Lutz Hendricks - UNC - Department of Economics

Writing a Literature Review


A good literature review is not a list of paper summaries. It uncovers a structured argument that is made in the literature.

Your goal is to determine areas of agreement and disagreement and their causes.

Ideally, you end up with a coherent narrative on how the literature has evolved. If you are lucky, the literature starts simple and then cumulatively builds on previous work. Unfortunately, this rarely works in economics.

Example: measuring the human capital stock of a country

  1. Early literature: years of schooling. Unanswered question: how much does a year of schooling contribute to output?
  2. Mincer literature: Use a Mincer equation to convert years of schooling into efficiency units of labor.
  3. Implicit assumption: a year of schooling contributes the same to output in all countries. We should account for “school quality” differences.
  4. Production function approach: To measure “school quality,” assume a human capital production function and measure inputs (such as school spending).
  5. Drawback: findings depend on lot on the production function and identification strategy. Identification is very indirect.
  6. Immigrant earnings approach: Measure human capital of a country by observing its workers in the U.S. labor market.
  7. Drawback: assumptions on migrant selection must be made. Etc …

Evaluating Sources

Searching google scholar or jstor for references yields thousands of hits. You need to select promising ones. A source is promising if:

Use journal rankings (such as repec’s) to get a sense of the quality of a journal. Rankings often disagree a lot, but they agree on who is near the top.

Good places to get started: