What Is a Lit Review?

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If you’re thinking about earning your PhD or another type of doctorate degree, you may be wondering, What is a lit review? And What is the purpose of a literature review? A literature review, or lit review, is an important component of developing a dissertation for a doctoral degree program.

When approaching a literature review, doctoral learners are typically either overwhelmed by the scope of the task or they may underestimate the importance of it. The College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University has compiled some guidance on the importance of a literature review and the essential elements of a well-written, scholarly lit review.

In This Guide:

What Is a Literature Review in a Doctoral Degree Program?

What is a lit review? This is an element of a dissertation that is often misunderstood. 

For some, the literature review is interpreted to be a short summary of articles the student has read or a 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 should provide 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 any other available resources to formulate a critical analysis of the information compiled. 

In other words, a summary of literature in the field is not sufficient by itself. A scholarly analysis is one of the most important elements of a literature review. 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 more clear. 

What Is the Purpose of a Literature Review?

For doctoral learners, the process and purpose of writing a literature review provides an opportunity to become steeped in the intricacies of 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 all current research and information to develop an understanding of the chosen field. It connects the learner to their 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. 

A great literature review will also pinpoint the research that’s needed to make advancements and build off what’s already known. View everything you’re reading with a critical eye. For example:

  • Are there any flaws in the methodology?
  • Are there any unanswered questions?
  • Are the findings themselves questionable? 

Using these questions to guide continued research helps us answer: What is the purpose of a literature review? 

The Importance of a Literature Review

According to Boote and Beile’s (2005) journal article, 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. 

If one were to put together a formula for an effective and scholarly lit review, it might look like this: 

Specific topic + critical analysis + synthesis = literature review 

Critical Attributes and Elements of a Literature Review

Like any standalone piece, a lit review should have a definable structure. The basic elements of a literature review are the introduction, body and conclusion. Since a lit review for a dissertation is not a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion may only consist of a few sentences each. 

Here’s a look at how to write a literature review:

  • Introduction: Touch on the thesis, explain the key texts and perhaps explain how you analyzed literature for inclusion.
  • Body: Provide summaries and add your own interpretations and analyses. Critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the sources, drawing connections where appropriate.
  • Conclusion: Summarize your key findings, being sure to make a connection between your findings and your thesis or research question. 

Throughout each of these elements, you should strive for the following attributes:

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

In addition to including important elements, consider mistakes to avoid when learning how to write a literature review, including the demonstration of scholarly bias. Alternative theories, interpretations and points of view are typically excluded. Additional mistakes to avoid include: 

  • You reported specific results of studies rather than synthesizing the information.
  • The findings of the literature are not related to your thesis.
  • The process of conducting the literature review is not included in the body.
  • Too many secondary resources are used, rather than primary resources.
  • Appropriate keywords and/or descriptors are not included.
  • You do not question the research or conclusions of other authors.
  • You ignore or do not pay specific attention to research design and analysis.
  • Information is illogically organized.
  • You examined obsolete research. 

Find the Right Doctoral Program for You at GCU

The mission of Grand Canyon University’s College of Doctoral Studies is to help learners reach for academic and professional growth while making positive contributions to their respective fields. To learn more about GCU’s doctoral programs, you can request more information by completing the form on this page and connecting with a university counselor. 

1Boote, D.N. and Beile, P. (2005, September). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. JSTOR. Retrieved on Feb. 2, 2024.

Approved by the dean of the College of Doctoral Studies on Feb. 29, 2024.

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.