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Writing your thesis and conducting a literature review

Your literature review

Most PhD and masters’ theses contain some form of literature review to provide the background for the research. 
The literature review is an essential step in the research process. A successful literature review will offer a coherent presentation and analysis of the existing research in your field, demonstrating:

  1. Your understanding of the subject area
  2. Gaps in current knowledge (that may in turn influence the direction of your research) 
  3. Relevant methodologies

There are different approaches and methods to literature reviews, and you may have heard of terms like systematic, structured, scoping or meta-analysis. This is when the literature review becomes the research methodology in its own right, instead of forming part of the research process.

This table shows the differences between a traditional literature review and a structured or systematic literature review.


Structured vs traditional literature reviews

Structured review Traditional review

Attempts to answer a specific question from
evidence in the literature

Provides background information or discussion
Attempts to identify and review all relevant studies Doesn't usually attempt to be exhaustive
Applies quality criteria to avoid bias May not specifically aim to eliminate bias
Documents and justifies the search process rigorously
to enable replication
Doesn't document the search process in detail
Applies two stages of quality control to ensure that high
quality articles are included, and that poor quality ones are excluded
Doesn't explain why the studies included were selected

What is a traditional literature review?

A traditional literature review is a critical review of the literature on a particular topic. The aim of this type of literature review is to identify any background research on your topic and to evaluate the quality and relevance of the literature. You will use your literature review to understand what has already been researched, help develop your research questions and the methodology that you should follow to collect and to identify any areas that your research can explore. You want your research to be unique so you will use a literature review to prevent you duplicating any previous research but also identifying any errors or mistakes that you would want to avoid.

A literature review is aimed at Masters (MSc students) and research level.

What is a structured literature review?

A structured literature review involves bringing many research studies together to use them as the data to determine findings (known as secondary research). There is no other form of data collection involved such as creating your own surveys and questionnaires (primary research). This approach allows you to look beyond one dataset and synthesise the findings of many studies to answer your clearly formulated research question.

Sometimes a structured review can be described as being a systematic literature review. A structured review typically does not fulfil all of the criteria for a full systematic review but may take a similar approach by taking a systematic, step by step method to find literature. They tend to follow a set protocol for determining the research studies to be included and every stage is documented.

To help you prepare for your structured literature review please complete this interactive workbook.

For Logistics students only

To help you prepare for your systematic literature review please complete this interactive workbook.

What is a systematic literature review?

A systematic literature review is a specific research methodology to identify, select, evaluate, and synthesise relevant published and unpublished literature to answer a particular research question. The systematic literature review should be transparent and replicable, you should follow a predetermined set of inclusion and exclusion criteria to select studies and help minimise bias. A systematic literature review may be registered, so that others can discover and minimise duplication, and can take several years to complete.

The systematic literature review is aimed at research (PhD students) level.

Useful background reading

Cranfield Libraries have several books offering guidance on how to approach and conduct literature reviews, and structured or systematic literature reviews:

Looking at previous structured and systematic literature reviews is an effective way to understand what is required and how they should be structured and written up. Structured literature reviews can be found in the Masters Thesis Archive (MTA) and systematic literature reviews can be found in the Cranfield University institutional Repository, CERES. Check out the Theses link.