Webster & Watson (2002) Analyzing the Past to Prepare for the Future: Writing a Literature Review


The authors present information on how to write a literature review in the field of information systems (IS), noting that in this field there are only a few published review articles. They note the factors to be considered when writing a review, such as the prospective author and topic of the review, the structure of the review, the identification of the relevant literaure, and the tone of review. The reviewing and revision process is also discussed.

Citation Jane Webster, Richard T. Watson (2002). Analyzing the Past to Prepare for the Future: Writing a Literature Review. MIS Quarterly, vol. 26 no. 2, pp. xiii – xxiii. DOI

BibTex entry for this article:

BibTex entry for this article:

archivePrefix = {arXiv},
arxivId = {02767783},
author = {Webster, Jane and Watson, Richard T.},
doi = {},
eprint = {02767783},
isbn = {02767783},
issn = {02767783},
journal = {MIS Quarterly},
number = {2},
pages = {xiii -- xxiii},
pmid = {15917194},
title = {{Analyzing the Past to Prepare for the Future: Writing a Literature Review}},
volume = {26},
year = {2002}

Key ideas

A review of prior, relevant literature is an essential feature of any academic project. An effective review creates a firm foundation for advancing knowledge. It facilitates theory development, closes areas where a plethora of research exists, and uncovers areas where research is needed. (p. xiii)

As fields of inquiry develop, their theories are often placed on a hierarchy: (p. xiii)

  • From ad hoc classification systems (in which categories are used to summarize empirical observations),
  • to taxonomies (in which the relationships between the categories can be described),
  • to conceptual frameworks (in which propositions summarize explanations and predictions),
  • to theoretical systems (in which laws are contained within axiomatic or formal theories)

One reason we see so few theoretical articles in IS relates to the youth of the field. Another concerns the complexity of assembling a review in an interdisciplinary field. That is, constructing a review is a challenging process because we often need to draw on theories from a variety of fields. Moreover, we have so few theories of our own. Nevertheless, the literature review represents the foundation for research in IS. As such, review articles are critical to strengthening IS as a field of study. (p. xiv)

An ideal article: (p. xxi)

  • motivates the research topic and explains the review's contributions
  • describes the key concepts
  • delineates the boundaries of the research
  • reviews relevant prior literature in IS and related areas
  • develops a model to guide future research
  • justifies propositions by presenting theoretical explanations, past empirical findings, and practical examples
  • presents concluding implications for researchers and managers

And on top of this, the exemplary review article should be explanatory and creative.


Two types of reviews exist:

First, authors could deal with a mature topic where an accumulated body of research exists that needs analysis and synthesis. In this case, they would conduct a thorough literature review and then propose a conceptual model that synthesizes and extends existing research. (p. xiv)

Second, authors could tackle an emerging issue that would benefit from exposure to potential theoretical foundations. Here, the review of current literature on the emerging topic would, of necessity, be shorter. The author's contribution would arise from the fresh theoretical foundations proposed in developing a conceptual model. (p. xiv)

Writing a Review Article

Beginning Your Article

To hook your reader early the introduction to your paper needs to: (p. xv)

  • motivate your topic,
  • provide a working definition of your key variable(s),
  • and clearly articulate the paper's contribution.

The next section of your paper should: (p. xv)

  • provide more elaborate definitions of your key variables
  • set the boundaries on your work

Boundaries include issues like: (p. xv)

  • level(s) of analysis,
  • temporal and contextual limitations,
  • the scope of your review,
  • and your implicit values.

Identifying the Relevant Literature

A high-quality review is complete and focuses on concepts. A complete review covers relevant literature on the topic and is not confined to one research methodology, one set of journals, or one geographic region. (p. xvi)

We recommend a structured approach to determine the source material for the review: (p. xvi)

  1. The major contributions are likely to be in the leading journals. It makes sense, therefore, to start with them.
  2. Go backward by reviewing the citations for the articles identified in step 1 to determine prior articles you should consider.
  3. Go forward by using the Web of Science to identify articles citing the key articles identified in the previous steps.

Structuring the Review

A literature review is concept-centric. Thus, concepts determine the organizing framework of a review. (p. xvi)

In contrast, some authors take an author-centric approach and essentially present a summary of the relevant articles. This method fails to synthesize the literature. (p. xvi)

Table 1. Approaches to Literature Reviews
Concept X … [author A, author B, …]
Concept Y … [author A, author C, …]
Author A … concept X, concept Y,…
Author B … concept X, concept W, …

To make the transition from author- to concept-centric, we recommend that you compile a concept matrix as you read each article (Table 2). When your reading is complete, synthesize the literature by discussing each identified concept. Before commencing this step, take some time to develop a logical approach to grouping and presenting the key concepts you have uncovered. (p. xvii)

Table 2. Concept Matrix
Articles Concepts
Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta
1 X X X
2 X X X

You might need to add a further dimension to the concept matrix to handle the unit of analysis (Table 3) Isolating concepts by unit of analysis should result in a crisper review because it is easier to detect when you let a concept stray outside the scope of its domain. (p. xvii)

Table 3. Concept Matrix Augmented with Unit of Analysis
Articles Concepts
Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta
Unit of Analysis O G I O G I O G I O G I O G I
1 X X X
2 X X X X

Tables and figures can be an effective means of communicating major findings and insights. Nonetheless, tables cannot be merely lists of articles. They need to add value by categorizing articles based on a scheme that helps to define the topic area, such as types of variables examined, level of analysis, gaps in the literature, or other important theoretical issues. (p. xviii)

A review succeeds when it helps other scholars to make sense of the accumulated knowledge on a topic. (p. xviii)


A successful literature review constructively informs the reader about what has been learned. (p. xviii)

Tell the reader what patterns you are seeing in the literature (p. xviii)


We opt for the present tense for several reasons: (p. xviii)

  1. It gives the reader a greater sense of immediacy.
  2. It is logical to use the present tense because concepts are always here and now.
  3. The present tense is terser and thus faster for the reader to process.

Theoretical Development in Your Article

A review should identify critical knowledge gaps and thus motivate researchers to close this breach. (p. xix)

Writing a review not only requires an examination of past research, but means making a chart for future research. (p. xix)

Highlighting the discrepancy between what we know and what we need to know alerts other scholars to opportunities for a key contribution (p. xix)

Extending current theories or developing new theories will create directions for future research. However, extending or developing theories is a difficult task and is often the weakest part of a review. Nonetheless, it is the most important part of a review and generally needs the most elaboration. (p. xix)

The Reviewing and Revision Process

A review paper embodies the “state of the field.” As such, it represents a benchmark for others conducting future research in your area. (p. xx)

Tables and figures


INF6001W, Literature Review

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