I am currently working on a grant proposal that also asks for a literature review. Now, when it comes to literature reviews, I have always had a problem with selecting what is relevant enough to be included. Obviously, one can't/shouldn't include everything and needs to delineate certain limits. With this grant application, it is even more so the case because there is a clear word limit. So I am wondering how people go about this? To be a bit more concrete, I have the following conundrum:

I work on the history of the diplomacy of two particular countries in the 1960s. Now, as a historian, I have included works that have written historical studies about this period/topic. That is the main stay of my lit review. However, I have now come across a study from 1969 that is more of a policy paper that gives contemporary opinions/observations about the diplomatic relations between both countries. It is not a historical study, but it briefly and superficially does mention some of the specific phenomena I look at. Do I need to include something like this? It is definitely not part of the scholarly discourse I engage with or base my study on. In a sense, it could be more of a primary source I might cite, but because it was published in a semi-academic journal, I am somewhat torn. But if I were to include this source, I might have to include many more similar sources.

Anyways, this is just an example of the larger question how you delineate relevant from irrelevant literature and decide what to leave out. Whenever I see keywords (like in the example) or a few superficial pages relevant to my topic anywhere I am tempted to include it if only so that no reviewer can reject my grant proposal because I overlooked this or that book.

2 Answers 2


Let me adapt my answer to a different question (Difference between literature review and introduction part of a research proposal) since I think the core principles could be helpful here.

In general, the purpose of the literature review in a scholarly article is to situate your work in the context of other academic research. Its purpose is NOT primarily to summarize all related research (contrary to what some might say); its purpose is to show how your work complements and extends the literature. From this perspective, the literature review for a grant application serves the same purpose, even if there is less space to do the same thing. The literature review section should only summarize work that shows three main things:

  • What scholars have done so far to resolve the research question that you are treating, or very closely related research questions.
  • Clearly show that past research has not sufficiently resolved your specific research question.
  • Frame the specific shortcomings or opportunities in the literature that your grant project aims to resolve or at least extend.

You should try to focus only on these points and leave out anything that does not clearly serve these points--you do not have much space to do anything more than this, and anything else distracts from the value of the grant proposal, rather than helping it.

For a grant application, it is particularly important that you not overlook any truly relevant work so that the grant reviewers do not think that you are unaware of the literature. However, because your space is limited, you will necessarily leave out much marginal work that a random reviewer might think should have been mentioned. So, it is probably a good idea to precede your literature review with a few sentences explicitly stating some well-known but only marginally related works and then briefly explaining why such work is outside the scope of your review.

One exception to ignoring marginal works is that it is indeed important to convince the grant reviewers of your authority in the subject. So, you should definitely at least briefly cite any of your own works that are remotely related to the topic. This does not directly serve the literature review purposes I list above, but it is very important for grant applications.

Based on the preceding suggestions, considering the example you gave, I would recommend that you go ahead and cite your own prior work--but do not waste much space on it if it is only marginally related. However, although it is difficult to tell from your brief description, it seems to me that the 1969 article that you mention is not directly related to your topic. If that is the case, I would completely ignore it. You should use your precious space to focus on the three points I list above.


Let me assume that you have actually read the papers that might be included, so you are familiar with their context. Let me also assume that there are too many to include all of them.

I suggest that you prioritize the papers according to their relevance, perhaps using a spreadsheet. You don't need to have a precise ranking, but at least approximately similarly relevant papers are similarly ranked.

Then just cut off the list at the maximal length for the current project, perhaps saying that other paper were excluded for length. You might possibly even offer (footnote, perhaps) to provide a longer list if you are contacted.

But for the request in your final paragraph, you need to actually be familiar with the content of the papers and make the judgement yourself as to what is relevant. If you don't know that then you are missing something.

  • 1
    Whoh, I would advise not doing this. You are in systematic review territory, not a regular lit review for a grant proposal.
    – Dawn
    Commented Aug 14, 2023 at 3:49
  • @Dawn, I added a clarification. "Rank by relevance", not by perceived quality or such.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 14, 2023 at 10:28

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