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How to use literature in reports, journal articles and the thesis/dissertation

A sound literature review/survey is crucial in research. This page considers how to use literature while another discusses the literature review as a task.

Don't be afraid to discard

Some students tend to feel that, having worked hard to access and document extracts from the literature, it will be to their credit if they use them in some way. This is by no means so, sad as it may seem.

A list of references/bibliography** in academic writing should never be a catalogue of everything you could find that might seem remotely relevant. Before including anything in a report, journal article or thesis, ask yourself how it is substantiating argument or taking a case forward. You should be in the barrister role. If you do use something, make sure that you document why.

However where literature in your general area does not not directly take your own work forward, but is seminal and well-known, it would be unwise to omit it. So find a way of bringing it in, possibly in terms of what it does not do, thus making a case for work that you will be doing or have done or that still needs doing at some future time.

How to cite literature in academic writing

Each field of study has its own norms for the format for referring to literature within text: for example as footnotes or endnotes or in the form of (Brown 2014). All students need to follow the norms of their discipline. The special case of citing and referencing websites and is considered on another page.

General information

There is also the question of how to punctuate or italicise a list of references/bibliography **. This is largely a matter of housestyle and each journal, for example, tends to have its own. Supervisors* will advise. Whatever style you use, it must be consistent throughout your writing, and students tend to underestimate the time that it takes to tidy this up as the end of their project approaches.

How to use literature in academic writing

If you are using an extract or finding from the literature to carry your own argument forwards, you should ideally indicate its strength or veracity. For example, there is a great deal of difference between:

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on literature

Why the work of others is important

Identifying and accessing relevant material

Reading purposefully and effectively

Bibliographic management software

Systems and styles for citing sources

Using literature in your own work

Implications for a 'Literature Survey/Review'

You will be able to think of more examples.

This type of use shows that you really have read and understood the literature. A sentence like, 'People prefer white bread to wholemeal bread (Brown 2013), (Smith 2012)' is unconvincing without an explanation of the basis on which Brown and Smith came to their conclusions. Nevertheless, I have seen this type of use in quite reputable journals. So it is something to discuss with your supervisor.

© Pat Cryer


* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.

** The terms 'references' and 'bibliography' are used interchangeably in some subject areas. In other subject areas 'references' are what are referred to in the writing, whereas a 'bibliography' lists what was consulted to aid thinking although not referred to directly in the writing. You must follow the norms of your discipline.