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Researching for your literature review: Getting started

Aim of the review

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.

Searching the literature is more effective when you are clear on what you need to find, your research topic is clearly understood and the various concepts within your topic are clearly delineated.

The first step - scoping searches & developing a 'gold set' of articles

Doing some scoping searches are an essential step to help you understand the quantity of existing literature in your area of interest, and the terminology used in its discussion. This preliminary searching is non-systematic in its nature and is not documented, but helps establish a basis for the subsequent development of a comprehensive search strategy.

Scoping searches usually involve a series of very targeted searches, perhaps looking for your main keywords in the article title. You might also look for examples of review articles on similar topics, as these might be useful for gaining an overview of a facet of your own topic. We can use a search engine such as Google Scholar, large inter-disciplinary databases such as Scopus or Proquest central, or a discipline-specific database that you are familiar with.

Our scoping searches will help us to understand whether our research question has the following elements:

  • the question addresses a gap in the literature (has not recently been answered in another review)
  • the question is specific and focused (and therefore feasible)
  • the question is answerable in the literature.

Further to this, your scoping searches should enable you to locate a 'gold set' of relevant articles that you would expect to use in your review. This gold set is a curated collection of highly relevant research papers that are considered high-quality sources for your research question.These articles are important not only as a reliable foundation for developing your search terms, but also as a means of testing the strength of the search strategy that you will later develop.

The research question

If you are having difficulty deciding on a topic for your review, consider the following:

  • Areas of uncertainty
  • Variations of practice 
  • Assumptions in practice
  • Existing review topics that may be outdated and could be revised to address a new element

Once you have your topic, put it into the format of a question or questions to be answered by the literature

Essentially a research question puts forward an hypothesis about a relationship, such as the relationship between an intervention and an outcome. For example: In P (population group) does I (intervention) result in O (outcome)? or Will I perform better than C at achieving O in population P?

For an overview of five main steps to creating a good research question see the online library resources. See also this online video on YouTube.

The research question will guide the development of your search strategy so it's important that you take time to do some testing of your proposed question. Having done the preliminary scoping searches as noted above will be helpful in understanding the volume of the literature.

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.