University Library at St. Cloud State University

IA 681 - Seminar in Information Assurance (Herath)

What is a Literature Survey/Review?



select list of available resources and materials with a strong relation to the topic in question, accompanied by a description AND a critical evaluation and comparative analysis of each work.

The literature review is not merely a list of every item and resource with any possible relation to your topic, no matter how tenuous. It focuses on those resources and materials that are directly relevant to the addressing of your topic, and as such, is highly selective.

Each resource should be accompanied by a short description and a critical evaluation. For more about critical evaluation and comparative analysis, please see this guide's section on critical analysis of materials.

Focused on a particular question or area of research.

The literature review is not a widespread, comprehensive list of all materials pertaining to a particular discipline or field of inquiry. Rather, it's narrowly focused to concentrate only on truly relevant materials. For example, a literature review of materials about the US National Security Agency's (NSA) Information Security Directorate and related programs addressing cybercrime might include materials on the establishing of the National Security Cyber Assistance Program: its history, the persons responsible for its creation, and its implementation. Such a literature review would not include information about the history of intelligence gathering, or even the history of the NSA, unless that information had direct bearing on the subject of the NSA and cybercrime programs.

A select list of available, relevant resources and materials available in any and all formats.

A good literature review is not limited to dissertations, books and journal articles, but may include web pages, film and video, maps (if applicable), United States and international government documents, photographs, book reviews, and materials in many other formats and categories. The material's relevance to your research question is what's important, not the format.


  • A summary of available materials without any critical description or component; or
  • An annotated bibliography.
Why do a literature survey/review?

So your research will have a strong theoretical base on which to stand.

The literature survey isn't a chore to get out of the way so you can get to the important/interesting stuff. It's the very meat or center of your work: the platform on which you will build your thesis or argument. It places your research in context within your discipline and shows how your research improves your discipline.

To justify your research!

  • To prove that there are gaps in knowledge in your field that require a close investigation.
  • To show that your research improves your field or fills the gaps in knowledge.
  • To prove that your work is truly original and is thus necessary.
  • For practical considerations: to show your thesis advisor that you have a thorough knowledge of your field, and that you're capable of knowledgeably and intelligently critiquing the work of others in your field.


As an exercise in thesis development

  • To educate yourself on the primary theoretical approaches to your discipline and identify the primary actors:
    • Who are the most important scholars in your field?
    • What questions have been asked and answered?
    • What controversies remain within the discipline?
  • To illustrate how your field has already been studied, and pinpoint any flaws or gaps that remain.


Resources: Library Catalog and Databases

IEEE Xplore Restricted Resource Some full text availabledatabase
Search for journal articles, transactions, conference proceedings, etc. of IEEE, IEE and affiliated societies. Use Interlibrary Loan to get items we do not own (you will get message in upper left corner, "The content you requested is not included in your subscription")

Business Source Premier Restricted Resource Some full text availablefindit elm database
Premium full-text content and peer-reviewed business journals covering all disciplines of business, including marketing, management, accounting, banking, finance and more.


For examples of literature surveys/reviews:

Dissertation Abstracts - PQDT Open Unrestricted Resource findit database
Selective index to open access masters theses and dissertations from U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Europe. Note: This is an open access subset of Dissertation Abstracts International (DAI).

WorldCat Restricted Resource database
Search for materials beyond SCSU, from thousands of libraries and institutions around the world. Click on the FindIt! button and sign in to and request items through Interlibrary Loan.
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Lit review vs annotated bibliography

Differences in purpose:

  • A literature review makes a case for further investigation and research, highlighting gaps in knowledge and asking questions that need to be answered for the betterment of the discipline; as such, its contents are selected to make the case.
  • An annotated bibliography is a list of what's available in a given field, with each item accompanied by a short description. While it may feature a critical component, the criticism is generally directed at the quality of the work, rather than its value in answering a particular question or buttressing an argument.

Differences in format:

  • A literature review is a prose document similar to a journal article or essay, not a list of citations and descriptions. Here at St. Cloud State University, the literature review is generally presented to one's dissertation advisor/sponsor, and occasionally to the dissertation committee, as a precondition to departmental approval of one's research. Your advisor doesn't want to read a long list of book and article titles, and neither does the dissertation committee.
  • An annotated bibliography is simply that: a bibliography (a list of works or resources) accompanied by annotations or short descriptions of the works, along with a brief critical assessment. While annotated bibliographies are generally not acceptable as literature reviews, they're valuable adjuncts to literature reviews, and the best literature reviews will be based on good, comprehensive annotated bibliographies.
Bibliographic tools
Citation Styles and RefWorks Unrestricted Resource
Consult examples of APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, and other citation styles, and use Mendeley or Zotero to manage your references and format your bibliography.

Some tips and tricks
"Literature survey" or "literature review"? Doesn't matter, really. They're the same thing. But when you search the databases for examples, you might want to do separate searches: one for "literature survey" and one for "literature review," just so you don't miss anything useful.

Many theses and dissertations written for degree credit at institutions of higher education are written with a literature survey as an introduction. Try searching for theses and dissertations about information assurance or information security, then read the introductions for examples of literature reviews.

Try enclosing your search terms in quotation marks if they're phrases. Here's an example of what a search in ABI/Inform would look like:


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