Gathering background information is an important first step when undertaking scholarly research. In academia, conducting a background literature search is called a literature review. You’ll commonly find an entire chapter of a thesis or dissertation devoted to examination of extant literature. Paula Dawidowicz, author of “Literature Reviews Made Easy: A Quick Guide to Success,” describes a literary review as a process of mining evidence-based sources, such as professional journals, to gain a thorough understanding of what’s known about a subject.

Reviews and Analyzes Scholarly Work

A background literature search is a comprehensive review and analysis of work done by scholars on a subject or problem. It's the examination, critique, synthesis and integration of sources and theories. For example, if you were investigating the effect of teacher quality on student achievement, you would begin your literature review by citing definitions of teacher quality and student achievement. Next, you would analyze studies that found a correlation between well-prepared teachers and above-average student performance, as well as studies that produced different results. You might also discuss controversies in the field, such as theories suggesting that factors other than teacher quality are better predictors of student success.

Identifies Gaps in the Research

The literature search informs future studies by providing a foundation and historical perspective along with a look at developments in the field. Academic knowledge builds upon the work of others. Researchers exploring a topic look for gaps in the corpus of literature that they may be able to fill by undertaking a new study using a somewhat different approach. Everything you read, from the inception of your research until completion of your final draft, becomes part of your literary review because it influences your thinking.

Provides Context for a Proposed Study

Researchers start with a literature search to gain expertise and credibility in a content area. Familiarity with previous studies and conclusions avoids duplicating previous scholarship and helps you provide new knowledge to the field. To gain support and funding for your research, you must show that your research is original, important and useful in addressing major questions raised in previous studies. Without a foundation for your study, you would have difficulty interpreting the meaning and significance of data you intend to collect and analyze.

Informs Choice of Methodology

Background research includes studying the methodology used in past studies. Some theses and dissertations require two literature review chapters: one providing a general overview of studies and one outlining the methodology of earlier studies. By examining limitations of past studies, researchers can avoid similar problems. For example, if earlier studies of cancer survivors' emotional recovery process relied on statistical analysis of close-ended surveys with a low return rate, a new study might use focus groups or personal interviews to obtain an in-depth description of survivors’ experience.