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Organizing a Literature Review

Formulate the research question

  1. How would you describe your research topic to a friend or family member?
  2. Write your research question down.
  3. Identify separate research concepts within your research question.
  4. Brainstorm synonyms and broader and narrower terms for each of the research concepts.
  5. Identify where you plan to search for literature. Consult Library Research Guides for your subject area(s) for recommended literature sources, including subject-specific databases.

Organizing this information into a table may help you identify keywords to use when searching for relevant literature.

Prepare keyword terms to search

  1. Precision vs. recall: How well are you avoiding irrelevant (Precision) and retrieving all useful (Recall) literature?
  2. Convert concepts into usable keywords: Identify the best keywords for each database
  3. Use Boolean operators to combine research concepts (And, Or, Not)
  4. Broad vs. narrow: Adjust the keywords based on preliminary results. 
  5. General vs. technical: Think of how specialized the database might be, and choose keywords appropriately (fish or sturgeon or acipenseridae)
  6. Years searched: Current literature is important, but old studies can show the progression of ideas over time or can strengthen an argument
  7. Truncation and wildcards: Consider what settings the database supports and what is best for this search (e.g. behavior vs. behaviour, LEED can retrieve Univ of Leeds). 
  8. Included vs. Excluded: Identify and refine your topic. Consider what distinguishes relevant from irrelevant studies.

Search the literature

  1. Choose where you will search for literature. Select databases from the Libraries' guides. Recognize the pros and cons of public sources for literature (e.g. Google Scholar).
  2. Systematically search your selected databases using your pre-defined terms.
  3. Keep track of where you searched and which terms you used.  You may be able to store your search statement if you create an account with the database.
  4. Save your citations in a citation management tool. This will be a big help when it's time to write.
  5. Request relevant articles that are not in the library collection by using the Interlibrary Loan (ILL) service.
  6. Utilize a database's bells & whistles. For example, many databases list Cited References.  Some databases (i.e., Web of Science) also list the Times Cited.

It's easy to forget the keywords you use.  During your writing phase you may find you need additional sources, so keep track of your search terms to avoid repeated searches.

Remember, research (re-search) is an iterative process. You will likely refine your search terms and sites as you read more about the topic.


Evaluate, analyze, and interpret

  1. Consider how you will identify key or seminal literature
  2. Identify criteria to separate usable from un-usable research
  3. Minimize your bias in selecting references. Are you including literature with differing viewpoints?
  4. Read the included literature
  5. Take notes as you read, especially on aspects that inform your research. How does this resource relate to your particular research topic or contribute to the area of study? Your notes can be used to create an annotated bibliography.
  6. Identify patterns within the research.  For example, are there inconsistencies and controversies, or gaps of knowledge?
  7. Identify what inferences can be made about the literature as a whole.

Create a Literature Map

A literature map is a visual tool you can use when designing and summarizing your literature review.

Write your research question at the top of the page.

Identify separate research concepts or themes in the literature.

Search, read, and synthesize relevant literature.

Create a concept map that illustrates connections between the published literature. Your map may make connections:

  •  chronologically, to illustrate development of knowledge on your topic;
  •  between each of your research concepts and literature;
  •  contrasting methods, results, or conclusions from different literature;
  •  between theory and practice.

Use the literature map to support the writing of your literature review.

Other types of literature maps include citation mapping and taxonomic mapping. Citation mapping connects one publication to other related publications through their references. These maps are often used when searching for relevant literature. Highly cited publications can reveal prominent research on a topic. Taxonomic maps visualize hierarchical systems of groups of related terms, organisms, or other items.



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