Balancing Old and New Sources in Your Dissertation Literature Review

Est. Reading: 2 minutes

When preparing to write your dissertation literature review, you need to read EVERYTHING.

So, how do you know what to include in the actual literature review draft? When is it appropriate to leave out a source that is too old, and how much of the most recent research should you include?

There are three key factors to consider when deciding which sources to include in your literature review draft, all of which come down to relevance and timeliness:

  • The theoretical framework
  • The context
  • The research gap

The Theoretical Framework

Regardless of how old a source is, you need to include it if it is crucial to building a strong theoretical framework.

Your theoretical framework establishes your methodology and your approach to the research problem as being grounded in tried-and-tested methods and approaches. For this reason, older sources may be the most appropriate for this part of the literature review.

Look for foundational sources and authors—those whose methods and approaches are well-established and well-regarded in your field.

The Context

For the reader to understand your research problem and proposed hypotheses/solutions, you need to thoroughly describe the context of the problem.

This involves answering the journalists’ questions: who, what, where, why, and how.

The problem you are addressing will have been explored and established by the work of other researchers (while your hypotheses/solutions are most likely original). You will therefore be using secondary research to answer these questions.

This will involve a mix of old and new sources, describing the “history” of the research context for your research question(s). It will provide a summary of the key research already conducted on your topic.

The Research Gap

A thorough understanding of the research problem and previous research is not enough for a strong dissertation; however, you also need to demonstrate the need for and originality of your own research. This is known as the research gap.

Establishing the research gap involves carefully assessing and curating the newest source and most recent research on your topic. The goal is not to summarize every single recent source relevant to your topic. Instead, you are looking for what these sources have left out or failed to achieve—these are the gaps into which your research will fall.

A great literature review is more than just a summary of all the previous research on your topic.

It needs to establish the research problem, provide a clear context in terms of existing research, and identify the need for further (your) research. Choose to include only and all sources that fulfill these objectives, and you will have a strong literature review.

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