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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) for your literature review is part of the research process, a process that is iterative--you go back and forth along the process as new information is gather and analyze until all necessary data is acquire and you are ready to write. 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 do more searches

     ♠ Most articles include a keyword section

     ♠ Key concepts may change name through 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 document 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 learn about the literature your search; its weaknesses and strengths; what is missing or ignore

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

Advance Searching

All databases have Help pages that explain the best way to search their product. When doing literature reviews, you want to take advantange of all these features since it will facilitate not only finding the articles that you really need but also control how many results and how relevants they are for your search. The most common features available in any advanced search (in databases and library online catalogs) are:

  • Boolean Searching (AND, OR, NOT): Words that help you connect your terms in a logical ways for the system understand you 
  • Proximity Searching (N/# or W/#): It allows you to search for two or more words that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other in the databases.
  • Limiters/Filters: These are options available on the advanced page to let you control what type of document you want to search (articles), dates, language, peer-review, etc...
  • Wildcard and Truncation searches: When in doubt about how a keyword is spell, have multiple spelling or different endings, you can add symbols to your search:
    • Question mark (?) or a pound sign (#) for wildcard: useful when you don't know how something is spell, e.g. if you are looking about articles about color, if you want to find articles with the spelling colour (British English), you can use colo?r to find either spelling.
    • Asterisk (*) for truncation: useful for getting results with a keywords with multiple endings, e.g. comput* for computer, computers, computing, etc.


Each databases have its own peculiarities regarding search to take your time and check each database help page and become an expert searchers!



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 you want to look back. Use limiters to eliminate research that may be dated and opt to search for resources published within the last 5-10 years.

► Want to keep track of your searches, send alerts to your email when new articles in your topic are available? Create an account in any of our databases!