Literature Reviews


1.  Have your thesis statement developed.   This can be a problem which you have identified and be in a statement or form of a question

2.  Brainstorm the concepts and ideas that you are going to use to search for your literature related to your topic.

  • Free-writing or concept mapping may be used to help.   The idea isn't to have a developed paragraph here, but just to get ideas down for searching.

3.  Determine the subjects/ topic areas (public administration, environmental sciences, health, education, etc)  that you need to search within to do a complete literature review.

4.  Also consider what literature other then journal articles will be necessary to do a comprehensive review.  This might include:

  • books/monographs
  • government reports, think tank and non-profit reports
  • data and statistics sets, etc. 

Now start researching. 

During the search

  • Track your sources with a citation management tool so you can find  your sources quickly and easily.
    • You will want to be able to add to it, edit it, and if necessary, share it with fellow researchers.   
    • The Libraries offers all students a subscription to Refworks, which allows you to save citations, create in-text cites and reference lists, and share your references.  It supports standard citation styles and hundreds of journals, and we provide training and support for it. Data can be exported/imported from Nvivo for deeper qualitative analysis.

      However, if you decide it is not for you, there are others available (some free, some not) .  

  • Keep a log of what you have searched and where you have searched. 
    • what did I type in?  did I try these as keyword searches?  subject searches? 
    • what worked? what didn't work?
    • what do I need to go back to?
    • what terms/authors do I see coming up that I need to explore?

As you get deeper into your research, this will save you time by allowing you see patterns and prevents you from backtracking.

  • To do this, explore tools in research databases that allow you to track your search histories and results.   This means that you can easily remember what you searched, where you searched it, and what worked. 
    • Once you access the databases through our website, many of them have an account creation option.  While every vendor is different, these options are always worth exploring.  For example, in Ebsco, if you log in with your account, you can save search histories from session to session.  
    • If you don't want to create an account, you can often take screen shots of the search histories and email them to yourself as a quick record. 

      To find out more, ask your librarian or use the HELP screens in each database.

Organizing the Research

Sometimes, during a strong literature review may involve multiple read throughs of the literature:

  • Consider how you are going to organize your literature review - you may need to review the abstracts of everything to give you an idea what may work best before you read your literature in depth.
  • Read over the literature that you have found, noting where the disagreements and agreements are themes, methods and conclusions.   Be consistent with what you record for each piece of literature.

  • A good literature review does not just simply summarize what has been already been done, but will analyze and synthesize.   Review your notes and ask critical questions of the literature.  It may be necessary to go back and re-read all or some of the literature at this point.

  • Before you start writing, arrange you notes in the general organizational order that you plan on using them in the literature review - for example, if you are doing a chronological theme, then place your notes in that order.  This help make sure you don't miss anything by accident.

Note & Outlining Tools

Analytical Tools

Coopers Taxonomy (Cooper, 2009) designed for meta-analysis, 6 goals of literature reviews can still provide a structure for many other types of literature reviews, include narrative

Boote & Beille Lit Review Rubric (pdf)