Writing A Literature Review:
7 Common (And Costly) Mistakes To Avoid ☠️
By: Derek Jansen (MBA) & David Phair (PhD). Reviewed By: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | June 2021
Crafting a high-quality literature review is critical to earning marks and developing a strong dissertation, thesis or research project. But, it’s no simple task. Here at Grad Coach, we’ve reviewed thousands of literature reviews and seen a recurring set of mistakes and issues that drag students down.
In this post, we’ll unpack 7 common literature review mistakes, so that you can avoid these pitfalls and submit a literature review that impresses.
Mistake #1: Over-reliance on low-quality sources
One of the most common issues we see in literature reviews is an over-reliance on low-quality sources. This includes a broad collection of non-academic sources like blog posts, opinion pieces, publications by advocacy groups and daily news articles.
Of course, just because a piece of content takes the form of a blog post doesn’t automatically mean it is low-quality. However, it’s (generally) unlikely to be as academically sound (i.e., well-researched, objective and scientific) as a journal article, so you need to be a lot more sceptical when considering this content and make sure that it has a strong, well-reasoned foundation. As a rule of thumb, your literature review shouldn’t rely heavily on these types of content – they should be used sparingly.
Ideally, your literature review should be built on a strong base of journal articles, ideally from well-recognised, peer-reviewed journals with a high H index. You can also draw on books written by well-established subject matter experts. When considering books, try to focus on those that are published by academic publishers, for example, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Routledge. You can also draw on government websites, provided they have a strong reputation for objectivity and data quality. As with any other source, be wary of any government website that seems to be pushing an agenda.
As I mentioned, this doesn’t mean that your literature review can’t include the occasional blog post or news article. These types of content have their place, especially when setting the context for your study. For example, you may want to cite a collection of newspaper articles to demonstrate the emergence of a recent trend. However, your core arguments and theoretical foundations shouldn’t rely on these. Build your foundation on credible academic literature to ensure that your study stands on the proverbial shoulders of giants.
Mistake #2: A lack of landmark/seminal literature
Another issue we see in weaker literature reviews is an absence of landmark literature for the research topic. Landmark literature (sometimes also referred to as seminal or pivotal work) refers to the articles that initially presented an idea of great importance or influence within a particular discipline. In other words, the articles that put the specific area of research “on the map”, so to speak.
The reason for the absence of landmark literature in poor literature reviews is most commonly that either the student isn’t aware of the literature (because they haven’t sufficiently immersed themselves in the existing research), or that they feel that they should only present the most up to date studies. Whatever the cause, it’s a problem, as a good literature review should always acknowledge the seminal writing in the field.
But, how do you find landmark literature?
Well, you can usually spot these by searching for the topic in Google Scholar and identifying the handful of articles with high citation counts. They’ll also be the studies most commonly cited in textbooks and, of course, Wikipedia (but please don’t use Wikipedia as a source!).
So, when you’re piecing your literature review together, remember to pay homage to the classics, even if only briefly. Seminal works are the theoretical foundation of a strong literature review.
Mistake #3: A lack of current literature
As I mentioned, it’s incredibly important to acknowledge the landmark studies and research in your literature review. However, a strong literature review should also incorporate the current literature. It should, ideally, compare and contrast the “classics” with the more up to date research, and briefly comment on the evolution.
Of course, you don’t want to burn precious word count providing an in-depth history lesson regarding the evolution of the topic (unless that’s one of your research aims, of course), but you should at least acknowledge any key differences between the old and the new.
But, how do you find current literature?
To find current literature in your research area, you can once again use Google Scholar by simply selecting the “Since…” link on the left-hand side. Depending on your area of study, recent may mean the last year or two, or a fair deal longer.
So, as you develop your catalogue of literature, remember to incorporate both the classics and the more up to date research. By doing this, you’ll achieve a comprehensive literature base that is both well-rooted in tried and tested theory and current.
Mistake #4: Description instead of integration and synthesis
This one is a big one. And, unfortunately, it’s a very common one. In fact, it’s probably the most common issue we encounter in literature reviews.
All too often, students think that a literature review is simply a summary of what each researcher has said. A lengthy, detailed “he said, she said”. This is incorrect. A good literature review needs to go beyond just describing all the relevant literature. It needs to integrate the existing research to show how it all fits together.
A good literature review should also highlight what areas don’t fit together, and which pieces are missing. In other words, what do researchers disagree on and why might that be. It’s seldom the case that everyone agrees on everything because the “truth” is typically very nuanced and intricate in reality. A strong literature review is a balanced one, with a mix of different perspectives and findings that give the reader a clear view of the current state of knowledge.
A good analogy is that of a jigsaw puzzle. The various findings and arguments from each piece of literature form the individual puzzle pieces, and you then put these together to develop a picture of the current state of knowledge. Importantly, that puzzle will in all likelihood have pieces that don’t fit well together, and pieces that are missing. It’s seldom a pretty puzzle!
By the end of this process of critical review and synthesis of the existing literature, it should be clear what’s missing – in other words, the gaps exist in the current research. These gaps then form the foundation for your proposed study. In other words, your study will attempt to contribute a missing puzzle piece (or get two pieces to fit together).
So, when you’re crafting your literature review chapter, remember that this chapter needs to go well beyond a basic description of the existing research – it needs to synthesise it (bring it all together) and form the foundation for your study.
Mistake #5: Irrelevant or unfocused content
Another common mistake we see in literature review chapters is quite simply the inclusion of irrelevant content. Some chapters can waffle on for pages and pages and leave the reader thinking, “so what?”
So, how do you decide what’s relevant?
Well, to ensure you stay on-topic and focus, you need to revisit your research aims, objectives and research questions. Remember, the purpose of the literature review is to build the theoretical foundation that will help you achieve your research aims and objectives, and answer your research questions. Therefore, relevant content is the relatively narrow body of content that relates directly to those three components.
Let’s look at an example.
If your research aims to identify factors that cultivate employee loyalty and commitment, your literature review needs to focus on existing research that identifies such factors. Simple enough, right? Well, during your review process, you will invariably come across plenty of research relating to employee loyalty and commitment, including things like:
- The benefits of high employee commitment
- The different types of commitment
- The impact of commitment on corporate culture
- The links between commitment and productivity
While all of these relate to employee commitment, they’re not focused on the research aims, objectives and questions, as they’re not identifying factors that foster employee commitment. Of course, they may still be useful in helping you justify your topic, so they’ll likely have a place somewhere in your dissertation or thesis. However, for your literature review, you need to keep things focused.
So, as you work through your literature review, always circle back to your research aims, objective and research questions and use them as a litmus test for article relevance.
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Mistake #6: Poor chapter structure and layout
Even the best content can fail to earn marks when the literature review chapter is poorly structured. Unfortunately, this is a fairly common issue, resulting in disjointed, poorly-flowing arguments that are difficult for the reader (the marker…) to follow.
The most common reason that students land up with a poor structure is that they start writing their literature review chapter without a plan or structure. Of course, as we’ve discussed before, writing is a form of thinking, so you don’t need to plan out every detail before you start writing. However, you should at least have an outline structure penned down before you hit the keyboard.
So, how should you structure your literature review?
We’ve covered literature review structure in detail previously, so I won’t go into it here. However, as a quick overview, your literature review should consist of three core sections:
- The introduction section – where you outline your topic, introduce any definitions and jargon and define the scope of your literature review.
- The body section – where you sink your teeth into the existing research. This can be arranged in various ways (e.g. thematically, chronologically or methodologically).
- The conclusion section – where you present the key takeaways and highlight the research gap (or gaps), which lays the foundation for your study.
Another reason that students land up with a poor structure is that they start writing their literature chapter prematurely. In other words, they start writing before they’ve finished digesting the literature. This is a costly mistake, as it always results in extensive rewriting, which takes a lot longer than just doing it one step at a time. Again, it’s completely natural to do a little extra reading as thoughts crop up during the writing process, but you should complete your core reading before you start writing.
Long story short – don’t start writing your literature review without some sort of structural plan. This structure can (and likely will) evolve as you write, but you need some sort of outline as a starting point. Pro tip – check out our free literature review template to fast-track your structural outline.
Mistake #7: Plagiarism and poor referencing
This one is by far the most unforgivable literature review mistake, as it carries one of the heaviest penalties, while it is so easily avoidable.
All too often, we encounter literature reviews that, at first glance, look pretty good. However, a quick run through a plagiarism checker and it quickly becomes apparent that the student has failed to fully digest the literature they’ve reviewed and put it into their own words.
“But, the original author said it perfectly…”
I get it – sometimes the way an author phrased something is “just perfect” and you can’t find a better way to say it. In those (pretty rare) cases, you can use direct quotes (and a citation, of course). However, for the vast majority of your literature review, you need to put things into your own words.
The good news is that if you focus on integrating and synthesising the literature (as I mentioned in point 3), you shouldn’t run into this issue too often, as you’ll naturally be writing about the relationships between studies, not just about the studies themselves. Remember, if you can’t explain something simply (in your own words), you don’t really understand it.
A related issue that we see quite often is plain old-fashioned poor referencing. This can include citation and reference formatting issues (for example, Harvard or APA style errors), or just a straight out lack of references. In academic writing, if you fail to reference a source, you are effectively claiming the work as your own, which equates to plagiarism. This might seem harmless, but plagiarism is a serious form of academic misconduct and could cost you a lot more than just a few marks.
So, when you’re writing up your literature review, remember that you need to digest the content and put everything into your own words. You also need to reference the sources of any and all ideas, theories, frameworks and models you draw on.
Recap: 7 Literature Review Mistakes
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post. Let’s quickly recap on the 7 most common literature review mistakes.
- Over-reliance on low-quality sources
- A lack of landmark/seminal literature
- A lack of current literature
- Description instead of integration and synthesis
- Irrelevant or unfocused content
- Poor chapter structure and layout
- Plagiarism and poor referencing
If you have any questions about these literature review mistakes, leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer. If you’d like to get 1-on-1 help with your literature review, book a free initial consultation with a friendly coach to discuss how we can move you forward.
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This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.