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Literature Reviews

How to understand and write a literature review for an academic paper or research article.

The Search

Performing a literature search is a very individualistic task: you have developed a research question that perhaps no one has ever thought of before, and you are assembling a collection of research that may also be unique; even if someone has previously studied the issue for the purposes of a review, your review will likely include different material.

So all that is to say:

[T]he writing of a literature review is ultimately a creative activity into which the writer has an enormous input. (Oliver, 2012, p. 59)

What follows is a good plan of attack, but your specific literature searching practices will reflect your specific goals.


Turn Your Question into Concepts


Assemble a list of KEYWORDS and SUBJECT HEADINGS

Use advanced SEARCH TECHNIQUES for more efficient research

  • Different ways to refer to a term:
    • “measles mumps rubella” OR mmr
    • vaccine OR immunization
  • Different uses of a word:
    • immuniz*
      • Could lead to immunization, immunize, immunizing…
  • Synonyms:
    • epidemic OR outbreak
  • Put ‘em together:
    (“measles mumps rubella” OR mmr) AND (vaccine OR immuniz*) AND (epidemic OR outbreak)


Also consider

Systematic reviews must include the thorough search strategies used to collect the material of the review for reasons of transparency and reproducibility. Whether you're doing a systematic review or not, the structure of the search can be very useful to help you think about how to do your own research. Find some examples below, or if you need help thinking it through, contact a librarian!

Where to Search


RESEARCH DATABASES on the Library's A-Z Databases list

  • Abstract-&-index database - Start here!
    • Scopus (owned by Elsevier)
  • Discipline-specific database
    • Use the drop-down menu on the A-Z Databases list to find databases for your discipline.
  • Tracking down a journal to its subscription:
    • Use the Journal Finder to find out if we subscribe to it and if so, through which database
  • Search alerts:
    • Many databases will allow you to create a search alert as part of your personal account with them (that is, not the Library subscription but a separate registration process) that will send automatic emails when a new article on the subject is added to the database.


How to Search

CITATION ANALYSIS: Use important articles to find more important articles

  • Look backward: Reference lists (Times Cited in the image to the left; click image to enlarge)
  • Look forward: Citing articles (Cited References in the image to the left; click image to enlarge)

COLLECT FIRST, DECIDE LATER: Read abstracts for quick decisions

Later analysis will reduce your total number; a rigorous selection/inclusion process is key to a good review

To find the full text of the articles/materials you do decide to use:
  • Library access?
    • You can check to see if we have LIbrary access of an individual article, book, or journal through the Library website:
      • Article/Book: Look for the title of the article in quotations (example: "The Full Title") in the Library search bar, which searches the Library catalog.
      • Journal: Check the Journal Finder to verify if the Library subscribes to that journal, and if so, the date coverage of our subscription and through which database it can be found.
  • Open access?
    • Your results in the Library catalog will include material available open access (OA; no subscription needed). You may also find articles that are openly available through Google Scholar or private repositories like ResearchGate and, but keep in mind that unless the article is marked as being published OA, the full text of the article might not have been legally uploaded to the internet.
    • To set Google Scholar to connect to Library subscriptions, see our Google Scholar guide.
  • Unavailable?
    • Searching for an article through the Library search bar is your best bet here too: if we don't have access to the research you're looking for, the search results for the item will include the "Request item from interlibrary loan" button through which you can request that we get the material sent to you from another library. Check Interlibrary Loan & Document Delivery Services for current policies and procedures, and to access the request form directly through the portal.


  • Review articles –good sources of references!
  • Journals’ table of contents –good way to catch titles with keywords you didn’t think to check
  • Proceedings of key conferences in the field –ditto
  • Interdisciplinary work – cover all your bases
  • Major researchers/institutions in the field – has their work changed the direction of the field? Make sure you find everything they've written!

When to Stop

It may feel that there are always more sources to track down, and in the case of a field that's rapidly developing, that may be true! However, your paper has to be completed eventually, so your search plan has to include the point at which you stop collecting new citations.

  • Page/word limits: These won't change so make sure you're making the best use of the space you can, even if that means not including every last article. 
  • Clarify in your review criteria the time span you'll be working within, which may also be included in the text of your review to establish what exactly you're reviewing.
  • If you will be revising your review while working on other things, consider setting a search alert in the databases you use most frequently to ensure you get the most recent articles.

One Way To Track What You Read

This is an image of the spreadsheet one of our librarians used to track dozens of articles for a research article literature review. Your needs may vary, but attached below is a template of this spreadsheet for you to use yourself, if it works for you.

Another way:

Content-Based Citation Analysis Tools

Artificial Intelligence in Citation Analysis

Scite and Semantic Scholar are two tools that utilize artificial intelligence to show how citations are used in context: not just that they're cited in a paper, but how and why they're used in that paper, such as whether the use is positive, negative, or neutral, or how much of the citation is referred to.

However, keep in mind that not all articles will be available in full-text to be analyzed in the AI tools, as the content both tools analyze is so far based on citations available outside of copyright restrictions.

Other neat stuff