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Zoology & Natural History: Reviews

what is

A literature review is a review of literature focused on a research question to identify, appraise, select and synthesize all high quality research evidence relevant to that question.


1. Introduction
Literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work. The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.

2. Components
Similar to primary research, development of the literature review requires four stages:

  1. Problem formulation—which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
  2. Literature search—finding materials relevant to the subject being explored
  3. Data evaluation—determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
  4. Analysis and interpretation—discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature

Literature reviews should comprise the following elements:

  • An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review
  • Division of works into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses)
  • Explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
  • Conclusions for items best considered in the argument, most convincing of the opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of the area of research.

In assessing each piece, consideration should be given to:

  • Provenance—What are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence (e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings)?
  • Objectivity—Is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness—Which of the author's theses are most/least convincing?
  • Value—Are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

3. Definition and Use/Purpose
A literature review may constitute an essential chapter of a thesis or dissertation, or may be self-contained review of writing on a subject. In either case, its purpose is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
  • Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Point the way forward for further research
  • Place one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature

The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.

Search for Literature & Systematic Reviews

Annual Reviews
Annual Reviews critically reviews significant primary research literature. Each article provides a gateway to the essential primary research literature referenced within each topic.

BIOSIS Previews: enter your search, use limit to "Literature Types" and Review (if available).
Coverage: 1926 - present

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: enter your search, limit to review.
Coverage:  date varies | Some full text |

Embase: enter your search, left menu, use limit to "Literature types"  and select reivew / apply.
Embase is a key resource for systematic reviews and researching evidence-based medicine. Coverage: dates vary

PubMed: enter your search, select filter - 'review'. Includes Systematic Reviews search limit, and peer review. (Guide: HTML | PDF).
Covers: 1946 - present

Steps for Writing a Literature Review:

1. Define a topic or research focus to start:
     must be interesting to you / an important aspect of the field / a well-defined issue

2. Choose the type of review to write:

  • Mini-review: shorter in length, cover a specific time frame, or narrow subject area
  • Full review: longer, deeper coverage includes details.
  • Descriptive: focuses on methodology, findings, interpretation
  • Integrative: attempt to find common ideas and concepts.

3. Search for relevant work & re-search the Literature: 

  • keep track of databases and search items
  • keep a list of papers and pdfs,
  • use a management system: Refworks, EndNote, Mendeley
  • define criteria for exclusion
  • use reviews

4. Assess the quality of sources & take NOTES while reading.

5. Keep the review focused, but broad interest. (could discuss other disciplines affected)

6. Be Critical and consistent: 
     The reader should have an idea of
 - The major achievements in the reviewed field.
 - The areas of debate.
 - The outstanding research questions.

7. Find a logical structure.  Use a MIND-MAP to draw a conceptual scheme of the review.

Image result for mind-map for nutrition literature review

8. Make use of feedback. Can be peer-reviewed or someone reading a draft.

9. Include your own relevant research but be objective.

10. Be Up-to-date, do not forget older studies.

11. Summarize the evidence

12. Interpret the findings = keep your own voice

AVOID these traps:

  • Trying to read everything: try to read the most relevant work instead.
  • Reading not writing: writing is a way of thinking, - write many drafts.
  • Reminder: Review papers can have abstracts and illustrations.
  • Failing to keep bibliographic information: remember that you will be writing a page entitled “References” at some point.
  • Organizing your review chronologically: Organize your paper by ideas.

Original by Marco Pautasso. PLOS. July 2013, vol. 9, issue 7.

Questions:  Your Librarian, Susan Koskinen,