How many sources do you need in a literature review?

February 19, 2014

Students often ask me how many sources they need in their literature review. The short answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your topic, the nature of your research project, your level of scholarship, and a number of other factors.

An article from Canberra University (http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/writing/literature) suggests:

  • Undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
  • Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
  • Master’s thesis: 40+ titles
  • Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles

Another strategy I learned somewhere along the way that I now share with my students is this:

If your literature review is one section of a larger research paper, thesis or dissertation

 Minimum number of sources = number of pages in the body of your entire paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A paper that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) needs at least 10 sources in its literature review. 

A thesis of 100 pages (in the body) includes at least 100 sources.

If your literature review is a stand-alone document

Minimum number of sources =  3 times the number of pages in the body of your paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A stand-alone literature review that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) should examine at least 30 sources.

These are not hard and fast rules by any means. Also, it is worth mentioning that as students and scholars who care about the quality of our work, we want to aim to raise the bar, not simply meet a minimum suggested standard. What these guidelines are suggesting is that you don’t aim for any less. If you do, your search for relevant literature in your field may be incomplete and you need to keep digging. Of course, your sources have to be relevant to your topic, too.

Not every scholar or academic supervisor would agree with the guidelines I offer here, criticizing them as being too reductionist or simplistic. My point isn’t to offer a black and white rule or open theoretical debate for which there can be no clear solution, but rather to offer a straight forward and practical answer to a question that academics often respond to in an ambiguous way, leaving students frustrated, exasperated and anxious about how to go conduct their literature review. 

When in doubt, talk with your own instructor or supervisor, asking them what their expectations are. (Don’t be surprised though, if you get an answer that is vague, like, “It depends…”)

Remember: Aim for quality over quality… and to do a quality literature review, you need to have a substantive quantity of sources.

Here are some of my favourite resources to help you write your literature review:

University of Toronto – http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review

U Conn – http://classguides.lib.uconn.edu/content.php?pid=239974&sid=1980274

University of Leicester –  http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/literature-review

Queensland Univeristy of Technology – http://www.citewrite.qut.edu.au/write/litreview.jsp

Birmingham City University – http://library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.04.htm

Related posts: Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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A new kind of Loyalist: “Public” ESL education takes on a whole new twist in Canada

February 18, 2014

For more than a decade I have been fascinated by the links between English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and business. Public school boards, private schools and post-secondary institutions use ESL programs to generate revenue for their organizations. This topic fascinated me so much, I wrote my Ph.D. research on it.

In education, we don’t call the money generated by fee-paying ESL students “profit”. That word is pretty much a profanity in the social sectors. But essentially, that’s what it is. The revenue generated from ESL programs comes in to institutions mostly as unrestricted money. That means that the organization can direct the funds wherever they see fit. They can’t dole it out to shareholders, because there are none… but they can use it for salaries, renovations, perks or whatever they want.

I’ve never thought that was a particularly bad thing — providing that students get a quality educational experience and institutions don’t make promises they can’t keep.

Private ESL schools have often been regarded as shady or disreputable, precisely because they generate profit. They can use that profit however they want.

In Canada, it’s really getting interesting. A company called Loyalist Group Ltd. has created a public company that buys up ESL and college prep schools. They own schools in Vancouver, Toronto and Victoria. Unlike other, private schools, this business is public. That means that they trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX). The average joe can buy stocks in the company — and share in the profits.

A few days ago, Loyalist Group Ltd. was named to the TSX Venture 50. That’s a list of some of Canada’s strongest and most promising public companies. It’s a major coup for an educational company to be named to this list. And Loyalist has done it for the second year in a row. 

What we call “public education” is paid for through our tax dollars. We trust the government to administer those dollars in a wise and honest way.

Interestingly, one of the findings of my Ph.D. research was that when it comes to ESL programs in public education and universities — at least in Canada — there’s often a reporting loophole. Public educational institutions never have to explicitly disclose how much revenue they generate specifically from their ESL programs, what their enrolments (essentially their “sales”) are, or how well they do from one year to the next. That information is kept tightly under wraps and never disclosed publicly. I tried in vain to get revenue reporting results from numerous ESL programs during my Ph.D. research. Doors quietly closed and conversations ended. Ultimately, I had to re-design my entire study so I considered factors other than revenue. Getting my hands on financial data was impossible. Why? Because ESL programs at public institutions are under no obligation to report their financial information to anyone.  ESL programs fall through the reporting cracks, while generating millions (or even tens of millions) for public institutions…

Public education companies, on the other hand, could never get away with that. They’ll report their earnings and spread their success among their shareholders. If they’re not successful, they’ll fail. Success in education is based on outcomes and results.

But there’s a new form of “public” education on the block and it is not to be ignored. Educational companies that are publicly traded on the stock market are drastically different from private companies. Public companies are obliged to share financial information with shareholders and investors. The accountability to the people who choose to put their dollars into the company is significant. Shareholders can ask questions — and demand answers. If their students are not happy or successful, they’ll leave. Sales will drop and they’ll close their doors. Their very existence depends on their students’ success.

Private educational companies never have to disclose details of their operations or finances. That should make us skeptical.

But public companies put it all out there for anyone to look at, scrutinize and ultimately judge. That’s a good thing. When it comes to ESL, it’s more transparent than what we see in public institutions. The very nature of accountability and reporting in education in Canada is changing… It’s strange, but true that when it comes to ESL, publicly traded companies like Loyalist Group Ltd may turn out to be more transparent, more accountable and more responsive to questioning from outsiders than some “public” institutions.

If you’re an ethical investor who values education, keep your eye on Loyalist Group Ltd. They may be the first of their kind in Canada, but they probably won’t be the only one… at least not for long.

Disclosure: Do I own shares in Loyalist Group Ltd.? Just a few. And I’ll be buying more soon.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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