How long should a literature review be? Writing a literature review properly. 

Embarking on a journey through academic research, one is often faced with the question: How long should a thesis literature review be?

Typically, a literature review comprises 20-40% of the thesis, equating to around 20-40 pages, yet this can fluctuate based on the topic, field, and institutional guidelines. However, if the literature review is for an assignment/project report it only needs to be a few pages long.

A literature review represents a critical exploration of existing scholarship on a specific topic, serving as the backbone for dissertations, research articles, book chapters, conference papers, and more.

This comprehensive, concise, and well-structured survey of the current knowledge landscape provides insight into established findings, research methodologies, and highlights the gaps that your research aims to fill.

The endeavor of writing a literature review not only deepens your understanding of your chosen area but also lays a strong foundation for your unique inquiry and contribution to the field.

How Long Should a Thesis Literature Review Be? Dissertation, research paper, journal article, and more

The length of a thesis literature review can vary based on the topic, research field, and guidelines provided by your institution.

Type of ArticleApproximate Length of Literature Review
Thesis20-40% of the thesis, approx. 20-40 pages
AssignmentA few pages long
Research ArticleVaries, but typically one section within the article
Book ChapterVaries, may comprise a significant portion of the chapter
DissertationSimilar to thesis, about 20-40% of the total length
Conference PaperGenerally shorter, can range from 1 paragraph-3 pages

However, as a general rule, it often comprises 20-40% of the thesis. This equates to around 20-40 pages.

However, if the literature review is for an assignment it only needs to be a few pages long. 

It’s crucial to ensure your review is comprehensive, concise, and well-structured, adequately summarizing existing research, identifying gaps, discussing limitations, and suggesting future research directions. 

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a critical examination of existing research on a particular topic. It is often the beginning of any area of study and is often used as the introduction to a dissertation. 

I have done one at the beginning of any research project, the beginning of my PhD and postdocs and in industry research positions. 

It involves analyzing relevant resources such as books, journal articles, and other scholarly works to gain a comprehensive understanding of the current knowledge in your area of interest.

For example, if your topic is the impact of social media on the mental health of younger generations, you’ll explore previous studies to understand established findings, methodologies, and gaps in the field.

The purpose is threefold: 

  1. to comprehend what is already known,
  2. to give your readers an overview of existing knowledge (showing where your research fits in), and
  3. to identify any unexplored areas or gaps, thus allowing you to contribute something original to the field.

The process aids in refining your research question and defining your unique angle of inquiry.

How do I create a literature review?

Creating a literature review involves several key steps:

  1. Conceptualize: Start by forming a conceptual framework. It’s an overview of the topic, helping you structure your review.
  2. Synthesis: Synthesize the literature. Read, categorize, and summarize the material to create a narrative.
  3. Analysis: This is your main body of work. Develop arguments and critique the literature.
  4. Conclusion: Recap your findings, discussing the implications of your work and highlighting any limitations.
  5. Future Research: If applicable, suggest areas for future research or policy actions based on your findings.
  6. Introduction: Write the introduction last. It includes the importance of the topic, gaps in knowledge, and your motivation for the review.
  7. Transparency: Always be transparent about limitations in your work and the body of evidence reviewed.

How many sources do you need in a literature review?

The number of sources required in a literature review can vary significantly depending on several factors such as:

  1. the nature of your research topic,
  2. the length of the literature review, and
  3. the specific instructions from your professor or institution.

In general, it’s crucial to include a wide range of sources to fully capture the breadth of scholarship on your research topic.

For a dissertation or thesis, a literature review might involve dozens of sources. For a stand-alone literature review or an overview for a journal article, fewer sources might be appropriate. For instance, a PhD thesis literature review might require anywhere from 50 to 300+ sources.

My PhD thesis had 256 papers cited

Rather than focusing on a specific number, the key is to ensure that your literature review provides a comprehensive, balanced overview of existing scholarship on your research topic.

This should ideally include both seminal works and recent publications, highlighting any gaps your research aims to fill.

Remember, the quality of your sources is as important as the quantity.

Your literature review should demonstrate that you have critically engaged with a variety of scholarly sources to gain a deep understanding of your research topic.

What Makes a Good Literature Review?

A good literature review for a dissertation or thesis is a comprehensive survey of existing scholarship on a particular topic, demonstrating your understanding of current research in your field of study.

The length of a literature review can vary depending on the research topic and level of study, but the University of Kent suggests that for a PhD thesis, it could range up to 20 pages or more.

Start by organizing your literature review either thematically, chronologically, or by methodology.

An annotated bibliography can assist in this process.

You must summarize the main points of each source, focusing on its relevance to your research project. Scholarly sources are preferable; consult your instructor for the minimum number of sources required.

It is essential to identify a gap in knowledge within the existing scholarship, which your research aims to fill.

This should be highlighted in your review, underlining the significance and worthiness of your proposed research. It’s crucial that your review provides a complete overview of the current state of research and shows why your research is important.

Bear in mind the word count, as a concise, focused review is typically preferred.

Structure is key and the title page, introduction, and conclusion should be included. 

Despite the absence of a hard and fast rule on length, your review must provide a robust base of knowledge for your research, allowing readers to understand your research’s purpose and audience.

Wrapping up – How long should a literature review be?

The question “how long should a literature review be?” hinges on various factors, including the nature of the research project, area of study, and instructions from your instructor.

Whether it’s for a thesis, dissertation, or a research paper, writing a literature review requires a comprehensive survey of existing scholarship on your particular topic.

Remember, the length of a literature review is not a hard and fast rule; it could comprise anywhere from 20 pages to much more in a PhD thesis, or be a stand-alone brief overview in a journal article.

The structure of your review, whether thematically, chronologically, or by methodology, helps to summarize and highlight specific findings in the field of study.

Bear in mind the importance of identifying a gap in knowledge, which your research aims to fill.

Above all, your literature review should be a concise, scholarly synthesis of your research topic, providing a robust base of knowledge for your audience and demonstrating the significance and worthiness of your proposed research. 

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.