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Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide — Strategies to Find Sources

This guide will help you understand what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done.

The Research Process

Interative Litearture Review Research Process image (Planning, Searching, Organizing, Analyzing and Writing [repeat at necessary]Finding sources (scholarly articles, research books, dissertations, etc.) for your literature review is part of the research process. This process is iterative, meaning you repeat and modify searches until you have gathered enough sources for your project. The main steps in this research process are:

Planning: Before searching for articles or books, brainstorm to develop keywords that better describe your research question.

Searching: While searching, take note of what other keywords are used to describe your topic, and use them to conduct additional searches

     ♠ Most articles include a keyword section

     ♠ Key concepts may change names throughout time so make sure to check for variations

Organizing: Start organizing your results by categories/key concepts or any organizing principle that make sense for you. This will help you later when you are ready to analyze your findings

Analyzing: While reading, start making notes of key concepts and commonalities and disagreement among the research articles you find.

♠ Create a spreadsheet to record what articles you are finding useful and why.

♠ Create fields to write summaries of articles or quotes for future citing and paraphrasing.

Writing: Synthesize your findings. Use your own voice to explain to your readers what you learned about the literature on your topic. What are its weaknesses and strengths? What is missing or ignored?

Repeat: At any given time of the process, you can go back to a previous step as necessary.

Advanced Searching

All databases have Help pages that explain the best way to search their product. When doing literature reviews, you will want to take advantage of these features since they can facilitate not only finding the articles that you really need but also controlling the number of results and how relevant they are for your search. The most common features available in the advanced search option of databases and library online catalogs are:

  • Boolean Searching (AND, OR, NOT): Allows you to connect search terms in a way that can either limit or expand your search results 
  • Proximity Searching (N/# or W/#): Allows you to search for two or more words that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other in the database
  • Limiters/Filters: These are options that let you control what type of document you want to search: article type, date, language, publication, etc.
  • Wildcard and Truncation searches:
    • Question mark (?) or a pound sign (#) for wildcard: Used for retrieving alternate spellings of a word: colo?r will retrieve both the American spelling "color" as well as the British spelling "colour." 
    • Asterisk (*) for truncation: Used for retrieving multiple forms of a word: comput* retrieves computer, computers, computing, etc.

Want to keep track of updates to your searches? Create an account in the database to receive an alert when a new article is published that meets your search parameters!

Each database has its own search operators and tools. Consult the Help pages for different databases to become an expert searcher!


There is no magic number regarding how many sources you are going to need for your literature review; it all depends on the topic and what type of the literature review you are doing:

► Are you working on an emerging topic? You are not likely to find many sources, which is good because you are trying to prove that this is a topic that needs more research. But, it is not enough to say that you found few or no articles on your topic in your field. You need to look broadly to other disciplines (also known as triangulation) to see if your research topic has been studied from other perspectives as a way to validate the uniqueness of your research question.

► Are you working on something that has been studied extensively? Then you are going to find many sources and you will want to limit how far back you want to look. Use limiters to eliminate research that may be dated and opt to search for resources published within the last 5-10 years.