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Literature Reviews: How do I research one?


Determine your purpose, scope, and audience. How long and comprehensive does your literature review need to be? Your purpose may simply be to understand a topic better for a class assignment. Or, you may need to understand what questions the research has yet to answer, so you can perform your own original study.

Write a review question and set your review's criteria for the sources that are to be included.

  • What discipline(s) will you be exploring?
  • What kinds of publications are expected? Peer-reviewed scholarly articles only or are other kinds of authoritative sources expected?
  • How current does the literature need to be?

Exploratory Searching

Your review question might be broad, particularly if you are still learning about the topic. Exploratory searching helps you to map out topics and subtopics within an area of research. From there, you will be better able to scope your review. 

  • If you're not sure how ideas are connected or what you're really looking for, try a concept map to help you brainstorm and find a question that interests you.
  • Conduct broad searches and skim. A good general search tool is Library Search or disciplinary databases recommended on Research Guides.
  • For the humanities and social sciences, reference resources like handbooks, annual reviews, and bibliographies can offer a topic's big picture, significant authors, and key words.

Refined Searching

Before diving deep into your searches, you need a refined review question. Because a literature review is a comprehensive look at the state of the research, you are trying to find everything within your narrowed scope that fits within your review criteria. In addition, you are looking for a gap in the literature.

Subject Searching in Disciplinary Databases

Discovering that something has not been written will require persistence and systematic searches that pull everything on a topic. Use disciplinary databases which allow for subject searching.

Citation Tracing

Often when you find one very relevant article (say, Turner's article from 2017), you want to find related articles, whether they agree with the author or are contradictory. Two useful strategies (see demonstration in the video to the right):

  • Review the References or Works Cited list of Turner's article. These articles can show how Turner developed ideas and which older articles influenced them.
  • Review newer articles that developed or built on Turner's ideas. This is sometimes called "cited by" searching because you are finding newer articles that cited Turner's work. 

The two best tools for Cited By searching are Google Scholar and Web of Science. 

Find your original source in these databases. Then look for the Cited by _____ or Citations: _____ link. 

In the examples below, the identical article has very different numbers for "cited by ___". Each database only counts the number of sources that it contains. Google Scholar almost always has the larger number, but there is no guarantee as to the quality of the scholarship in Google Scholar, so be sure to evaluate the materials found there. Materials that are indexed in Web of Science are of high quality, though not all disciplines are equally represented.      

screenshot of Google Scholar Cited By 75 link     

screenshot of citation network in Web of Science database, showing 2,216 citations on an article

Organize and Synthesize Sources

Keep track of ALL your sources from the earliest stages, since you often won't know which ones you'll use in your final literature review. 

Literature reviews are arranged by theme or topic, rather than listed by date or author (as in a bibliography). As a result, you need to find resources connected thematically as you search. Note recurring themes and areas of disagreement. A synthesis matrix or synthesis table can help you keep track of these themes.

Choose the Best Sources

As you search, try to select the most impactful sources by looking at factors such as: 

  • Author impact: How many times has a study been cited by other researchers?
  • Core publications: What are the most noteworthy journals in your field of study?
  • Bias: Be aware of your own possible biases and try to treat research even-handedly.  

Cite Sources

Document what you find in your literature review through citations. Ask your professor what citation style you should use, if you're not sure. 

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