Sample of a Successful Literature Review for a Research Paper
This sample of a literature review for a research paper demonstrates the two most vital purposes of a scholarly review:
1. Giving readers an accurate if selective picture of the published scholarship on a topic.
2. Explaining in relation to the scholarship why the new research is needed and valuable.
The sample review also provides examples of categorising sources in a concise and logical discussion, selecting and emphasising the most significant publications, citing sources accurately while describing and evaluating them, and persuading readers that the current research is truly fascinating.
The topic of this sample review is the published scholarship on a fourteenth-century medieval poem entitled The Duchess of the Dark Tower. The academic publications reviewed in the sample are entirely fictional, as are their authors, the poem itself and the manuscript containing it. Specialised terminology and the complicated details that might be included in a ‘real’ literature review intended for publication or grading have been kept to a minimum to enable a focus on the primary goals of a literature review and to ensure that they will be clear to readers working in all fields of study and research areas. The situation and style of the review are realistic, however, and the in-text citation practices and list of references are appropriate for a publishable literature review in the humanities, social sciences and other disciplines. The documentation style follows the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association because APA style is used across such a wide range of research areas in the arts and sciences, but do keep in mind that italics and other features may not be represented accurately in all online formats, so it is wise to check the Manual for yourself as you prepare the references for your literature review. The author–date system recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style would be equally effective here and, indeed, the preferred choice for many literary essays and manuscript studies.
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Sample Literature Review for an Academic Research Paper
Scholarship on The Duchess of the Dark Tower has been abundant since the poem was discovered in 1962. The unlabelled and unnamed manuscript that contains the poem had been buried for centuries beneath a stack of more recent printed books on a dark corner shelf of the celebrated Codecorum Collection. Immediately after the poem was recognised as the literary text it is, however, James – the library assistant who made the discovery – published a brief announcement in Medieval Manuscript Studies (1962), where he named the book The Dark Duchess Manuscript (or DDMS for short). The name stuck and the seed proved productive, with literary studies of the poem blossoming over the following decades.
Smith (1963), Jones (1972) and Williams (1986) offered particularly helpful and persuasive interpretive studies of the poem. All three focussed on narrative content and included long quotations derived from the manuscript, or from a microfilm of the manuscript in the case of Williams. For the most part these passages were published in translation only, and, as I discuss at greater length later in this paper, it is important to compare them to the critical edition (James, 1992) because some of the readings can be frustratingly misleading. Smith and Williams considered the poem primarily as a quest, with the first identifying it as a romance and the second arguing for an anti-romance. Jones, on the other hand, examined in detail what she called the ‘metaphorical subtext’ and its social commentary (1972, p.14).
The unique and anachronistic alliterative style of The Duchess of the Dark Tower was the focus of Discerno’s PhD thesis in 1975. Given that a critical edition of the poem was not yet available, the project was an ambitious one necessitating painstaking work with the manuscript itself and lengthy searches for word meanings and origins. In detail and poetic sensitivity, this unpublished thesis has not been superseded even by the best of the stylistic studies that followed (Roberts, 1983; Lindel, 2003).
Theory has also played its part in scholarship dedicated to The Duchess of the Dark Tower. Chancey (1968), Sveltz (1982) and Washburn (1994) are notable for their thoughtful theoretical approaches to the poem, with the New Historical study by Washburn proving of particular significance to subsequent scholarship, including the current research paper. Washburn’s article enjoyed a clear advantage over the earlier two, of course, by benefiting from the long-awaited critical edition that was at last published by James in 1992, a full thirty years after he first discovered the poem. The copious historical and linguistic notes in this edition are justification enough for the wait all on their own, and Washburn plundered them with characteristic vigour and exactitude in his valuable discussion of the poem and its Derbyshire gentleman owner, Sir Ponderalot of Codecorum Manor, head of the family from 1349 to 1366.
After the publication of the critical edition, studies of The Duchess of the Dark Tower increased, and after Washburn’s article critics rarely separated the poem from its owner. Topics for new articles ranged widely, from the unusual logic of the poem’s divisions and headings, to the anachronistic affinity of the manuscript’s illuminated capitals with the poem’s alliterative lines, to the relationship between the frequent feasting episodes in the poem and Ponderalot’s expensive new hall, to the striking similarity between locations described in the poem and the nature of the Derbyshire countryside in the region where the manuscript was produced. The first (and still only) monograph besides the edition to be dedicated to the poem is an interdisciplinary collection of essays edited by Jones and Soffen (the latter Washburn’s student) in 2012. Tellingly, the focus is the manuscript as a whole, and the perspectives of its twenty-two expert contributors are influenced by historical, codicological, palaeographical, art historical and social science approaches as much as literary ones.
That the language of The Duchess of the Dark Tower reflects Ponderalot’s local dialect, that the poem is undoubtedly an accomplished literary work, that the text was almost certainly the product of his own hand, and that the marginal annotations were also added by him (rather than by a later family member as suggested by Taylor, 1988, p.220) and many other important discoveries are confirmed by the studies in Jones and Soffen’s excellent collection. However, very little attention is paid by the editors and contributors to the other manuscripts in Ponderalot’s collection, by which I do not mean the many manuscripts, early printed books and later publications added by subsequent family members, but those books known to have been the possessions of the head of the Ponderalot household from 1349. Schwimmer (2012) is an exception, as she considers The Duchess in relation to the collection of verses copied rather roughly into the only unbound quire believed to be present in the nascent library during Ponderalot’s time.
Beyond Schwimmer’s short contribution, however, no one follows up the clue James (1992) offered in his usual quiet way – buried in a long and searching note on one of Ponderalot’s most mysterious annotations in The Dark Duchess Manuscript. There James writes: ‘Other books owned by P[onderalot] contain marginalia in this same difficult hand, and some of the strange symbols used by the annotator in DDMS are used in these manuscripts as well. There are five other books I am certain belonged to P and I have numbered them I, II, III, IV and V for the present in the hope that I or someone else may one day find the time to examine their contents more closely and discover valuable clues to understanding this sophisticated reader’ (1992, p.587). Perhaps because the books James was referring to are dense philosophical and theological tomes rather than literary poems, his call to action has been ignored for nearly another three decades.
This neglected avenue of inquiry is precisely what the current paper explores, expanding the focus of Jones and Soffen’s collection (2012) to include an examination of all of Ponderalot’s manuscripts – the number of which has now reached eight, with my own research identifying two additional Codecorum books containing annotations in Ponderalot’s hand and featuring the same odd symbols. Understanding Ponderalot’s annotations as a response to and commentary on The Duchess of the Dark Tower was the immediate goal of my research, and my efforts were rewarded almost at once when I discovered tucked between dialogues by Cicero and Augustine in James’s MS III a key to Ponderalot’s code of mysterious symbols. As the following pages reveal, understanding those symbols sheds new light on many passages in The Duchess and suggests entirely different meanings for some annotations thought to be correctly understood. In fact, it would seem that Ponderalot’s interpretation of the poem offers a social commentary on the chivalric ideal and other fourteenth-century power structures far darker and more subversive than the ‘metaphorical subtext’ Jones detected back in 1972.
Chancey, M. O. (1968). Deconstructing The Duchess of the Dark Tower. Modern Theory & Medieval Poetry, 1, 2–38.
Discerno, P. (1975). Anglo-Saxon alliterative style in The Dark Duchess Manuscript. (Doctoral thesis, University of Oxford, United Kingdom).
James, R. M. (1962). The Dark Duchess Manuscript: A new discovery in the Codecorum Collection. Medieval Manuscript Studies, 22, 18–23.
James, R. M. (Ed.). (1992). The Duchess of the Dark Tower: A Critical Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jones, S. R. (1972). The metaphorical subtext of The Duchess of the Dark Tower. Medieval Poetry, 23, 14–33.
Jones, S. R., & Soffen, D. T. (Eds.). (2012). The Dark Duchess Manuscript: A collection of essays considering the whole book. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lindel, E. (2003). Linking the lines: A reassessment of alliterative patterns in The Duchess of the Dark Tower. Style & Meaning, 13, 74–108.
Roberts, A. E. (1983). The Duchess of the Dark Tower and the fourteenth-century alliterative revival. Fourteenth-Century Poetry, 88, 477–493.
Schwimmer, B. (2012). Ponderalot’s loose quire and its quirky verses. In S. R. Jones & D. T. Soffen (Eds.), The Dark Duchess Manuscript: A collection of essays considering the whole book (pp.92–131). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, I. A. (1963). A new medieval romance: The Duchess of the Dark Tower. Medieval Poetry, 14, 72–79.
Sveltz, V. F. (1982). Reading reception: The Duchess of the Dark Tower then and now. Modern Theory & Medieval Poetry, 15, 158–187.
Taylor, T. W. (1988). Deciphering the annotations in The Dark Duchess Manuscript. Medieval Manuscript Studies, 48, 212–142.
Washburn, E. (1994). Sir Ponderalot and his Dark Duchess: A New Historical study of The Duchess of the Dark Tower. Modern Theory & Medieval Poetry, 27, 101–169.
Williams, C. C. (1986). A fourteenth-century anti-romance: The Duchess of the Dark Tower. Medieval Poetry, 37, 19–44.
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