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Literature Reviews: systematic searching at various levels

This guide briefly looks at some of the different types of reviews to help you determine what kind of review you actually need to do and where to start

Assignments and essays

Knowing where to begin with your literature review may seem daunting. An essential stage of your literature review is planning, so it is important to make sure that you give yourself ample time to develop your research question and review what sources you intend to search and how to search them.

If you're struggling with any of the points in sections 1-9 there are different resources available that will help you build up your skills and knowledge. Some of those resources will be people: your lecturer, your peers, your academic librarian, the Skills team. Some of those resources will be materials for you to go through in your own time.

If there's something you don't know then, depending on what you have questions about, have a look at our guides; ask us in the library (face-to-face, online, over the phone); come to one of our workshops; speak to your lecturer.

Ten main steps for completing a literature review
Step No.  Step Detail   Helpful resources if you get stuck
1 Choose your topic

If you're doing a literature review for an assignment then your topic, or title will probably have been selected for you by your lecturer; or, you may have a list of topics to choose from.

You may also find it useful, at this stage, to have a look at some of the books on literature reviews / dissertations that the library has in stock. Have a look at the Resources tab for a selection.

Talk to your lecturer



2 Plan your search strategy

Use your topic / assignment title to plan out:

  • what key terms you will search for
  • how you will search for those key terms
  • what limits you want to apply to the results

Do this before you start searching - having a plan removes a lot of uncertainty when searching and also gives you something to work from if you don't get the results you think you should

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Contact Library Enquiries

Talk to your Academic Librarian

3 Identify resources and databases

Don't just go to Google!

The Library subscribes to a lot of databases - many of which are discipline specific - that index millions of articles, so make sure that you use them.

If you're not sure which ones are best to use, either for your discipline, or for your specific topic then have a look at the LibGuide for your area as the key subject resources should be listed there. You can also contact your Academic Librarian - their details will be on the LibGuide for your area as well.

Remember! You don't need to search every database that's useful for your subject. Depending on what you're looking for there will be a few which you can focus on for assignments.

Subject LibGuides home page
4 Search for relevant literature

Using the plan you mapped out for searching for key terms, do your search in your chosen databases. Modify your search and redo it if the results don't seem to fit your topic.

There will be duplicates i.e. an article that came up in the first database you searched may also come up in the second database. That's normal and absolutely fine.

Contact Library Enquiries (via Chat, email, or phone)

Contact your Academic Librarian via library enquiries

5 Read and evaluate the literature

When you've chosen which papers you want to talk about / use in your work, it's important that you have critically analysed their content. What the authors are saying, the research methods that they've used, their findings and recommendations.

This is a skill that you build up through practice so don't worry if you've never had to do this before as there are a range of resources to help you with this.

There are different levels of reading from skimming and scanning all the way up to focused reading and deep, critical reading and you adopt different approaches depending on they type of reading you need to do. Make the most of your reading time by choosing the appropriate method for the right papers. [And don't try to read everything from start to finish - it won't be necessary.]

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Have a look at the D@D guide for evaluating

Have a look at the D@D guide for critical reading


6 Manage your references

As you're reading through the literature, if you come across something that you want to cite in your assignment, or that you want to quote, then you should record the relevant information there and then. 

Don't just paraphrase the text or type out the quote and leave it at that. Make sure you record all of the information that you'll need for the citation and reference.

Many programmes use the Harvard style of referencing. Some, like psychology (or programmes which have a psychology module in them) use APA - whichever style of referencing your programme / department uses you will need to follow that accurately and consistently. The library subscribes to the online resource, 'Cite Them Right', which covers the styles mentioned above as well as a few more. Unless your department has given you their own guide / told you to use a specific guide to referencing then you should use Cite Them Right.

Reference management tools are often used when doing a postgraduate thesis as you'll often have more references than in an essay. Some undergraduate students have also used them and it really is up to you and how confident you are with using new-to-you programmes as to which resource you go for.

Whichever you choose, make sure that you use them as you go along - don't wait until you've written your work before noting which references go with which citations.

Sign up for one of our workshops

Have a look at Cite Them Right (online) our subscription resource on citing and referencing

Have a look at our Reference Managers LibGuide

7 Identify themes, debates, and gaps in the research  

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Have a look at our D@D Critical thinking & reading guide

8 Outline the structure of your assignment

Your literature review will often be split into different chapters and it can be useful for you (and your lecturer) if you use the headings function in Word for each of the chapters you have as it makes navigating the document a lot easier. Plus, if you want to create an automated contents list you will need to use Word headings to do this.

Your chapters may have names or numbers but generally you will start with a heading of Introduction, and at the end you'll have a header for conclusions, references (and possibly more). In between, you could just use e.g., Chapter One, or you could use the particular theme you want to talk about as a chapter title.

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9 Write the literature review

Allow yourself enough time, not just for the searching but also for the processes of notetaking, thinking about what you've read, and writing.

Some people write as they go along, so they read a bit, write a bit, read a bit and so on. Others prefer to read everything, make notes, think about it for a bit, make a few more notes and then start writing the whole thing.

Other people write one or more drafts before the final version of their review, others write it all in one go because, in a way, the notes they write are like a first draft.

There isn't really a right or wrong way; it is down to what works for you. If you're struggling with writing the review then try using the 'first draft' approach and give yourself permission to get everything in the right order, to use sentences that are a bit clunky.

Once you have something written you can edit it, improve it. You can't edit a blank page.

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10 Proofread

Once you've completed your work, even if you're someone who edits as they go along, you should still proofread the whole document at the end to do a final sweep for errors, clunky bits of writing, missing citations or references and so on.

It can help if use the Word's built-in Read Aloud feature to read the document back to you as this can often make it easier to identify where text doesn't flow well together and could jar the reader out of your work.

It can also make it easier to hear where you may have left words out, or where you've overused specific words in a short space.

If the Read Aloud feature isn't suitable, you could try reading the document in reverse as that can help with identifying problem areas.

Spellcheck can only help so far - you may have spelled a word correctly, but used the wrong one e.g., their instead of there - these homonyms (words with the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings) can often occur with the 'help' of autocorrect systems so it will take you, as a human, to spot the errors.

Have a look at our D@D Proofreading page on the 'Improve Your Marks in Academic Writing' guide


Have a look at the Academic Phrasebank from Manchester University for alternate terms you could use