Scholarly writing aims to contribute new insight or new information to a field of study. The literature review establishes the base upon which this new work stands. Typically it comes early in an academic paper, and its goal is to summarize and synthesize existing work in the relevant field.
What Has Gone Before
The term “literature” here does not mean imaginative works like novels or poetry, but simply written information on a given topic. According to the University of North Carolina’s Writing Center, the literature to be reviewed could include any published material that provides information in the field being discussed, perhaps within a specific time period. At minimum, a literature review summarizes basic information from the sources being examined, but it may also synthesize the information, discussing, for instance, how the sources relate to each other and to the broader field. It may also evaluate the sources. As the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writer’s Handbook points out, the specific format may vary by discipline. In some cases, a scholar may do a stand-alone literature review as a survey of or introduction to a particular topic as opposed to including a literature review as part of a larger research paper.