A literature review is both a process and a product. As a process, it involves searching for information related to your topic to familarize yourself with the relevant research. This process also helps you identify issues and gaps in the research. Remember that you're seeking to identify the key authors and key arguments that are relevant to your topic, not to exhaustively read everything written on the subject.
"Literature reviews are systematic syntheses of previous work around a particular topic" (Card, 2010). A key word in this definition is syntheses. Most literature reviews go beyond mere summarization to involve a certain level of analysis.
As a finished product, a literature review tells the reader the current state of understanding about a topic. However it's more than a summary of what you've read; it's a critical analysis, which argues the need for your own study. It provides a context for your own research, by showing the relationship between it and existing scholarship.
A literature review can be a component of a research paper, or it can be published on its own as a 'review article.' A literature review is the mandatory first part of your Culminating Project here at Cummings, and indeed -- it is required of every thesis and dissertation at any institution of higher learning.
Now. Certainly BEFORE you start your project. Remember -- it's meant to inform and focus the rest the of your project. This is work that is done to prepare; thus, it should be started before you begin your research.
1. Select a topic,
2. Collect and read relevant articles, and
3. Write the review.
It seems straightforward enough but the devil, of course, is in the details. Suitable topics must be selected with care and a discriminating eye. Finding the right articles in and of itself can be a challenge. Finally, once you have selected your articles, you must read them carefully to understand all of the implications before you begin to write.
Barron, Lee. "LITERATURE REVIEW." In The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods, edited by Victor Jupp, 163-64. London, England: SAGE Publications, Ltd., 2006.
Card, Noel A. "Literature Review." In Encyclopedia of Research Design, edited by Neil J. Salkind, 726-29. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010.