Framework for Rural Education and Rural Development
2.7 Conclusion
The structure above is a broad final structure for a sample literature review. It must be indicated that between these listed points, there could be more issues that can still be broken down to make it more defined and refined. For instance, under rural education and rural development and poverty; one could still articulate the 'state of rural education, factors hindering rural education, poverty effects on rural education'; and the issues can go one depending on the objectives and scope of the discussion. In sense, the creativity of the writer is very important at this stage.

b. How are the issues being presented related to the research objectives or questions identified.
Would the issues that you discuss in your literature enhance your understanding of rural education and development and would it provide enough theoretical and practical bases to serve as a reference point in identifying new issues to be included in your research design, methodology and data collection instruments? If the answers are true for all of these then you are heading towards a good structure for your literature review. If not you need to search and look for more issues that would help you understand what ever you are attempting to study. You must understand that the literature helps you to understand what is known to enable you understand the unknown.

d. Categorization
After identifying all the issues and making sure that they relate to the research topic, there has to be categorization. This relates to the arrangements of the information in a structured manner that present the discussion in a concurrent manner. This allows for the systematic flow of thought so that arguments raised would build interest for readers to read more and appreciate the line of discussions. It consist of a tall list of variables and issues identified arrange in an order that espouse understanding and rationality. This must present intra and inter consistency without which the review becomes a mere write up of ideas that do not mean anything. These thus forms the basis to which materials gathered are presented.

e. The Structure
In all, a good literature review has three main parts; an introduction, a body and the conclusion. The introduction relates to the statement of purpose for the literature, the central concepts that underpin the review and an overview of expectations for the write-up.

The body consist of all the structured issues and categorization of ideas relating to the known and unknown. That is, it presents discussions on the subject matter relating to the topic whether definition of terms, arguments for and against a process or finding, past and recent findings and experiences that relate to the issue under consideration. In addition, the implications for knowledge building and policy interventions can also be added.

Conclusion summaries findings and lessons from the review. It also includes the writers concluding perspectives on the arguments presented and a discussion of observations made relating to converging and diverging issues. Where possible, the writer presents a conceptual framework as a result of the observed similarities and divergence to serve as the underpinning framework for the study.

e. Read Wide
If you do not understand anything discussed so far then search for information on the subject area and build your capacity to learn new things. Read wide on research methods materials as they would build your capacity to understand and undertake a good literature review.

Cronin, P., F. Ryan, and M. Coughla (2008): Undertaking a literature review: A step-by-step approach. British Journal of Nursing, 2008, Vol 17, No 1. [Accessed on 24th March 2012]

Newell R, Burnard P (2006) Research for Evidence-Based Practice. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford

Parahoo K (2006) Nursing Research – principles, process and issues. 2nd edn. Palgrave, Houndsmill

Polit D, Beck C (2006): Essentials of Nursing Research: Methods, Appraisal and Utilization. 6th edn. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, Philadelphia


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