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Literature Reviews: How do I write one?

1. Plan

Determine your purpose, scope, and audience. What content are you looking for, how many items, how recent, and in what disciplines? 

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's most interesting to you.

2. Search for Sources

Start with reference resources, like Wikipedia or a subject encyclopedia, to see your topic's big picture, learn about significant authors, and jot down key words. 

Search for your topic in Library Search or a subject-specific database.

3. Organize Sources

Keep track of ALL your sources from the earliest stages, since you often don't know at this point exactly which ones will be used in your final literature review. 

Note recurring themes and relationships. Try a synthesis matrix or synthesis table to help you keep track of these themes.

4. 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?
  • Currency: How current does the research need to be in your field?
  • Bias: Be aware of your own possible biases and try to treat research even-handedly.  

5. Connect Sources

Often when you find one very relevant article (let's say, Smith's article from 2012), you will want to find connected or similar articles. Two useful strategies:

  • Review the References or Works Cited list of Smith's article. These articles can show how Smith developed their ideas and which older articles influenced them.
  • Review newer articles that developed or built on Smith's ideas. This is sometimes called "cited by" searching, because you are finding articles, newer than 2012, that cited Smith'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 a link that says, Cited by _____ or Citations: _____. 

Google Scholar article entry, highlighting Cited by 889 link     

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

In Library Search, it is indicated by a downwards-pointing arrow that looks like a "Y", and if you hover over it, it says "Find sources citing this": 

button in a library search record, highlighting the Find Sources Cited in This tool

6. Cite Sources

You must 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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