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Organizing a Literature Review: Steps for a successful review

Pre-planning: tool selection


  1. Performing a successful and thorough literature review can be a challenge. Available citation management tools (RefWorks, EndNote, EndNote Web) are wonderful for helping you keep track of your citations. Google Documents can help you document your work and progress. Large-scale literature reviews take time, so documentation is key.
  2. Identify the most appropriate databases for your subject area. Use subject guides for assistance with database selection.  Google Scholar is a great search tool, but be sure and use the specialized subject databases provided by your library.

Formulate your problem

  1. Precision vs. recall: Are you avoiding irrelevant (Precision) vs. retrieving all useful (Recall).
  2. Concept words vs. usable keywords: Identify the best keywords for each database (e.g., disease vs. autism). 
  3. Broad vs. narrow: Think of how specialized the database might be, and choose keywords appropriately. (fish vs. sturgeon)
  4. General vs. technical: (sturgeon or acipenseridae, cancer or tumor or neoplasm or oncolog?, etc.)
  5. Years searched: Current literature is important, but old studies can show the progression of ideas over time or can strengthen an argument (define the years to include and be thorough)
  6. Truncation vs. autostemming: Consider what the database supports and what is best for the search. (e.g. LEED can retrieve Univ of Leeds; behavior vs. behaviour). 
  7. Included vs. Excluded: Identify and refine your topic. Consider solutions, trends, or related themes to help you focus the organization of your review. The earlier you define your topic, the easier the process of searching and writing. Consider what distinguishes relevant from irrelevant studies.

Search the literature

  1. Systematically search your selected databases using your pre-defined terms. Choose databases from the Libraries' guides.
  2. 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.
  3. Save your citations in your citation management tool.
  4. Request relevant articles using the Interlibrary Loan (ILL) service.
  5. 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.


Evaluate, analyze, and interpret

  1. Identify criteria to separate usable from un-usable research.
  2. Evaluate the resources based on the inclusion criteria.
  3. Identify what inferences can be made about the literature as a whole.
  4. Identify patterns within the research.  For example, what are similarities and differences in the literature? Are there inconsistencies and controversies, or gaps? How does this resource relate to your particular research topic or contribute to the area of study?
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