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Literature Review

What is a literature review, what is its purpose, and how to do it.


Using information sources in a systematic and structured manner will save you a great deal of time and frustration.  Developing a search strategy is vital, as it provides you with an overall structure for your search, and provides a record of your search history.  This is an extremely useful record to have as you find yourself needing to refine or change the focus of your searching as your research develops.  It can also improve the relevancy of results obtained as you have thought about keywords and synonyms and how these relate to each other.

Step 1. Defining the information need and stating it as a question

Start by expressing your information need in words. This will assist you in thinking about what you need and determining terms to be used later.  You may need to consult dictionaries or encyclopedia to clarify the topic.

Step 2. Breaking the need into its component parts

From the title and abstract of your topic it is possible to identify various concepts and keywords.  A concept map / mind map is a useful way to plot ideas.

For example:
Title: Attitudes and levels of knowledge of Hepatitis B in Aboriginal women


Here are some additional resources on Concept Mapping for research.

Step 3. Identifying synonyms and prioritizing keywords

At this stage you need to identify synonyms for the keywords and concepts you have previously developed .  You should choose words that uniquely describe the topic, and you should also list words and concepts you do not want included.  You may also need to think about the discipline area and database(s) you will be searching, as there may be a subject specific or database-specific thesaurus that will help you further identify keywords. One way of listing keywords and alternate terms is in a table.

For example:
Title: Some aspects of the lattice of all radical classes
Description: Identify examples of pseudocomplements and complements in the lattice of all radical classes and its sublattice, the lattice of all hereditary radical classes, and describe explicitly radical classes complemented and pseudocomplemented in these structures.

concept 1 concept 2 concept 3 concept 4
associative ring radical lattice complement
  semisimple   pseudocomplement
  hereditary   atom

Step 4. Searching specific sources

Selection of an information source that best matches your information need is important. It will not matter how carefully you have thought out your keywords etc if you are not using an appropriate source. All libraries offer a range of sources. Discipline Research Guides have been created by BU librarians to give guidance as to the most appropriate sources. It is also important that you ascertain the scope (content, years covered, etc. ) of each source and learn the features (e.g. Is truncation used? Is boolean logic supported? etc). It is well worth the effort of reading the HELP screens available on each information source and using the advanced searching feature whenever available.

Step 5. Evaluating the information

As sources are accessed and retrieved, look at each work closely.  Read the abstract, introduction and conclusion.  Before assessing the relevance of the item to your topic, it is vital that the scope, integrity and standing of the source is ascertained. As you retrieve sources:

  • assess the standing of the author - is he/she an academic? a journalist? another student? a researcher?
  • look at the date of publication - is the topic representative of thinking at that time?
  • ascertain the intended audience - was the material written for a general audience? other researchers? particular groups with particular views?
  • notice the writing style - is it conversational? academic? provocative? sensational? descriptive?
  • look at the presentation - does the author use tables, graphs, diagrams, illustrations appropriately?  are the descriptive details sufficient?
  • refer to the bibliography and references - has the author referred to the the work of others?  have all ideas been acknowledged and cited? are there any citations listed which would further your work?
  • look at the type of publication and its' purpose - is it a scholarly journal? a popular journal? a refereed publication? a book? conference proceedings?
  • identify the seminal works

As sources are selected and used, critically analyze the content. As you use resources:

  • determine the facts / arguments / points of view
  • look at any new findings - is there clear evidence to support each finding?
  • ascertain the reliability and accuracy of the document - are all assumptions valid? are there any flaws in the methodology? is the research based on established fact?
  • determine the significance of work - is it a landmark article? does it merely discuss what is already known? what does it contribute to accepted theory?
  • ascertain the limitations, flaws, weaknesses, strengths and underlying assumptions of the analysis in relation to the related literature and current thought.
  • contextualize the work within the discipline - where does it fit?  which thoughts and ideas relate/contradict/support current thought?
  • study the methodology - is it appropriate to the type of study?

Step 6. Evaluating the search process

At all stages of the process it is vital that the search process is evaluated.  Sometimes the inability to find relevant information can be attributed to a poorly constructed search strategy, inappropriate search terms, poor retrieval methods or inappropriate source.  This can also apply to instances where too much material is retrieved. Too few, too many or inappropriate search results could mean:

  • you need to re-evaluate the search terms
  • you need to narrow/ broaden the scope of your search(es)
  • you need to try different types of sources
  • you need to explore other disciplines

It may be helpful to keep a list of keywords, search strategies and techniques along the way. Also keep a list of those that didn’t work. By adding a date to all your searching activity you will be prompted when searches need updating.


  • Bibliographies and references usually found in sources often prove useful when looking for further information.
  • It is useful to identify researchers who have worked in the selected field, ascertain exactly what they have done and if possible, contact them to discuss further ideas.
  • Not all the required sources will be readily available - at some stage you will need to use interlibrary loan or document delivery services.
  • After your initial search you may find it useful to develop a current awareness system to keep you up to date with developments in the area. Ask a librarian for assistance with this.

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