The literature review defines the research question that is the linchpin of the paper based on the topic and purpose. It defines key terms used to avoid confusion and ideally concludes with a theory framework based on past research. To see theory as “just thoughts” is to ignore that every question has a theory foundation just as every mathematical theorem has foundational axioms. Good research is based on asking the right questions and the literature review frames the question asked. Asking the right question is hard because changing the theory context changes the question, e.g. asking “What causes headaches?” assumes all “headaches” are the same, which a literature review shows is not true, so the question must change. The research question comes at the end of the literature review that derives it.
The literature review also positions your research relative to the work of others. It explores the agreements, disputes and omissions of others to derive the research question. It is the academic version of what computing calls system analysis and the military call intelligence – analyzing the current situation in order to decide what to do next. In journey terms, you don’t want to “discover” what others have already found, or if others have been there you want to know the problems found. How can you advance research if you don’t know where it currently is? A PhD literature review must be state-of-the-art, so by the end of it, you should know more than your advisor! For a while, you become a world expert on your topic in order to advance it. So don’t be dismayed if that takes time, e.g. several years is quite normal.
Aspects of good literature review include:
- Scope. Define the boundaries of the topic area.
- Collegiality. Describe important and relevant research by others.
- Logical flow. Discuss the literature in a logical way.
- Theory Framework. Connects the concepts behind the research question.
- Research Question. State the question the research addresses.