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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

Dissertations and theses

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.

When you are preparing for your dissertation or postgraduate thesis then there are some similarities with doing a literature review for an assignment but there are some key differences as well.

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

For some dissertations / independent studies you may be given a list of themes or topics to choose from by your lecturer. Often, however, the selection of the topic and its focus will be left up to you.

This is a good time to do a scoping search to make sure that there is enough information out there to do a literature review on. If it's a new or emerging topic then you may find that there's little published information as researchers are still doing the research and haven't yet reached the publication stage.

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.

For a literature review which is for a dissertation / thesis shouldn't search just 2 or 3 databases. You still don't need to search them all, but you should identify the key ones (and there will usually be more than one or two) that index relevant papers and search them.

You should also consider including search operators / tools specific to the databases you've chosen. This is so that you make the most of the different search options the resources have to offer.

Subject LibGuides home page

Have a look at the help files for each database you want to search as these will cover what tools that database specifically uses to make your search work 'harder'. 

You may also find some of the databases have instructional videos showing you how they work / how to do particular searches - have a look at those too.

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

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.

Sign up for one of our workshops

Have a look at the Skills guide for evaluating

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.

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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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Critical thinking & reading - Skills 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, 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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