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Literature Review Basics

The Literature

The Literature refers to the collection of scholarly writings on a topic. This includes peer-reviewed articles, books, dissertations and conference papers.

  • When reviewing the literature, be sure to include major works as well as studies that respond to major works. You will want to focus on primary sources, though secondary sources can be valuable as well.

Primary Sources

The term primary source is used broadly to embody all sources that are original. Primary sources provide first-hand information that is closest to the object of study. Primary sources vary by discipline.

  • In the natural and social sciences, original reports of research found in academic journals detailing the methodology used in the research, in-depth descriptions, and discussions of the findings are considered primary sources of information.
  • Other common examples of primary sources include speeches, letters, diaries, autobiographies, interviews, official reports, court records, artifacts, photographs, and drawings. 

Galvan, J. L. (2013). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak.

Persaud, N. (2010). Primary data source. In N. Salkind (Ed.), Encyclopedia of research design. (pp. 1095-1098). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is a source that provides non-original or secondhand data or information. 

  • Secondary sources are written about primary sources.
  • Research summaries reported in textbooks, magazines, and newspapers are considered secondary sources. They typically provide global descriptions of results with few details on the methodology. Other examples of secondary sources include biographies and critical studies of an author's work.

Galvan, J. L. (2013). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak.

Secondary Source. (2005). In W. Paul Vogt (Ed.), Dictionary of Statistics & Methodology. (3rd ed., p. 291). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Weidenborner, S., & Caruso, D. (1997). Writing research papers: A guide to the process. New York: St. Martin's Press.

More Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

  Primary Source Secondary Source
Art Original artwork Article critiquing the piece of art
History Diary from an immigrant from Vietnam Book analyzing the various writings of Vietnamese immigrants from the 1970s
Literature Poem Article on a particular genre of poetry
Political Science Treaty Essay on Native American land rights
Science or Social Sciences Report of an original experiment Review of several studies on the same topic
Theater Video of a performance Biography of a playwright