What Is a Literature Review?

By Hazel Isaac-Smith, PhD

Angled view of book collections on shelves in an older library

“Publishing a [literature] review demands art as well as skill to help readers to make sense of a particular world of evidence and make them want to go and find out more for themselves.” (Barbara Steward)

When approaching a literature review, doctoral learners are either overwhelmed by the task or they underestimate the importance of it. The College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University is here to help you get your literature review going in the right direction:

Literature Review Definition

What is a literature review in a dissertation? This is a question that often intrigues and confuses doctoral learners.

For some, the literature review is interpreted to be a short summary of articles read or synopsis of readings in the field. While this might be a part of the process, it is not a complete literature review.

A well-written literature review is pivotal to the writing of a solid dissertation. It provides a comprehensive, coherent overview of significant literature on a specific scholarly topic. This entails the review of scholarly, peer-reviewed articles, books, abstracts, reviews, dissertations, websites, and other resources to formulate a critical analysis of the information compiled.

Included in this analysis is a brief historical description of a topic, isolation of a theory/conceptual framework and a well-written critical evaluation of the work. Reviewing the literature brings the general idea for future research into focus, thereby making the gap in scholarly literature clearer.

Literature Review Purpose

For doctoral learners, the process of writing a literature review provides an opportunity to become intrinsically knowledgeable about the chosen topic of research, the prominent researchers in the field and the trends and theories associated with the topic. This process is not to be underestimated for its complexity and value to the dissertation.

The literature review brings to the forefront of all current research and information to develop an understanding of the chosen field. It connects the learner to his or her future research “peers.”  The learner can expect to expound on or follow up on the most notable researchers in the field as part of the literature review.

The Importance of a Literature Review

Boote & Beile (2005) note when examiners encounter a poorly written literature review, they are alerted to thoroughly examine the methods of data collection, the analysis and conclusion more carefully. They contend the entire dissertation is negatively affected in the quality and conceptual framework; thus, a weak dissertation is likely the result of a poorly written literature review.

In essence, the literature review gives the learner a solid idea of scholarly research and its trends, which point to areas of further research. Synopsis of the reading and review demonstrate the learner’s understanding of the research topic. The learner can begin to hone the overall topic and refine the area of interest. Reading empirical and theoretical literature is key.

specific topic + critical analysis + synthesis = literature review

Final Tips for Writing

10 Critical Elements of a Well-Written, Scholarly Literature Review

  1. Exhaustive: Exhaustive, relevant qualitative and quantitative scholarly evidence
  2. Relevant: Articles systematically included or excluded
  3. Unbiased: Major varying theories and professional practices
  4. Classified: Why was the research done? What was the outcome?
  5. Synthesized: The conclusion drawn from reading research articles; creating a whole from individual parts
  6. Bridged: Connecting previous knowledge to further research
  7. Critically analyzed: Understanding the whole by breaking it down into individual parts
  8. Summarized: Conclusion of literature findings
  9. Gap: A research gap is identified for future research
  10. Referenced: Where would you go to read more about this subject?

Common Mistakes in Writing a Literature Review

  1. Bias: Alternative theories, interpretations and points of view are excluded.
  2. You reported specific results of studies rather than synthesizing the information.
  3. The findings of the literature are not related to the study.
  4. The process of conducting the literature review is not included in the body.
  5. Too many secondary resources are used, rather than primary resources.
  6. Appropriate keywords and/or descriptors are not included.
  7. Intimidated: You do not question the research or conclusions of other authors.
  8. You ignore or do not pay specific attention to research design and analysis.
  9. Information is illogically organized.
  10. Obsolete research reviewed: If the research is more than five years old, you should rethink using it (unless there has been no study done on the subject recently).

Grand Canyon University’s College of Doctoral Studies helps learners to grow and learn in their field. To learn more about GCU’s doctoral programs, such as the DBA in Data Analytics, request more information by using the button at the top of the page.


  • Boote, David N., and Penny Beile. “Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation.”Educational researcher 34.6 (2005): 3-15.

More about Dr. Isaac-Smith:

Hazel Isaac-Smith, PhD, is a senior research specialist for the Office of Dissertations, College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University. She has 15+ years of teaching and administrative experience in higher education. Dr. Isaac-Smith has a BSc in communicative disorders from Andrews University; BEd from the University of Toronto; MEd in special education from York University in Canada and PhD in emotional/behavioral disorders from Arizona State University.

Dr. Isaac-Smith has a passion for working with adult learners in higher education and brings substantial teaching experience, having taught students ranging from preschoolers to doctoral students. Her research interests lie in the field of linguistics, the pragmatics of language and psycholinguistics. At Grand Canyon University, Dr. Isaac-Smith’s primary role has been to guide doctoral learners and their dissertation committee members to successful completion of their dissertation journey.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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