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Researching for your literature review: Frame your research question

Frame your research question

Define your topic

It is easier to construct a literature search when you are clear on the aim of your review, and your research topic is clearly understood or delineated.

Literature reviews may be part of a thesis, or may contribute to a larger work such as the introduction in a journal article. Literature reviews may also be selective such as those that form part of an assessment task, or they may be comprehensive reviews aimed to be published as standalone works.

A literature review for publication often seeks to answer a single research question, whereas a literature review for a thesis may seek to answer several questions.

Scoping searches

It is important to do background research to extend your understanding of the research area and the terminology used in its discussion. Published review articles on similar topics can be useful for gaining an overview of an element of your own topic. Dictionaries, encyclopedias and handbooks may also be useful to define terms and understand related concepts.

Doing some broad preliminary searching is an essential step to help you understand the quantity of existing literature in your area of interest, and establish a basis for your later more complex searching when you have developed your search strategy. This type of searching usually involves a series of very targeted searches, perhaps looking for your main keywords in the article title. Google Scholar and large databases such as Scopus or Proquest central might be good choices for preliminary searches, or the Search catalogue.

The research question

The research question will determine the method of the review and the types of studies included. One way to develop your research question is to put your topic into the format of a question or questions to be answered by the literature.

For an overview of the three main steps to writing a good research question, see the online video.

This guide will provide a sample search for a health/medical topic, as well as for an education/social science topic. Choose which section you would like to work through.