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COM 297 - Communication Research Methods

Research guide for students in COM 297 to assist with your coursework.

The Literature Review

The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It, from the University of Toronto, is a helpful overview of the process of conducting a literature review.

Tutorial on How to Write a Literature Review

How to Build a Literature Review

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a comprehensive summary and analysis of previously published research on a particular topic. Literature reviews should give the reader an overview of the important theories and themes that have previously been discussed on the topic, as well as any important researchers who have contributed to the discourse. This review should connect the established conclusions to the hypothesis being presented in the rest of the paper.

What a Literature Review Is Not:

  • Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography summarizes and assesses each resource individually and separately. A literature review explores the connections between different articles to illustrate important themes/theories/research trends within a larger research area. 
  • Timeline: While a literature review can be organized chronologically, they are not simple timelines of previous events. They should not be a list of any kind. Individual examples or events should be combined to illustrate larger ideas or concepts.
  • Argumentative Paper: Literature reviews are not meant to be making an argument. They are explorations of a concept to give the audience an understanding of what has already been written and researched about an idea. As many perspectives as possible should be included in a literature review in order to give the reader as comprehensive understanding of a topic as possible.

Why Write a Literature Review?

  • After reading the literature review, the reader should have a basic understanding of the topic. A reader should be able to come into your paper without really knowing anything about an idea, and after reading the literature, feel more confident about the important points.

  • A literature review should also help the reader understand the focus the rest of the paper will take within the larger topic. If the reader knows what has already been studied, they will be better prepared for the novel argument that is about to be made.

  • A literature review should help the reader understand the important history, themes, events, and ideas about a particular topic. Connections between ideas/themes should also explored. Part of the importance of a literature review is to prove to experts who do read your paper that you are knowledgeable enough to contribute to the academic discussion. You have to have done your homework.

  • A literature review should also identify the gaps in research to show the reader what hasn't yet been explored. Your thesis should ideally address one of the gaps identified in the research. Scholarly articles are meant to push academic conversations forward with new ideas and arguments. Before knowing where the gaps are in a topic, you need to have read what others have written.

Structure of a Literature Review

As mentioned in other tabs, literature reviews should discuss the big ideas that make up a topic. Each literature review should be broken up into different subtopics. Each subtopic should use groups of articles as evidence to support the ideas. There are several different ways of organizing a literature review. It will depend on the patterns one sees in the groups of articles as to which strategy should be used. Here are a few examples of how to organize your review:


If there are clear trends that change over time, a chronological approach could be used to organize a literature review. For example, one might argue that in the 1970s, the predominant theories and themes argued something. However, in the 1980s, the theories evolved to something else. Then, in the 1990s, theories evolved further. Each decade is a subtopic, and articles should be used as examples. 


There may also be clear distinctions between schools of thought within a topic, a theoretical breakdown may be most appropriate. Each theory could be a subtopic, and articles supporting the theme should be included as evidence for each one. 


If researchers mainly differ in the way they went about conducting research, literature reviews can be organized by methodology. Each type of method could be a subtopic,  and articles using the method should be included as evidence for each one.

Preliminary Steps for Literature Review

  1. Define your research question
  2. Compile a list of initial keywords to use for searching based on question
  3. Search for literature that discusses the topics surrounding your research question
  4. Assess and organize your literature into logical groups
  5. Identify gaps in research and conduct secondary searches (if necessary)
  6. Reassess and reorganize literature again (if necessary)
  7. Write review


Here is an example of a literature review, taken from the beginning of a research article. You can find other examples within most scholarly research articles. The majority of published scholarship includes a literature review section, and you can use those to become more familiar with these reviews.

Source: Perceptions of the Police by LGBT Communities


section of a literature review, highlighting broad themes


section of a literature review, highlighting more specific themes


section of a literature review, highlighting most specific subsections


section of a literature review, highlighting gaps in research

Pro Tips

There are many books and internet resources about literature reviews though most are long on how to search and gather the literature. How to literally organize the information is another matter.

Some pro tips:

  • Use a content management system/organizer such as Zotero.
    • Be thoughtful in naming the folders, sub-folders, and sub, sub-folders.  Doing so really helps your thinking and concepts within your research topic.
    • Be disciplined to add keywords under the tabs as this will help you search for ALL the items on your concepts/topics.
    • Use the notes tab to add reminders, write bibliography/annotated bibliography
  • Your literature review easily flows from your statement of purpose (SoP).  Therefore, does your SoP say clearly and exactly the intent of your research?  Your research assumption and argument is obvious?
  • From Galvan and Galvan, 7th ed. Writing Literature Reviews, chapters 9 - 11 are particularly helpful
    • Begin with a topic outline that traces your argument. pg99: "First establish the line of argumentation you will follow (the thesis), whether it is an assertion, a contention, or a proposition.
    • Next, develop a traceable narrative that demonstrates that the line of argumentation is worthwhile and justified. 
      • This means that you should have formed judgments about the topic based on the analysis and synthesis of the literature you are reviewing."
  • This topic outline is your roadmap
    • Keep filling it in; flushing it out more deeply with your references