Critically reviewing the literature, the quick and dirty way

By Gordon Rugg

I’ve blogged previously about literature reviews, and about the significant difference between a literature review and a literature report. There are links to relevant previous posts at the end of this article.

Literature reviews are an important part of research. They’re how you find out what’s been tried before, and what happened when those previous approaches were tried. They’re a good way of identifying potential problems that you might encounter in your own research, and a good way of identifying gaps in previous research, which might be your chance to achieve fame and fortune by filling one of those gaps with a brilliant new solution.

This article is about one key aspect of literature reviews, which is that literature reviews involve critical analysis of the key issues. That raises the question of just how you set about starting a critical analysis.

In case you’re wondering whether this really is a big deal, then there’s one very practical consideration that can make a difference to the outcome of your time at university. One of the criteria for getting distinction-level marks on most taught university courses is showing that you’ve done critical independent reading. This is also a major criterion for getting through a PhD viva, so all in all, it’s a big deal.

But just what is a critical review of the literature anyway, as opposed to a non-critical one, and how can you possibly do a critical review of a literature that may include tens of thousands of journal articles and thousands of books? It’s not physically possible to read all of that literature in the three years of a typical undergraduate degree or PhD, let alone a one-year MSc or MA.

This blog article is about one quick and dirty way of making a good start on a critical literature review.

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