Skip to Main Content

Library Guide to Capstone Literature Reviews: Role of the Literature Review

The role of the literature review

Your literature review gives readers an understanding of the scholarly research on your topic.

In your literature review you will:

  • demonstrate that you are a well-informed scholar with expertise and knowledge in the field by giving an overview of the current state of the literature
  • find a gap in the literature, or address a business or professional issue, depending on your doctoral study program; the literature review will illustrate how your research contributes to the scholarly conversation
  • provide a synthesis of the issues, trends, and concepts surrounding your research

We want to help you maintain the vision of the big picture. It’s easy to lose sight of this when you’re doing your research, following various threads of interest, sometimes getting bogged down in the details. The literature review is not a comprehensive history of your topic, but a way to provide context to your reader about research that has preceded your study. 

Be aware that the literature review is an iterative process. As you read and write initial drafts, you will find new threads and complementary themes, at which point you will return to search, find out about these new themes, and incorporate them into your review.

The purpose of this guide is to help you through the literature review process. Take some time to look over the resources in order to become familiar with them. The tabs on the left side of this page have additional information.

Short video: Research for the Literature Review

Short Video: Research for the Literature Review

(4 min 10 sec) Recorded August 2019

Literature review as a dinner party

To think about the role of the literature review, consider this analogy:  pretend that you throw a dinner party for the other researchers working in your topic area. First, you’d need to develop a guest list.

  • The guests of honor would be early researchers or theorists; their work likely inspired subsequent studies, ideas, or controversies that the current researchers pursue.
  • Then, think about the important current researchers to invite. Which guests might agree with each other?  Which others might provide useful counterpoints?
  • You likely won’t be able to include everyone on the guest list, so you may need to choose carefully so that you don’t leave important figures out. 
  • Alternatively, if there aren’t many researchers working in your topic area, then your guest list will need to include people working in other, related areas, who can still contribute to the conversation.

After the party, you describe the evening to a friend. You’ll summarize the evening’s conversation. Perhaps one guest made a comment that sparked a conversation, and then you describe who responded and how the topic evolved. There are other conversations to share, too. This is how you synthesize the themes and developments that you find in your research. Thinking about your literature research this way will help you to present your dinner party (and your literature review) in a lively and engaging way.

Short video: Empirical research

Video: How to locate and identify empirical research for your literature review

(6 min 16 sec) Recorded May 2020


Here are some useful resources from the Writing Center, the Office of Research and Doctoral Services, and other departments within the Office of Academic Support. Take some time to look at what is available to help you with your capstone/dissertation.


You can watch recorded webinars on the literature review in our Library Webinar Archives.