Research Process

39 Synthesis and Literature Reviews

Melanie Gagich & Emilie Zickel

Why do we seek to understand the ways that authors or sources “converse” with one another? So that we can synthesize various perspectives on a topic to more deeply understand it.

In academic writing, we synthesize sources to make sense of them as parts of a scholarly “conversation” about a particular topic. This synthesis of a “conversation” may become the content of an essay — a paper in which you, the writer, point out various themes or key points from a conversation between several authors who have contributed to one particular topic. This rhetorical move is one that takes place in various genres, but especially in literature reviews.

Literature reviews—or “lit reviews”—synthesize previous research that has been done on a particular topic, summarizing important works in the history of research on that topic. The literature review provides context for the author’s own new research. It is the basis and background out of which the author’s research grows. Context = credibility in academic writing. When writers are able to produce a literature review, they demonstrate the breadth of their knowledge about how others have already studied and discussed their topic. Literature reviews are often found in the beginning of scholarly journal articles to contextualize the author’s own research. Sometimes, literature reviews are done for their own sake, which means some scholarly articles are just literature reviews.


Literature Review Organization

Literature review organization will depend on your focus. The following are the most common organization patterns:

  • Topic or Theme, which is good for a synthesis type presentation
  • Chronological, which works best when  considering how the research topic has been studied and discussed in various time periods (over a year or ten years) and is ideal for a topic that has a long history of research and scholarship
  • Discipline or Field, which is best for interdisciplinary considerations as this arrangement could better offer information about how different academic fields have examined a particular topic


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