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Writing Scientific Literature Reviews: What Is a Literature Review?

This Guide

This is a guide aimed to help students with scientific literature reviews. It defines what a literature review is and provides guidance with research sources and writing.

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Writing Center

Please also see this guide, produced by NU's Writing Center:


A literature review is a guide to the research available on a specific topic. It involves extensive research through all of the academic information available on that topic, as well as a critical discussion of the findings.  At a minimum, a literature review should:

  • Be based on thorough research of all of the information available on the topic.
  • Identify and summarize the concepts, methods, and findings of research that has already been developed in that field of study.
  • Compare the differences and similarities of the research.
  • Identify research gaps.
  • Identify any common issues that researchers in the field should be aware of or avoid.
  • Critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of research findings (ie. how convincing is the research?).
  • Identify the leading articles and researchers in the field.

Literature reviews are aimed at other researchers, to provide a guide to the specific field. They are also a critical element of research proposals. By the end of a literature review, the reader should have a clear idea of:

  • The chosen topic.
  • The range of information available, major achievements, concepts, and controversies within the field.
  • Areas that must be further researched/the justification for conducting the proposed research.

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