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Difference between a Literature Review and a Critical Review

As you read research papers, you may notice that there are two very different kinds of review of prior studies. Sometimes, this section of a paper is called a literature review, and at other times, it is referred to as a critical review or a critical context. These differences may be more commonly seen across different fields. Although both these sections are about reviewing prior and existing studies, this article aims to clarify the differences between the two.

Literature review

A literature review is a summary of prior or existing studies that are related to your own research paper. A literature review can be a part of a research paper or can form a paper in itself. For the former, the literature review is designed as a basis upon which your own current study is designed and built. The latter forms a synthesis of prior studies and is a way to highlight future research agendas or a framework.

Writing a literature review

In a literature review, you should attempt to discuss the arguments and findings in prior studies and then work to build on these studies as you develop your own research. You can also highlight the connection between existing and prior literature to demonstrate how the current study you are presenting can advance your knowledge in the field.

When performing a literature review, you should aim to summarise your discussions using a specific aspect of the literature, such as by topic, time, methodology/design and findings. By doing so, you should be able to establish an effective way to present the relevant literature and demonstrate the connection between prior studies and your research.

Do note that a literature review does not include a presentation or discussion of any results or findings – this should come at a later point in the paper or study. You should also not impose your subjective viewpoints or opinions on the literature you discuss. 

Critical review

A critical review is also a popular way of reviewing prior and existing studies. It can cover and discuss the main ideas or arguments in a book or an article, or it can review a specific concept, theme, theoretical perspective or key construct found in the existing literature.

However, the key feature that distinguishes a critical review from a literature review is that the former is more than just a summary of different topics or methodologies. It offers more of a reflection and critique of the concept in question, and is engaged by authors to more clearly contextualise their own research within the existing literature and to present their opinions, perspectives and approaches.

Given that a critical review is not just a summary of prior literature, it is generally not considered acceptable to follow the same strategy as for a literature review. Instead, aim to organise and structure your critical review in a way that would enable you to discuss the key concepts, assert your perspectives and locate your arguments and research within the existing body of work. 

Structuring a critical review

A critical review would generally begin with an introduction to the concepts you would like to discuss. Depending on how broad the topics are, this can simply be a brief overview or it could set up a more complex framework. The discussion that follows through the rest of the review will then address and discuss your chosen themes or topics in more depth. 

Writing a critical review

The discussion within a critical review will not only present and summarise themes but also critically engage with the varying arguments, writings and perspectives within those themes. One important thing to note is that, similar to a literature review, you should keep your personal opinions, likes and dislikes out of a review. Whether you personally agree with a study or argument – and whether you like it or not – is immaterial. Instead, you should focus upon the effectiveness and relevance of the arguments, considering such elements as the evidence provided, the interpretations and analysis of the data, whether or not a study may be biased in any way, what further questions or problems it raises or what outstanding gaps and issues need to be addressed.

In conclusion

Although a review of previous and existing literature can be performed and presented in different ways, in essence, any literature or critical review requires a solid understanding of the most prominent work in the field as it relates to your own study. Such an understanding is crucial and significant for you to build upon and synthesise the existing knowledge, and to create and contribute new knowledge to advance the field.


Read previous (fourth) in series: How to refer to other studies or literature in the different sections of a research paper


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