Reviewing the literature

These notes aim to provide guidance and strategies for developing a literature review.

The truth is there is no simple, quick recipe for getting on top of the literatures. It is a slow process of getting clear, a process characterised by uncertainty. And n order to get clear, you have to start out being uncertain. But the bad news is that you stay uncertain throughout the doctorate – even though what it is you are uncertain about changes. So there’s no pint fighting it, uncertainty is part of the process. It is usual. It is to be expected. 

(Thomson & Kamler, 2016, p35)

The library plays a crucial role in developing a literature review; make sure you are familiar with your library and the support it offers. 

What is a literature review?

  • A discussion of literature (published or unpublished) relevant to an area of study or subject area.
  • A critical discussion: literature has to be summarised, categorised, compared.
  • An argument for further research (your research).
  • Organised according to ideas, themes and concepts, not authors.

A literature review is a scholarly document that reviews the breadth and depth of literature on a topic in order to determine what is known. It’s a summary of the literature, but more importantly, it’s a synthesis and evaluation of the literature. It is not a paper explaining “how to do” something. It’s not an introduction to a topic. The purpose of a literature review is to determine what the research says–and doesn’t say–about the topic (Ollhoff 2011, p1).

In some areas systematic reviews are common. They are different in the sense that they do not so much provide a narrative of what is known about a certain topic, but attempt to provide a consensus about a problem, for example effectiveness of a drug. Systematic interviews tend to be used in quantitative research.

Why do a literature review?

Your research builds on existing knowledge. By doing a literature review you are becoming familiar with what is known in your field, about your proposed topic.  The literature review plays a crucial role as starting point for a research project. Even if you are proposing a new theory or a new method, you are doing so in relation to what has been done.

It is normal to choose a research project that is of personal relevance. But if you have a lot of practical experience, you need to be careful not to confuse the literature review with a review of your experiences. Your experience will be useful as it will guide your search, the way you read and organise the literature. However, a literature review is a review of the literature, not an account of personal and/or professional experience. 

Reasons for doing a literature review include

  • To gain knowledge on a subject area
  • To identify seminal works in your area
  • To identify gaps in existing knowledge
  • To stimulate thinking about a topic
  • To avoid reinventing the wheel
  • To identify different views
  • To help continue the work of others
  • To enable you to position your work in relation to previous work undertaken
  • To put your own work in perspective
  • To identify others doing similar work
  • To discover how others researched this topic
  • To identify methods that could be relevant to your project
  • To establish your theoretical framework and methodological focus.

The literature review enables you to have the knowledge to fully participate in conversations on your topic

The literature review & your research question

The literature review is an important step in focusing/refining the research question. Developing research questions/hypotheses requires a solid understanding of a research area (what is known, what has been done, by whom…). Doing the literature review will enable you to acquire that knowledge.

Research questions emerge from the literature review but at the same time guide the literature review.

The review is the foundation of your thesis and some of it will run through the thesis – so you will need to come back to the literature review while progressing with your research.

  • The literature review acts as the springboard for the whole thesis
  • The review demonstrates that you know the field, that you are on-track
  • It makes a case for the necessity of your research by:
    • Identifying a ‘gap’ in existing knowledge
    • Indicating where your research fits
    • Showing why what you are doing is worthwhile, that you have a contribution to make

Literature reviews in the context of postgraduate study may be defined in terms of process and product. The process involves the researcher in exploring the literature to establish the status quo, formulate a problem or research enquiry, to define the value of pursuing the line of enquiry established, and to compare the findings and ideas of others with his or her own. The product involves the synthesis of the work of others in a form which demonstrates the accomplishment of the exploratory process. (Bruce, 1994, p. 218)

Developing the literature review

How to start?

Starting can be difficult as you are writing and organising knowledge and ideas you are still learning about. If you are new to the field you have little existing knowledge to start from. On what basis can you then organise, analyse, categorise and compare the literature? What criteria are you supposed to use for organising the literature?

Steps in the development of a literature review

The development of a literature review is done in a series of steps that do not necessarily follow each other up chronologically. Instead, there is an ongoing back and forwards repetition of most steps.

Main steps involve

  • Being clear about your purpose
  • Develop clear strategies for searching and finding useful information
  • Take notes as you collect
  • Assess literature as you collect
  • Organise the literature as you start to understand what is being said
  • Re-organise the literature, as you gain a deeper understanding
  • Link the literature review to your work

Step 1. Be clear about your purpose

At all stages you need to clarify (and remind yourself) of the purpose of the review. What literature will you be looking for? Do you require literature on your field and specific topic? Are you looking for broad background information? Specific background information? Information on theoretical approaches? Information on findings?  Do you require literature on methodology and methods? If you forget about purpose, you may be wasting a lot of time searching.

If you are looking for literature on a specific topic ask yourself:

  • What do you already know about the topic?
  • What is the scope of the information you require? Is currency important? Is geographic region important? Are you after Australian material or is the topic more general? Do you need comparative information?
  • What area or field is the research being conducted in?
  • What perspectives are going to be considered?


Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham

Step 2.  Understand the literature 

The vast amount of reading  available make sit imperative to develop skills to manage literature as effectively as possible, using tools when possible.

Make sure you understand

  • Primary sources of information: original research (theses, conference papers), technical reports, statistics.
  • Secondary sources of information: papers that evaluate, interpret, re-organises information
  • Tertiary literature; texts that summarise information from secondary sources (textbooks, encyclopedias).

You will need to understand what counts as ‘literature’ in your area of research, what are the most useful databases and search engines? What are recognised journals and conferences?

It may be useful to start looking at books on the area you are interested in, as books tend to bring together research to present an overview of the research landscape in your field. Books generally provide good overviews, which can help understanding the bigger picture and identify useful key words. Text books, as tertiary sources, can be useful to get an idea how a field has been theorised.

Books can give you an initial idea of what is going on and will also help generate useful keywords. Don’t hesitate to ask input from your supervisors and colleagues on useful books, journals and databases.

readCheck out this checklist for evaluating sources of information (source: Deakin University)

Step 3. Know how to access relevant literature

.., the overall range of research skills that a graduate student[s need] to master has expanded. [They] must be well-versed in resource and bibliographic management,.. technical literacy, and the sound use of more powerful discovery and delivery tools… [These] skills… also extend to analytical and methodological skill [involving]… evaluating and processing quantitative data; working with geographic and geocoded materials; using text or data mining and analysis tools; producing sophisticated visualizations, imagery, or online tools; using high-performance computing; and many other emerging areas of digital scholarship. (Covert-Vail & Collard, 2012).

Know where and how to access literature. Understand the online environment, but also familiarise yourself with libraries and archives in your area. Libraries have large collections of book, including e-books. It is important that you check how the Library catalogue works and how you can access books available using subject or author search and saving searches.

Understand databases and search engines

Make sure you know how to use databases, search engines, libraries and the internet. Systematically go through each database/journal and put in the key terms. Databases all have their specificities. Learn how they work to best use them.

Make a list of the key journals/key databases you need to search in your area. Initially, you may not know what the key journals are, but as you search through databases, you should notice some journals repeatedly come up through your search. Remember those journals and start searching these journals. As you do you will gain familiarity with the journal – what is published, who publishes a lot, what methodological frameworks are favoured etc.

Web of Science, Scopus, Google Scholar

These databases are in fact search engines as they through journals and other databases to locate information.  The engines each have their strengths and weaknesses. If you are beginning in a field, it is a good idea to search using all three. That will help you understand what works best for your field of research.

Search engines also show:

  • how many times and by whom an article has been cited
  • references in the article, thereby linking to other research 

Which engines to use?

If you are doing research in humanities and in social sciences, in non traditional fields or countries outside Australia, USA and Europe World of Science and Scopus can be less useful. Google Scholar is one of the most inclusive general search engines. It also helps you manage information, keep track of your own research. Do keep a critical mind however – don’t assume that because it is on Google Scholar it is reputable.

You really need to understand how to make the best of these search engines, so the work for you.

watch video iconCheck out the following resources to become proficient in using Google scholar

Scopus and Web of Science are the two search engines which belong to the two major publishing companies. If you have access, they are very useful. To make the most of these tools, learn how to use them, check out relevant Scopus training tutorial or Web of Science tutorial

You will not always have access to articles you are looking for via the search engines and will need to go back to your Library to access subscriptions. One way to do this is to check whether the Library has access to a particular journal. 

Note that many other search engines are available and you may want to explore what works for you and your project. See for example 100 Time-Saving Search Engines for Serious Scholars (2012)

Identify databases and journals specific to your field

While the big search engines can help you locate literature, eventually you may go straight to databases developed around your research topics. Many can be accessed from the Library.

Academic literature is increasingly available through open access. The debate around open access is an important debate. If you know little  about it, why not watch the video Open Access Explained.

Open access resources are increasingly available. The page Finding information using open access provides a list of sites to visit for open access resources. 

As you progress in your research you will develop a better understanding about what is said and who says it in your area. You should be able to know

  • major databases in your field
  • major academic journals in your field

Focus on these specific databases and learn to use them. Most databases allow you to refine (limit results within results, within subject areas, specific dates, publication type) and sort results (by date, author, citation numbers). Make sure you understand how it works. This can be useful to limit results.

Start searching within the journals covering your topic. As you do you will gain familiarity with the journal – what is published, who publishes a lot, what methodological frameworks are favoured….

Use keywords effectively

Developing keywords is crucial but at this initial stage they may be broad and you may not link them together to get a wide view of what is written on your topic or get a sense of boundaries.

  • In library catalogues only certain keywords are used (subject headings, thesaurus)
  • In Google and in most search engines all words are treated as keywords
  • In search engines and databases, you can search by document, author, affiliation, field, date….…To search for exact phrases use quotation marks
  • Search engines and databases each have their own peculiarities and provide information on this
  • How many keywords can you combine?

Break down the topic into keywords. If you don’t know where to start, browse the books in the library. Books generally provide good overviews which can help with understanding the bigger picture and identify useful key words.

Find synonyms, related terms, abbreviations and spelling variation for the keywords.

Learn to work with Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT), truncators (* added to characters to retrieve other words that include these characters) and wildcards (+ or ? to replace one letter in a keyword).

  • Combine different concepts with AND (note: Google automatically inserts AND between search terms)
  • Combine similar concepts with OR
  • Use NOT to exclude certain keywords
  • Use nesting to organise your search. Generally done by using parentheses around words that refer to similar concepts e.g. (recognition OR identification) AND bibliometrics
  • Use truncation symbol to enable finding multiple forms of a term (* or $ depending on database) e.g. international*
  • Use a wildcard (?) to replace one character e.g. internationali?ation
  • Use quotes around phrases e.g ‘national library’

 toolboxKeywords and queries tutorial: 21century information fluency

Understand citation chaining

Citation chaining refers to finding information from a source you already have. This requires working out a path to new useful information from existing information, to find related documents by shared references, authors and/or keywords.

Citation chaining can be particularly useful if you cannot find a lot of information. Citations can be searched backwards (check who is cited in the source) and forwards (check who has cited the source). But be careful, for good results your starting point has to be very relevant and useful. 

As you work with search engines and databases check how they allow you to go back and forth, finding new documents.

Refine and sort results

Most databases allow you to refine (limit results within results, within subject areas, specific dates and publication type) and sort results (by date, author and/or citation numbers). Make sure you understand how it works. This can be useful to limit results.

Save results

Most databases will allow you to safe your results in specific folders. You will need to find ways to manage all the literature sourced, particularly if you are doing big literature review.

Keeping up to date – citation alerts

Citation alerts provide updates whenever an article or author you are interested in has been cited in a new article. Most search engines will allow you to set up an alert. Information you are looking for will then be send to you when it comes out. 

Step 4. Use bibliographic management tools

The vast quantity of information now available demands specific skills and strategies.

“.., the overall range of research skills that a graduate student[s need] to master has expanded. [They] must be well-versed in resource and bibliographic management,.. technical literacy, and the sound use of more powerful discovery and delivery tools… [These] skills… also extend to analytical and methodological skill [involving]… evaluating and processing quantitative data; working with geographic and geocoded materials; using text or data mining and analysis tools; producing sophisticated visualizations, imagery, or online tools; using high-performance computing; and many other emerging areas of digital scholarship.”  Source: Covert-Vail, L. & Collard S. (2012). ‘New Roles for New Times: Research Library Services for Graduate Students’ Association of Research Libraries. Accessed from [ 7/10/2015].

Identify a tool you will use to manage the large amount of information you will need to handle. How will you record, tag or catalogue the literature? Check the notes on literature management tools to get some ideas on useful tools out there to help you remember and organise the literature. Check also Utrecht University’s ‘101innovations in scholarly communications‘.

Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham

Step 5. Read with a purpose

You will need to to read a lot. There is too much to read, so you need to read without reading everything. Learn to skim to get an idea of the idea landscape and major themes.

In a book or thesis scan

  • introduction
  • conclusion
  • beginnings and ends of relevant chapters
  • the abstract

If useful find the main idea and the argument. Get journal referred to, if it seems relevant.

In journal articles scan as follows

Learn how to quickly find what is relevant for you. Relevance depends on what you are looking for or what you need to know. Are you looking for arguments developed, ideas incorporated, a chronology, theories used, methodologies applied or findings?

  • Read the abstract
  • Skim key parts (introduction and conclusion, first paragraphs)
  • Check content pages
  • Read reviews (if available)
  • Look for keywords (you can use the Find option if the text is electronic

selanit-info-lightbulb-300pxWhy is this reading so hard? Finding your way through unfamiliar texts.

Entering a new field of inquiry through reading often takes time. You don’t get a sense of it all straight away and it is sometimes very hard to discriminate between the writing that is unfamiliar and deals with difficult ideas that really challenge and stretch our thinking, and the crappy stuff. But, Pat Thomson argues, it is important to do so.

readFirth, Katherine (2016). ‘The five biggest reading mistakes and how to avoid them’, Times Higher Education, March 31, 2016.  On why you should approach texts like a pirate.

Step 6. Assess the literature

Initially you will need to do a lot of skimming to get major ideas out of readings. But your capacity to assess literature should increase as you progress and your knowledge increases. Some supervisors ask their students to start developing annotated bibliographies – they are a good way to start evaluating literature and can set the scene for later comparisons.

Assess for relevance

Relevance depends on what you are looking for and what you need to know. You need literature that informs you on your topic. It is easy to stray when reading, especially early on when a project is still only vaguely defined. Everything sometimes seems relevant at that stage. It is fine to gather literature fairly broadly for a while, but at some stage you will need to re-focus on what your topic requires.

Because there is so much to read, you will also need to learn to decide very quickly whether a text is useful or not.

To do so

  • Read the abstract
  • Skim key parts (introduction and conclusion, first paragraphs)
  • Check content pages
  • Read reviews (if available)
  • Look for keywords (you can use the Find option if the text is electronic)

Assess for purpose

Are you looking for arguments developed, ideas incorporated, a chronology, theories used, methodologies applied, findings…..

Assess for reliability

You need to establish how current it is, how trustworthy the authors are and how accurate the texts are. Generally context is important to evaluate such matters. Currency for example may mean different things in different fields of research. Ask yourself

  • Who is the author? Is s/he an established scholar? Have you heard about him/her?
  • Is the publication trustworthy – is it peer reviewed?
  • How old is the publication?
  • What do reviews say?
  • Has it been cited by others? What do they say?
  • Journal ranking?
  • Is the publisher reliable?
  • Internet sources: check organisation hosting the site or the information.

selanit-info-lightbulb-300px Reviewing research. How to review a scientific paper.

Step 7. Take notes effectively

If you don’t take notes, you waste time as you will forget which keywords you used and what you have read.

  • How will you remember which keywords you used?
  • How will you remember which databases you searched?
  • How will you make sure you note references accurately?
  • How will you find the reference when you need it?
  • How will you find the article when you need it?

You need to develop some strategies for noting.:

  • Your search strategies (databases, keywords, journals) – this will allow you to become more effective over time. Make note of what works well and what does not. Include the date of your searches.
  • The reference of sources – information on the author, journal, date, page number, DOI. You need to be really systematic with this. If you are not, you may waste a lot of time searching for lost references.   
  • The content: what is relevant for your work. What has been paraphrased and what has been quoted.
  • Your thoughts.

Identify software that can help you manage references and notes (EndNote, Zotero, Mendeley, Evernote, Scrivener, NVivo). Code and tag literature accordingly. Look at the notes on managing research materials for more ideas on the importance of this and how to do it. Learn to use Adobe – e.g. to find stuff, to listen.

Take notes of references

In  books, record information on:

  • Author(s)
  • Title (and subtitle)
  • Year of publication
  • Edition consulted (if relevant)
  • Editors (if relevant)
  • Publisher
  • Place of publication
  • Translators (if relevant)
  • Relevant chapter (and page numbers) and chapter title (if chapters have been written by different authors)

In journals

  • Author
  • Title of article
  • Title of journal
  • Date of publication
  • Volume and issue
  • Page numbers for the article


When referring to internet sources, apply the same logic as for any other sources of information and take note of:

  • Author (if there is no individual author, the organisation publishing the information becomes the author
  • Publisher
  • Date of publication (often available at the bottom of a webpage)
  • Date of access
  • URL

Take notes of content

As you read, you need to take notes. If you don’t you are likely to waste a lot of time. Note taking also breaks the reading process and will help you remember as you need to actively interact with what you read to take notes.

  • You’ll need to decide when to quote, when to summarise and when to paraphrase.
  • Note what you think may be useful. It may be the author’s position, the main argument made, the theories referred to or the methodologies.
  • Be careful when writing quotes – make sure you will remember when you paraphrase and when you copy. Quotes can be really useful if you want to note something in much detail – they can often be paraphrased later.
  • When you start evaluating information – particularly about arguments and theories – your notes will need to be more detailed.

Some find it useful to develop a table comparing main ideas/themes explored. This can be useful as comparing is not always straightforward because vocabulary or methods used will differ.

Step 8. Organise the literature

Once you start understanding what the literature says, you can start jotting down an initial structure for what you have pulled out of the literature. Initially this will probably be a rather basic plan or structure, which is also guided by your knowledge. At this stage, from memory write down important themes and organise them in what seems a logical order. Don’t worry too much about details initially. You can add them later on. At this stage what matters is to get a sense of a story – chronology, similar or different ways of thinking – logical progression. 

watch video iconAcademic Researcher’s Work-inducing File Structure

you never ‘start working on a project’; [as a scholar] you are already ‘working,’.. [on your] files,.. taking notes after browsing, .. [You] will… use your entire file,.. for [your] topic… You are [building] a little world containing all the key elements which enter into the work.., [putting] each in its place in a systematic way, continually [readjusting] this framework… [To] live in such a constructed world is to know what is needed: ideas, facts, ideas, figures, ideas. (Wright Mills, 1959).

As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider:

  • What themes or issues connect your sources together?
  • Do they present one or different arguments/solutions?
  • What theories tend to be applied?
  • Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate?
  • Is there an aspect of the field that is missing?

As your understanding expands, at different stages you will be looking for different types of literature. It probably will include:

  • background information (this can be important and useful to understand an issue, even though in the end you may decide not to put everything in your thesis.
  • more focused information on the issue explored theoretical approaches to the issue.
  • literature on methodologies used.

Step 9. Re-organise the literature

As patterns emerge, you may need to re-organise your writing. Further develop the structure, map, model and table outlining how everything fits together. While you are searching for literature, taking notes and assessing, you need to take stock regularly: What do you know already? What material do you have? What do you still need? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc. that your review needs to include?

To avoid going off track, always relate materials back to the planned project:

  • How does the literature relate to your project?
  • Narrow material down to what is relevant.
  • What are major issues, findings, methodologies (focus on what is relevant to your question)?

As your literature develops, you may want to add details to your structure.

Step 10. Re-evaluate and link notes with your own research

Re-organise your notes according to your project (you may need to do this more than once). The literature needs to frame your projects. As you progress, the nature of the project will become clearer and the literature review needs to reflect this. You need to be clear about how does your question fits in with the review?  Do you propose to further examine one aspect discussed? Do you intend to do something similar but using a different method?…

The final structure of the review will depend on research question and data (e.g. chronological, different methods, theories). The session on writing the literature review explores possible structures.

As you progress:

  • Your understanding continues to increase – that may influence the way you set out the literature.
  • You may still find new material – how does this new material fit in your structure? Do you need to change your structure?
  • The type of information you include is likely to change. Things that seemed important initially may no longer be important – put them aside.


Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham

How do you know you have included enough literature?

The scope of your review depends on what you are writing it for. While in a research thesis you are expected to provide a fairly exhaustive literature review, a research paper will require a much shorter review which focuses only literature that is essential to making your point.

If you are writing a thesis you will need to work on the literature review till the very end. Setting up alerts to be informed on publications in your area will help you keep informed of new literature. You will need to make sure:

  • You have included the most recent publications; and
  • You have provided enough information on what is known and written about your topic.

But you do not need:

  • a summary of all studies in your field, paragraph by paragraph; or
  • a complete historical background to your topic area.

In practice you may initially include a lot of information that is useful in helping you understand the field, in developing expertise; but which may need to be taken out of the final literature review as it may have no direct relevance to the argument you are making.

Writing the literature review

See notes available under

References and Resources

Most books on research design have a chapter on literature reviews. Here are a few references I used or haven’t used directly but found useful.

Bruce, C. S. (1994). ‘Research students’ early experiences of the dissertation literature review’. Studies in Higher Education, 19(2): 217-29.

Center for Research Libraries Global Resources Network (2015), Text and Data Mining in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Strategies and Tools

Cottrell (2011). Critical thinking skills. Developing effective analysis and argument. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Covert-Vail, L. & Collard S. (2012). ‘New Roles for New Times: Research Library Services for Graduate Students’ Association of Research Libraries. Accessed from [ 7/10/2015].

Eco, Umberto (2015) How to write a thesis. Cambridge, Massachusetts : MIT Press. is a translation of a book published in Italian in the seventies, but it is a great book to explore bringing together literature. You can get it from the UC library as an e-book.

Kamler, B. & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

Literature review HQ discussion & tips site available from

Ollhof, Jim (n.d.), How to Write a Literature Review.

Thomas, G. (2013).  How to do your research project (pp 57-89). London: Sage, I liked the chapter on literature review in this book. It sets the process out very clearly. You can get it in the UC Library as a 7 day loan under LB1028.T76 2013.

Thomson, P. & Kamler, B. (2016). Detox your writing. Strategies for doctoral researching. Routledge: Milton Park.

‘Writing a Literature Review: Six Steps to Get You from Start to Finish’ (2011),
Succeed in Academia and Have a Life Too Get a life Blog 7 October 2011.

2 thoughts on “Reviewing the literature

  1. Recently came upon this important bit of information on PubMed, a database that indexes articles from many thousands of journals, including predatory journals. As the proportion of articles from predatory and other low-quality journals increases in PubMed, the database’s value decreases.
    However, researchers in the biomedical sciences can use MEDLINE as a whitelist and can use PubMed to access MEDLINE if they use the appropriate search limiters.
    Read more:


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