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Literature review psychology dissertation

literature review psychology dissertation

Psychology dissertation lit review help!

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Related Study Guides are: Referencing and bibliographies, Avoiding plagiarism, Writing a dissertation, What is critical reading? What is critical writing?

The focus of the Study Guide is the literature review within a dissertation or a thesis, but many of the ideas are transferable to other kinds of writing, such as an extended essay, or a report.

What is a literature review?

The ability to review, and to report on relevant literature is a key academic skill. A literature review:

  • situates your research focus within the context of the wider academic community in your field;
  • reports your critical review of the relevant literature; and
  • identifies a gap within that literature that your research will attempt to address.

To some extent, particularly with postgraduate research, the literature review can become a project in itself. It is an important showcase of your talents of: understanding, interpretation, analysis, clarity of thought, synthesis, and development of argument. The process of conducting and reporting your literature review can help you clarify your own thoughts about your study.

However, don’t promise too much! Be wary of saying that your research will solve a problem, or that it will change practice. It would be safer and probably more realistic to say that your research will ‘address a gap’, rather than that it will ‘fill a gap’.

Why do I need a literature review?

When readers come to your assignment, dissertation, or thesis, they will not just assume that your research or analysis is a good idea; they will want to be persuaded that it is relevant and that it was worth doing. They will ask questions such as:

  • What research question(s) are you asking?
  • Why are you asking it/them?
  • Has anyone else done anything similar?
  • Is your research relevant to research/practice/theory in your field?
  • What is already known or understood about this topic?
  • How might your research add to this understanding, or challenge existing theories and beliefs?

These are questions that you will already probably be asking yourself. You will also need to be ready to answer them in a viva if you will be having one.

are particularly relevant to the process of critical review. Merriam (1988:6) describes the literature review as:

‘an interpretation and synthesis of published work’.

This very short statement contains some key concepts, which are examined in the table below.

Explanation Associated critique
Published work Merriam’s statement was made in 1988, since which time there has been further extension of the concept of being ‘published’ within the academic context. The term now encompasses a wide range of web-based sources, in addition to the more traditional books and print journals. Increased ease of access to a wider range of published material has also increased the need for careful and clear critique of sources. Just because something is ‘published’ does not mean its quality is assured. You need to demonstrate to your reader that you are examining your sources with a critical approach, and not just believing them automatically.
Interpretation You need to be actively involved in interpreting the literature that you are reviewing, and in explaining that interpretation to the reader, rather than just listing what others have written. Your interpretation of each piece of evidence is just that: an interpretation. Your interpretation may be self-evident to you, but it may not be to everyone else. You need to critique your own interpretation of material, and to present your rationale, so that your reader can follow your thinking.
Synthesis The term ‘synthesis’ refers to the bringing together of material from different sources, and the creation of an integrated whole. In this case the ‘whole’ will be your structured review of relevant work, and your coherent argument for the study that you are doing. Creating a synthesis is, in effect, like building interpretation upon interpretation. It is essential to check that you have constructed your synthesis well, and with sufficient supporting evidence.

When to review the literature

With small-scale writing projects, the literature review is likely to be done just once; probably before the writing begins. With longer projects such as a dissertation for a Masters degree, and certainly with a PhD, the literature review process will be more extended.

There are three stages at which a review of the literature is needed:

  • an early review is needed to establish the context and rationale for your study and to confirm your choice of research focus/question;
  • as the study period gets longer, you need to make sure that you keep in touch with current, relevant research in your field, which is published during the period of your research;
  • as you prepare your final report or thesis, you need to relate your findings to the findings of others, and to identify their implications for theory, practice, and research.
You need to be able to demonstrate that you are aware of current issues and research, and to show how your research is relevant within a changing context.

Who can help?

Staff and students in your area can be good sources of ideas about where to look for relevant literature. They may already have copies of articles that you can work with.

If you attend a conference or workshop with a wider group of people, perhaps from other universities, you can take the opportunity to ask other attendees for recommendations of articles or books relevant to your area of research.

Each department or school has assigned to it a specialist Information Librarian. You can find the contact details for the Information Librarian for your own area via the Library web pages. This person can help you identify relevant sources, and create effective electronic searches:

“they help you to find information, provide training in information skills and the use of databases and can help you to develop your research skills”.


Guidance will be available via your own department or school and via the relevant Information Librarian.

There may also be key sources of publications for your subject that are accessible electronically, such as collections of policy documents, standards, archive material, videos, and audio-recordings.

References of references

If you can find a few really useful sources, it can be a good idea to check through their reference lists to see the range of sources that they referred to. This can be particularly useful if you find a review article that evaluates other literature in the field. This will then provide you with a long reference list, and some evaluation of the references it contains.

Hand searching of journals

No electronic literature search can be 100% comprehensive, as the match between search terms and the content of articles will never be perfect. An electronic search may throw up a huge number of hits, but there are still likely to be other relevant articles that it has not detected. So, despite having access to electronic databases and to electronic searching techniques, it can be surprisingly useful to have a pile of journals actually on your desk, and to look through the contents pages, and the individual articles.

It is therefore probably worth allocating some time to sitting in the library, with issues from the last year or two of the most relevant journals for your research topic, and reviewing them for anything of relevance.

Blaxter et al. (2001:103) recommend this method, in addition to other more systematic methods, saying:

‘Take some time to browse – serendipity is a wonderful thing.’

Collecting material

To avoid printing out or photocopying a lot of material that you will not ultimately read, you can use the abstracts of articles to check their relevance before you obtain full copies.

EndNote and RefWorks are software packages that you can use to collect and store details of your references, and your comments on them. As you review the references, remember to be a critical reader (see Study Guide What is critical reading?).

Keeping a record

Keeping a record of your search strategy is useful, to prevent you duplicating effort by doing the same search twice, or missing out a significant and relevant sector of literature because you think you have already done that search.

You need to check what is required within your own discipline. If you are required to record and present your search strategy, you may be able to include the technical details of the search strategy as an appendix to your thesis.


Plagiarism is regarded as a serious offence by all Universities, and you need to make sure that you do not, even accidentally, commit plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the using of someone else’s words or ideas, and passing them off as your own. It can happen accidentally, for example, if you are careless in your note-taking. This can mean that you get mixed up over what is an exact quote, and what you have written in your own words; or over what was an idea of your own that you jotted down, or an idea from some text.

A practical way to help you avoid accidentally forgetting to reference someone else’s work, is routinely to record short extracts of text verbatim i.e.: using the exact words of the author, rather than putting the idea into your own words at the point where you are still reading. You will need to put inverted commas (‘xxx’) around the exact quote, and record the page number on which it appears.

Help is available regarding how to avoid plagiarism and it is worth checking it out. Your department will have its own guidance. Further help is available from the Student Learning Centre’s Study Guide on the topic, and from our online tutorial on plagiarism.

When to stop

It is important to keep control of the reading process, and to keep your research focus in mind. Rudestam and Newton (1992:49) remind us that the aim is to ‘Build an argument, not a library’.

It is also important to see the writing stage as part of the research process, not something that happens after you have finished reading the literature. Wellington et al (2005:80) suggest ‘Writing while you collect and collecting while you write.’

Once you are part way through your reading you can have a go at writing the literature review, in anticipation of revising it later on. It is often not until you start explaining something in writing that you find where your argument is weak, and you need to collect more evidence.

A skill that helps in curtailing the reading is: knowing where to set boundaries.


  1. Milufar

    Do I get extra marks for talking about memes in my dissertation on the reception of 17th C Spanish literature?

  2. Ceqaxelozizofo

    Need help and advice on your literature review? Come see "s Academic Librarian in room LDN.1.02 between 10am-2pm!

  3. Moxesuraq

    Literature Victorian Issues Academic Essay Click for help

  4. Mocenojoqevu

    So my literature mini-dissertation on grime YA got a first!!! Thnx for making the texts

  5. Wametibac

    Officially ABD. Passed my Qualifying Exam. On to write that dissertation on Pacific Literature and the Environment. –

  6. Qolodufusi

    It is so early to be handing in literature dissertation proposals ahhh

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