A literature review is a synthesis of existing research on a particular topic or in a particular field. Before you start a research paper, it is beneficial to begin with a literature review. Good literature review articles offer the reader an up-to-date understanding of the current status of research and reveal to the reader what knowledge and ideas have been established and investigated. If you want to find out the key articles on a given topic, review articles are virtual gold mines. When you read and thoroughly digest a good review article, you become relatively well-versed about a given topic, including the current debates, contestations, consensus  and problem areas, major players/contributors, research methodologies, etc.

Where to find good review articles? Start with Annual Reviews. These volumes are published every year for 40 focused disciplines within the biomedical, life, physical, and social sciences including economics. Annual Review articles are comprehensive and timely, written by leading scholars and scientists who critically examine the most significant primary research literature to guide you to the principal contributions of the field and help you stay current in your area of research.

Review articles can also be found in the core databases and indexes of each discipline. Future blog posts will discuss how to conduct a comprehensive literature review for a specific subject.

One thought on “Where to start a literature review?

  1. Thanks for providing this link and information. Under this link are review journals for social, physical, and life sciences. Do annual reviews exist for humanities or area studies disciplines? If so, are they available somewhere else?

    Dear Tilley,
    I am sending you a consolidated answer from several Humanities librarians. Please feel free to get in touch with them individually. Here is the subject librarians’ contact info: http://www.library.jhu.edu/departments/rsc/rslist.html

    First of all, the two blog posts mainly meant to address social sciences, sci./engineering and medicine, if that was not made very clear in the blogs themselves.

    Generally speaking, for humanities disciplines, there isn’t quite the clean and fast distinction between a review article and a research article that there may be in other disciplines—and (unfortunately) the tradition of the review article isn’t as clear-cut. Lots of review essays are commissioned and penned by senior faculty, on the working presumption that one ought to have done a corpus of work of one’s own before presuming to criticize that of others. To use literary and cultural studies as an example, there are three kinds of materials that may be helpful to know about:

    1) Some pieces called “review articles” (you can use this as a search term in MLA International Bibliography) or “review essays” are presented as book review articles; the article is a critical study of 1, 2 or even more recent studies on a similar topic—but in addition to simply discussing the books, the author addresses the topic in some depth, based on his/her own research. These articles are NOT comprehensive, however—they do not cover every new development. A good way to search for these would be through some topic keywords and the term “review.” An example: “A Spectrum of Modernist Outsiders” by Aaron Rosenberg, Journal of Modern Literature, 2010 Winter; 33 (2): 149-156.
    2) Some pieces called “review articles” are in fact surveys of recent scholarship in the way that are described in the blog posts—but they appear in regular journals. They may have titles that signal this orientation—eg, “Recent Studies in Early Modern English Life Writing” by Michelle Dowd, English Literary Renaissance, 2010 Winter; 40 (1): 132-162. Others have titles that are less explicit.
    3) Finally, there are some journals that focus on the state-of-scholarship essay and current developments in a particular discipline. Journals with the title phrase “Annual Review” are often very focused on specific sub-fields; they are publications put out by author societies or distinctive interest groups, eg, Tennessee Williams Annual Review and Annual Review of South Asian Languages and Linguistics.

    For history, Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature is a great source to find critical analysis of new historical books, journals and journal articles.

    Area Studies are very multidisciplinary. For example, an East Asian Studies specialist can be an anthropologist, a sociologist, a historian, or a political scientist, etc. Scholarship in area studies can generally be found its corresponding disciplines. Hope the above explanation helps.

    Yuan Zeng
    Research Services

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