Honours thesis in psychology/Developing a literature review

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Developing a literature review

This page provides tips and guidelines for developing a 4th year Honours thesis in psychology literature review.

What is a literature review?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Writing a literature review is like creating a map - the main features must be clear, plus appropriate details should be included. The problem or research question serves as a lighthouse beacon.

A literature review identifies a unique topic, establishes its importance, and summarises, reviews, and critiques key theory and research. The literature review also weighs the strengths and limitations of the existing literature and recommends future directions.

The task is to present an APA style manuscript which critically reviews key theoretical and research literature about a specific topic/problem and which is ready for submission to a journal for publication.

The literature review should contribute a unique, useful review of theory and research about a particular issue/gap/problem.

Good example literature reviews can be found, among other places, in the Annual Review of Psychology (e.g., [1]).

Drafting process[edit | edit source]

Here is a suggested stage-by-stage drafting process:

Topic development[edit | edit source]

  1. Specify and clarify the final topic for the literature in conjunction with the project supervisor.
    1. Brainstorm (cast the net widely initially).
    2. The literature review may have a broader, narrower, similar, or different focus to the subsequent manuscript reporting on an original research article. Do not necessarily assume that the literature review and research article are going to be about exactly the same topic. Often the literature review has a somewhat broader focus. For more info, see relationship to the research article.
    3. Sort through, merge, discard, and prioritise the brainstormed ideas.
    4. Whittle down
  2. Express the final topic as a:
    1. research question
    2. working title

Guided reading[edit | edit source]

  1. Searching and reading can go on forever, so it is important to be strategic.
  2. Clearly establish the review's scope (i.e., What is relevant? What is not?) so that search terms are well targeted and the relevance of sources can be quickly assessed.
  3. Develop a bibliography of key references about the topic.
  4. Identify, say, the most important 20 references to read. These sources will form the core of the literature review. These citations should probably include:
    1. Major literature reviews (especially recent systematic and meta-analytic reviews).
    2. Highly cited, peer reviewed, published articles which address relevant psychological theory and major studies.
  5. Access these references regardless of the difficulties in doing so - e.g., may require inter-library loan/document delivery requests.
  6. Read these sources, making notes about key points relevant to the literature review topic.

Plan[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Writing is a dark art. But developing and discussing a detailed outline for the chapter helps to scaffold development of the first draft.

Develop an outline of the chapter and discuss with the thesis supervisor:

  1. Example plan (pdf)
  2. Develop a 2 to 3 page plan for the literature review. Structure in a logical, unfolding sequence, including:
    1. Title (working)
    2. Abstract + keywords (as headings)
    3. Headings: Generally aim for approximately 3 to 7 main headings. Sub-headings are optional (each main heading should have 0 or 2 to 5 sub-headings)
      1. General introduction (note that this heading is not used in APA style)
        1. ~2-3 pages or 300-500 words
        2. Introduce and describe the topic/problem/question, establish its importance, familiarise the reader with key terminology/concepts, show familiarity with the key literature, and orient the reader to the structure and direction of the review.
        3. Include major citations
        4. By the end of this section a reader should be clear about the purpose, need for, and focus of the review.
      2. Main body content headings (likely to cover critical review of key theory and research
      3. Conclusion (includes future directions/recommendations)
    4. Word-count
      1. Allocate an estimated word count to each of the major sections and overall
      2. This will help to ensure a balanced plan which will fit into the overall word count
      3. It also helps with "chunking" the drafting process into smaller sections.
      4. The literature review is worth 40% of the 10,000 to 12,000 word thesis; so, on a proportional basis, aim for approximately 4,000 to 4,800 words, but often the literature review may be longer, up to perhaps ~7,000 words.
    5. References
    6. Any questions about the plan which you'd like to flag for discussion.
  3. It can be helpful to model the literature review on a favourite article (or thesis) - have a close look at the heading structure of some example literature reviews.
  4. Consider using the '[2]' in which the review starts broadly and gradually narrows down to focus on a specific problem.
  5. Seek feedback about the plan from the thesis supervisor, discuss, and revise the plan.

1st draft[edit | edit source]

  1. Turn the plan into a first draft by fleshing out all the dot points into sentences and paragraphs.
  2. Aim roughly for a "Pass" standard.
  3. Sometimes people get "stuck" producing a first draft because they try to produce top-quality work. Quality can be addressed later. The goal for a first draft should simply be to develop an early draft out for feedback.
  4. Include any specific comments or questions for the supervisor.
  5. Seek feedback from the supervisor (including electronic Comments and Tracked Changes and verbal discussion).

2nd draft[edit | edit source]

  1. Turn the 1st draft into a 2nd draft by rewriting to address supervisor feedback.
  2. Often the second draft involves greater integration of concepts; it may also involve some re-organisation of content
  3. Aim for a "Credit" standard.
  4. Seek supervisor feedback (including via electronic Comments and Tracked Changes and discussion).

3rd draft[edit | edit source]

  1. Turn the 2nd draft into a 3rd draft by rewriting, addressing supervisor feedback.
  2. Aim for a "Distinction" standard.
  3. Seek peer/other feedback (e.g., much can be learnt from reading and commenting on each other's work).

4th draft[edit | edit source]

  1. Turn the 3rd draft into a 4th draft by rewriting, addressing peer/other feedback.
  2. Aim for a "High Distinction" standard.
  3. This draft (or a subsequent draft) might be best completed after leaving the 3rd draft for a while and completing the 1st draft of the research article.

Tables and figures[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Simple example of a conceptual path diagram that could be useful in a literature review.

Use of tables and figures to illustrate theories or conceptual ideas can be an effective, powerful way to communicate.

Marking criteria[edit | edit source]

Consider the draft against the marking criteria:

  1. Presentation 10%
    1. Quality of written expression, spelling, punctuation, and grammar
    2. APA style
    3. Overall impression
  2. Title/Abstract 5%
    1. Appropriate title
    2. Concise summary of problem, relevant literature, and conclusions
  3. Critical review of relevant theory 40%
    1. Importance, relevance, and context of issue established
    2. Theoretical or conceptual framework established
    3. Appropriate scope (depth and breadth)
    4. Appropriate quality and quantity of citations
    5. Consideration of alternative perspectives
  4. Critical review of relevant research 40%
    1. Appropriate emphasis on the most important and relevant research
    2. Appropriate scope (depth and breadth)
    3. Appropriate quality and quantity of citations
    4. Critical interpretation of the research and its implication
  5. Summary/conclusion 5%
    1. Summary of literature
    2. Implications and recommendations

File management[edit | edit source]

  1. Smart word-processing techniques from the outset will pay off down the track.
  2. Folder structure: Use a systematic folder structure for each step/part of the thesis; e.g.,
    • 00 Proposal
    • 01 Ethics
    • 10 Literature review
    • 11 Research article
    • 20 Appendices
    • 30 Final version
  3. Versioning
    1. Prepare the thesis sections as separate documents, with major drafts saved as different files using a systematic numbering system e.g.,
    2. Literature review 1.docx, Literature review 2.docx etc. or Literature review_2016_04_21, Literature review_2016_05_04 etc.
  4. Backup, backup, backup
    1. Make sure a regular, reliable back-up system is in place (e.g., use automated cloud-based backup storage or manually email your latest versions to peers and/or supervisor). Electronic data corruption, loss of files etc. is insufficient grounds for extension.

Word processing[edit | edit source]

  1. Use word processor style settings from the outset - spend time researching and reading about this and trying them out - their use will produce more consistent formatting and will pay off in the long-run; mainly this will involve
    1. Using Heading 1, 2, 3 etc. styles which APA style for headings (e.g., this will facilitate consistent styling and allow auto-generation of Tables of Contents)
    2. Style-based captions for Tables and Figures can also be used.
  2. Alternatively, consider using a downloadable APA style template e.g., Paul Rose

Citation management[edit | edit source]

  1. Source citations and reference list generation can be done manually or using citation management software (such as EndNote, RefWorks etc.).
  2. Regardless of approach, be organised and systematic from the outset in collecting, storing, citing, and referencing key sources.

Relationship to the research article[edit | edit source]

  1. The focus of the literature review may well be similar to, but its purpose should differ from, the research study.
  2. The literature review and research article have different purposes and functions.
    1. The literature review provides a critical review of theory and research about a specific topic and makes recommendations about future directions.
    2. The research article identifies a gap in the literature and reports about an original study designed to address this gap.
  3. There may be some overlap between the literature review and the introduction to the research article. However, there should be several important differences including:
    1. The literature review will be longer than the introduction to the research article.
    2. The literature review may be broader in scope than the introduction to the research article.
    3. The introduction to the research article should state specific research question(s) and/or hypotheses to guide the study.
  4. Avoid presenting duplicate sentences in the literature review and introduction to the research article (self-plagiarism).

See also[edit | edit source]