Skip to Main Content

Conducting a Literature Review for an Assignment or Larger Study

A literature review involves gathering existing research on a particular topic. It typically provides the background on what is known so far on the issue you have chosen, and suggests areas for future research to fill in gaps. 

A literature review may be a stage in a larger research project, or a research project in and of itself.

A literature review is:

  • a synthesis or overview of the research on a particular topic
  • a critical analysis of the existing literature
  • a means to identify gaps in the existing research or areas of further study

A literature review is not:

  • A list of articles
  • An annotated bibliography

 

What is the purpose of a literature review?

Graphic titled What is the purpose of a literature review? Ideas highlighed in the graphic are :To find out what information already exists in your field of research, identify gaps in the literature, find other people working in your field, identify major seminal works, identify main methodologies and research techniques, identify main ideas, conclusions and theories and establish differences and similarities, provide a context for your own research, and show relationships between previous studies or theories.

Graphic by TUS Library MidlandsCC-BY-SA 4.0

1.Define your research question
  • You may need to some exploratory searching of the literature to get a sense of scope, to determine whether you need to narrow or broaden your focus
  • Identify databases that provide the most relevant sources, and identify relevant terms to add to your search strategy
  • Finalize your research question
2. Determine what you will include/exclude from your review
  • How far back in time will your search go? 
  • What types of sources will you include in your literature review? Are you interested in journal articles, books, dissertations/theses, and reports from non-profits or government agencies? This will largely depend on your discipline. 
  • Are you focused on finding a particular type of research study (e.g. you only are interested in finding randomized controlled trials)?
  • You may find the following worksheet helpful in defining the scope of your review. If you are working as a research assistant, you will want to work through the questions with your faculty supervisor.
3. Choose databases and conduct the search
  • Conduct searches in the published literature via the identified databases. For a list of recommended databases in your field, visit the relevant Subject Guide. Depending on your topic, you may also want to search databases listed on other subject guides e.g. if your topic is exam stress and nursing students, you might look at the databases listed on both the Nursing and Education guides.
  • Examine the citations of on-point articles for keywords, authors, and previous research (via references). You can also use tools like Google Scholar or Scopus to see who has cited articles since their publication. This process, called citation chaining, is explained in more detail in the following videos (Part 1, Part 2).
  • Watch for sources that have been cited many times by other scholars. These are often seminal works - meaning they are considered foundational to the field. Sometimes these articles/books were published many years ago, so if you are using date limits in your Google Scholar or database search you may be excluding them from your results.
  • Save your search results in a citation management tool such as Zotero or Mendeley
  • Check with your professor or a librarian to make sure your search has been comprehensive
4. Synthesize the information gathered
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of individual sources
  • Group your results in to an organizational structure that will support why your research needs to be done, or that provides the answer to your research question  
  • Develop your conclusions
5. Analyze the information gathered
  • Are there gaps in the literature - aspects of the topic where little or no research has been conducted or questions remain? One place to find references to gaps in the literature are in the discussion/conclusions sections of research articles, as authors are expected to identify areas for future research. 
  • Who has done significant research on the topic?
  • Is there consensus or debate on this topic?
  • Which methodological approaches work best for answering the research question?
6. Write the literature review
  • Pick an organizational structure, i.e., themes, approaches, concepts, methodologies.
  • Organize your citations and focus on your research question and pertinent studies
  • Compile your reference or works cited page

Note: The first four steps are the best points at which to contact a librarian. Your librarian can help you determine the best databases to use for your topic, assess scope, and formulate a search strategy.

Content adapted from Steps in the Literature Review Process by University of Texas Libraries, CC-BY-NC-2.0

It is important to find a way to organize your ideas as you are reading articles. Some people find it helpful to create a synthesis matrix or concept map while they are reading to help them identify major themes and how different authors contribute to the theme.

Synthesis Matrix

The matrix method is one way of working on your literature review. to do their literature review more efficiently. 

Use a table in Word with a row for each of your sources. Develop columns based on key themes in your paper with room for more columns that emerge from your readings. When a source relates to one of the columns, note the key point in the box, and add a page number so you can find the point again quickly.

Topic: Pet ownership during COVID-19 and impact on owners and pets

  Jezierski et al., 2021a Jezierski et al., 2021b Philapou et al., 2021 Ikeuchi et al., 2021
Impact of pet on owners Cats reduce “psychological tensions” p. 8 Dogs positive impact on owner mental state p.5 Dogs and cats led to poorer quality of life, no impact stress/loneliness (p. 425) Pets reduced neg impact social isolation older adults (p. 7)
Impact on the pet Cat behaviour unchanged or positively impacted p.8 Dog behaviour unchanged or positive but more problems if in lockdown or no back yard  p. 6    
Impact of type of pet       Dog ownership more impact on loneliness than cat ownership (p. 6)

Additional Resources

 

Concept Mapping

Concept mapping is another way to visualize connections between sources during your literature review. 

Conducting a Literature Review for Scholarly Publication

There are many different types of reviews that appear in the scholarly literature. Sutton et al. (2019) identified 48 different review types, each having their own expectations for searching, methods for analyzing the data, and reporting. 

Before beginning a review, researchers must consider which type is the best fit with their research question, time, and workload. Some review types like systematic reviews take 12-18 months and a team of 2 or more researchers to complete. Others, like narrative/traditional literature reviews, take a less systematic approach to searching and can be completed more quickly. 

As a student, you may be asked to assist with a systematic, scoping, or integrative review as a research assistant. The resources in subsequent sections will provide helpful background and support for this work.

If you are interested in turning a literature review you completed as part of a course project into an article for a journal, the resources on narrative or traditional literature reviews may be useful. Here is an example of a literature review published in the Canadian Journal of Undergraduate Research. For more tips on publishing your work, check out our publishing guide.

Additional Resources on Review Types

 

 

 

Narrative or traditional literature reviews provide a general overview of the previous research done on a topic, and can take many shapes and forms. They do not need to follow any specific guideline or standard, so they can be completed more quickly and by a solo researcher.

A narrative literature review should have...

  • A clearly defined topic
  • A search for relevant literature
  • A logical organization structure
  • An interpretation and discussion of the selected relevant literature

Structure
A common structure for narrative literature reviews is IMRaD, or:

  • Introduction
    • What is your topic?
    • What are you interested in finding out?
    • Why did you select this topic?
  • Methods
    • How did you look for the literature?
    • Where did you look?
    • What search terms did you use?
    • What kind of literature did you find?
  • Results
    • Did the literature you found change your opinion on the topic?
    • Did you find out something new?
    • What were the key concepts?
  • Discussion
    • Evaluate and summarize the major concepts
    • Connect the major concepts to future research potential

While the structure above may be sufficient for your topic, you may also consider using the similar but more robust structure IAMRDC, or:

  • Introduction
  • Aim
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion

Above content adapted from Narrative Literature Reviews by Carrie Price, Towson University, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Additional Resources

  • Baethge, Goldbeck-Wood, S., & Mertens, S. (2019). SANRA-A scale for the quality assessment of narrative review articles. Research Integrity and Peer Review4(1), Article 5. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-019-0064-8
    • Although this article is focused on the appraisal of narrative reviews, as an author you may find it helpful to review what they are looking for in a high quality narrative review.
  • Ferrari, R. (2015). Writing narrative style literature reviews. Medical Writing.24(4), 230–235. https://doi.org/10.1179/2047480615Z.000000000329
  • Snyder, H. (2019). Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines. Journal of Business Research, 104, 333–339. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2019.07.039



 

Peters et al. (2015) provided the following description of a scoping study and its aims:

[T]he aim of the scoping reviews is a way of mapping the key concepts that underpin a research area. Scoping reviews can be particularly useful for bringing together literature in disciplines with emerging evidence, as they are suited to addressing questions beyond those related to the effectiveness or experience of an intervention. Scoping reviews can be conducted to map a body of literature with relevance to time, location (e.g. country or context), source (e.g. peer-reviewed or grey literature), and origin (e.g. healthcare discipline or academic field).The value of scoping reviews to evidence-based practice is the examination of a broader area to identify gaps in the research knowledge base, clarify key concepts, and report on the types of evidence that address and inform practice in the field. Scoping reviews also may be carried out to determine not only the extent of the research available regarding a topic but also the way the research has been conducted. (p. 142)

Scoping review are time intensive (12+ months to complete) and require a multi-person team. Although they are most common in the health sciences, scoping reviews can also be found in other discplines.

Overview of Scoping Review Process

Reporting Guidelines and Methodological Resources

 

An integrative review is a "critical analysis of empirical, methodological, or theoretical literature, which draws attention to future research needs" (Toronto & Remington, 2020, p. 3). It may include quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods literature, and requires a systematic search and appraisal of selected studies. An integrative review is estimated to take 6-12 months to complete and requires two or more researchers.

Methodological Resources

 

According to the Cochrane Collaboration (2019), "A systematic review attempts to collate all the empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a specific research question. It uses explicit, systematic methods that are selected with a view to minimizing bias, thus providing more reliable findings from which conclusions can be drawn and decisions made" (Chapter 1). Meta-analyses, often combined with a systematic review, pool the results from existing studies for further quantitative analysis.

Systematic reviews, with or without an associated meta-analysis, are very time intensive (12+ months) and require two or more researchers (typically more) to complete. While originally associated with the health sciences, systematic reviews are now published in a variety of disciplines including the social sciences and environmental sciences.

Overview of Systematic Review Process

Reporting Guidelines and Methodological Resources

Heath Sciences

 

Social Sciences

Environmental Sciences

How Can Your Librarian Help with Comprehensive Reviews?

Your librarian would be happy to provide the following support to you or your faculty supervisor when completing a comprehensive literature review:

  • Advice on which databases to search

  • Assistance with identifying key search terms

  • Training in the use of citation management tools like Mendeley or Zotero

  • Advice on how to save or document your search strategies

  • Assistance in locating additional resources on review methods or reporting guidelines

Booking a Consultation with Your Librarian

You can book an appointment with your librarian through their online appointment scheduler. If the appointment slots are 30 minutes in length, you may want to book two back to back times, or contact your librarian directly by email to arrange for a longer time slot. We typically need an hour for any consultations around comprehensive reviews.

Preparing for Your Consultation

Before your appointment with your librarian, clarify the following information with your supervisor to ensure we can provide you with the best advice:

  • What type of review are you assisting with? Have they identified a particular methodological framework they will be following?

  • What is the exact research question that you will be investigating?

  • What types of studies will your review include or exclude? (e.g. study type, etc). 

  • Did your supervisor provide you with any examples of studies that you hope your review will find? This can be helpful in generating search terms.

  • What level of detail about how your searches were conducted will you need to report? For example, you may need to save the exact search strategy and the number of results found for each database you search for inclusion in the final article.

  • What citation management tool would your supervisor like you to use? Zotero, Mendeley, and the web version of Endnote are all free, and have particular strengths and weaknesses for use with certain review types.

Need assistance?

If you need assistance with your research project, please reach out to your subject librarian. They would be happy to help.

If you are not sure who to chat with, please contact Brian Jackson.