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Social Work Research Guide

What is a Literature Review?

Literature reviews are papers or sections within papers where the current and past research on a specific topic is summarized and discussed. The goal of a literature review is to identify what is already known about a topic, based on what has been published. In a literature review, the writer is not introducing their own original thoughts and ideas. Rather, they are providing background on a topic and discussing others' work.

There are many ways to organize the content of a literature review, depending on how you wish to synthesize the information. Here are a few examples of organizational patterns:

  • Chronological - how has this topic changed or developed over time?
  • Geographic or Cultural - how is this topic different across different regions/cultures?
  • Thematic - what are the recurring central themes you see when reviewing this topic?
  • Theoretical - what are the various theories and models around this topic?
  • Methodological - what conclusions and evidence arise from different research methodologies?


Writing a Literature Review

Below is a video tutorial covering how to organize your sources, how to structure your paper, and how to use referring language throughout a literature review.

Some other helpful sources for writing a literature review:


Do I have to read everything about my topic?

No, for most literature reviews, you are not expected to read every piece of research on a given topic. There is a specific type of review called a systematic review, in which a researcher strives to amass and evaluate all literature published on a specific topic, but this is not the goal of most literature reviews.

Your goal is to find a sufficient body of literature to provide an in-depth summary and analysis of your topic. Through your searching, you are aiming to find the key publications and theories, not every piece of research. You may want to limit by particular subtopics to achieve this, or you may want to limit the publication dates of your search results to the last 5 or 10 years.

How do I cite items in the lit review?

In Social Work research, you should be using APA citation style which requires in-text citations and a reference list. For more information about citing your sources in APA format, click on the Citing Sources tab on the left side of this guide.

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