Searching and reviewing literature


This chapter examines the essential skills in literature reviewing and offers advice on where to search for literature for your dissertation. It offers practical guide and tips on how to undertake an effective search to generate resources for your dissertation. The chapter also covers issues relating to referencing, citations, quoting, paraphrasing and acknowledging other people’s work in a dissertation.

By the end of the chapter, you will have a better understanding of:

  • • Designing literature search strategy
  • • Where to search for literature
  • • How to access the resources you find
  • • What to do when you find the resources
  • • Who to ask for help.

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a systematic study and critical examination of completed or ongoing scholarly papers, documents and other pub-lished/unpublished materials on a particular topic to understand current knowledge. It is a useful synthesis of information and evaluation of works of other researchers to establish what is known or unknown about the subject of your dissertation. Reviewing literature offers you the opportunity to gain insights into what other people have done or said in the past that relates to your dissertation. Through this review, you will be able to understand current debates and discourses as well as theoretical and methodological issues relating to your dissertation. If you want to look at a literature review first hand, a simple waywould be to look at any research journal article you have used during the course of your studies; a common feature will be a review of the literature prior to discussion of the research findings. This enables the research to be contextualised.

Why search the literature?

Conducting a systematic and thorough literature search will ensure that you find the majority of the resources that will help you to throw light on the questions you are researching. A literature search will show you whether someone has already answered the questions you are asking, or it will show you how other researchers have approached similar problems. You can develop new theories or concepts based on the evidence gathered from other scholars.

It is worth remembering that literature is more than just books; literature includes all of the following:

  • • Books (reference, textbooks, monographs)
  • • Conference proceedings
  • • Encyclopaedias
  • • Journal articles
  • • Magazine articles
  • • Newspapers
  • • Official publications
  • • Online material
  • • Patents
  • • Published video/DVD material
  • • Reports
  • • Standards
  • • Theses
  • • TV/radio broadcasts.

There is a wealth of information out there. It is really important, therefore, to have a good search strategy and evaluation method in place to make sure you find the most relevant literature for your study. Based on its format, a literature review can be a systematic review, a secondary data analysis project or an introduction to a primary research topic. Just remember that looking at Wikipedia is not sufficient to produce an essay, never mind a dissertation! You will be assessed on the quality and the range of sources used.

What makes a good literature review?

The techniques you use for conducting your literature search and the way you write your review will depend on the aim and objectives of your dissertation. While some studies may require an extensive, in-depth review of literature, others may just need a short review of existing literature. Generally, a literature review tends to:

  • • Show your familiarity with past research and studies on your chosen topic and related subject;
  • • Provide a contextual framework for explaining key theories and concepts relating to your study;
  • • Position your research within the general discourse and debate in the field;
  • • Explain new concepts or define terminologies used in your dissertation to which the readers may not be familiar;
  • • Describe how your dissertation contributes to knowledge, by identifying gaps that your research is designed to fill or specific areas of knowledge to which your dissertation is complementary;
  • • Highlight the significance of your dissertation in relation to existing studies.

A good literature review will provide a comprehensive evaluation and examination of information on the topic of investigation and present this information in a logical and orderly fashion to help readers follow the discourse, debates, arguments and research findings of other researchers. Fully referenced, it should provide a good summary of relevant scientific literature relating to other people's work by synthesising what has been done, when and by whom so that readers can have a good understanding of how research and knowledge on the topic has developed over the years. Although selective, it should also provide readers with a good understanding of the background or context to the study and how the research fits or sits within existing knowledge or contributes to the development of new ideas. It should highlight key features of theories and concepts that have been used to underpin similar studies and the key assumptions of these theories (Figure 4.1). It is also important for a literature review to be balanced in terms of its coverage of different opinions and debates. To serve its purpose, a literature review should be critical and analytical in its approach so that new ideas and understanding can be developed from the evidence (Bolderston 2008).

Features of a good literature review

Figure 4.1 Features of a good literature review

How do I structure or organise my literature review?

Typically, a literature review should be organised in a chronological or thematical order. For a single topic study, a literature review usually requires a chronological approach where knowledge on the topic has developed over the years from past to present period (Lawrence 2011). Research that relates to different themes or multiple topics will typically require a thematic approach to literature review, although a chronological review of literature may still be carried out within each theme. Whichever approach you choose for your literature review, it is important you ensure a logical structure and flow as you weave together other scholars' work to present a coherent picture of knowledge on the topic of investigation.

Where do I find information for my literature review?

Information for your literature can be sourced in three main ways through hardcopies and online material. These are: primary, secondary and tertiary sources (Panda and Alekya 2018).

Primary sources: Some literature reviews rely on primary sources such as research reports as originally produced and published by scholars who conducted the study. These include journal articles, conference papers, theses and monographs, amongst others.

Secondary sources: These are based on literature review materials that are published or compiled by someone other than the original researcher who carried out the study. Typically, these include bibliographies, indexes and review articles compiled by a second party other than the original scholar.

Tertiary sources: Literature reviews based on tertiary sources are those that depend on search tools aimed at finding original primary or secondary literature. These include encyclopaedias, guides, handbooks and other fact-finding documents and databases.

Using search engines to find information

Search engines are programs that can search documents on the internet for keywords and then list those documents where the keywords were found. Well-known search engines include:

  • • Google —
  • • Yahoo —
  • • —
  • • Aol —
  • • Baidu —
  • • Bing —
  • • DuckDuckGo —
  • • Lycos —
  • • WolframAlpha -
  • • Yandex —

A good starting point is to search for concepts and themes on Google Scholar ( which focus specifically on academic literature including peer-reviewed journal articles, theses, books, preliminary works, abstracts and technical reports. Many university library systems are linked to Google Scholar. If your library subscribes to the journal, you may be directed to the text via a library link after the title of the result, but if it does not, you may find you cannot access full articles without payment. It is advisable to use Google Scholar’s advanced search option, which allows you to search more precisely, for example, by exact phrase, author or publication and by date. Google Scholar is only one of a number of search engines and citation databases. As with other sources, it does not offer complete coverage of scholarly works. If you are looking for citation results, look at other sources as well, such as Web of Knowledge. Other sources will use different searching options, some of which will allow greater refinement of your searches.

Essential steps in literature review

A literature review involves a series of steps and processes to ensure you gather, synthesise and critically evaluate relevant materials that reflect existing knowledge in relation to your topic. Reviewing literature is a complex process and unwieldy initial search results will often require constant review and refinement over a period of time. The essential steps in undertaking your literature review are as summarised in Figure 4.2.

Starting your literature review

The first step is to define your general topic and then to undertake a scan of the literature. The purpose of this initial scan is to map your topic area to specific themes to get a sense of what has been done before in relation to the themes or key ideas that you stated. If, for example, your topic is school exclusion and young people and crime, you will need to look at

Essential steps in writing a literature review

Figure 4.2 Essential steps in writing a literature review

literature on topics such as young people, education and crime and refine as and when you find useful information. You will need to think of other search terms to use; so, if you are looking at school exclusion you may wish to search for similar terms such as truancy, suspension, non-attendance and absenteeism. Although 'young people’ is a commonly used term in England, remember that it may mean different things to different people (under 16, under 18, under 21?). In America the use of'juvenile' is widely used. Your university librarian will be able to offer assistance on how to use search terms for a literature review.

Through this you will be able to identify gaps that will help you focus your topic and identify your research questions. You don’t want your topic to be too broad or too vague. With your topic clearly focused, note the key words, ideas or concepts that encapsulate your study.

With your search statements in place, it is time to start your search, which could be done manually or through the use of search engines. A literature search could be based on:

  • • Published books
  • • Journal articles
  • • Theses and conference papers
  • • Databases or online sources.

You begin by searching for published books. Skim them for relevance, check their bibliographies for useful items and add them to your list. Then search for journal articles. Again, look at the reference list and add any that look interesting to your own. Repeat the same process with theses and conference papers. As you see, this is an iterative process, similar to a snowballing effect; you keep collecting relevant items and growing your bibliographical list.

Below are some suggestions as to where you can start your search for the four types of literature highlighted above. It is worth going to see your subject librarian as they will be able to point you to the best catalogues, databases and indexes for your topic that are available at your institution.

Published books

Your library catalogue is a good place to start your search for published books. However, you might want to extend this out to search the catalogues of the following:

  • • The Library of Congress: the largest library in the world, based in the USA.
  • • The European Library: this catalogue offers access to the resources of 47 national libraries in Europe.
  • • The British Library: the biggest library in the UK, which receives a copy of everything published in the UK.
  • • COPAC: the merged catalogues of major UK universities and national libraries.
  • • OPACS: library networked catalogues in education, research and public sectors.

Journal articles

Databases, abstracts and indexes are important sources for searching for journal articles. There are a large number of databases that you can use to search for and gather information for your literature review. Many of the databases contain collections that are subject-specific and have primary or secondary contents and articles which you may find relevant to your topic.

Using databases to find and gather informationfor your literature review

We have already talked about Google Scholar, other useful databases you may consult are:


Scopus is Elsevier’s abstract and citation database, launched in 2004. It is an extensive abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature in life sciences, social sciences, physical sciences, technology, medicine, arts and humanities. A trusted and highly regarded database by academics worldwide, it contains bibliometrics tools to track, analyse and visualise research.


Produced by the American Psychological Association, PsycINFO is a database of abstracts of literature for topics in psychology. It covers a range of materials from journal articles, books, reports, theses, and dissertations on psychological, social, behavioural, and health sciences related subjects, www.


ERIC is an online digital library of education research and information, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the US Department of Education. It covers a wide range of contents and education-related articles in its database, bases/eric


EconLit is an academic literature database published by the American Economic Association. It covers a wide range of contents on literature in the field of economics, dating back to 1969- It is a highly regarded database and a trusted source for economic citations and abstracts.

CINAHL database

CINAHL provides extensive coverage of literature for nursing and allied health journals. As trusted sources, nurses, allied health professionals, researchers, nurse educators and students depend on the CINAHL Database to research their subject areas,

Web of science

Web of Science is an online citation indexing service originally produced by the Institute for Scientific Information and maintained by Clarivate Analytics. It provides a comprehensive citation search and links the Web of Science Core Collection to regional citation indexes, patent data, specialised subject indexes and an index of research data sets.

The International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS)

The International Bibliography of the Social Sciences is a bibliography for social science and interdisciplinary research. It is a useful online resource and the database covers a wide range of topics in the social science disciplines, including anthropology, economics, politics, sociology, development studies, human geography and environment science and gender studies. It covers journal articles, books, reviews and chapters from edited books.

Applied Social Science Index and Abstracts (ASSIA)

Applied Social Science Index and Abstracts provides essential information for researchers in sociology, economics, politics, education, health services and allied subjects. It covers topics on housing, education, health services, nursing, social work, substance abuse, mental health and gerontology, amongst others. The database has records from over 500 different journals.

Sociological abstracts

Sociological Abstracts provides valuable international data on literature in sociology and related disciplines in the social and behavioural sciences. The database includes the Social Services Abstracts file that contains data on bibliographic list of current research that relate to social work, human services, and related topics, SocAbs

Theses and conference papers

Theses and dissertations are critical components of academic library research collections and literature review. Abstracts and indexes can also be used to find these kinds of literature. But there are some more specific sites you may consider for your dissertation:

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses: Produced by ProQuest, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses is an online database that provides full-text access to dissertations and theses. The database offers one of the most comprehensive collections of theses in the world with over 2.4 million records.

Index to Theses in Great Britain and Ireland: Index to Theses provides a comprehensive list of postgraduate theses and dissertations accepted by universities in the UK and Ireland since 1716 which you should be able to access through your university library.

EThOS e-theses online service: Produced by the British Library and has access to over 500,000 doctoral theses, which are immediately downloadable.

EBSCO Open Dissertations: Includes content from American Doctoral Dissertations. It is a free database with records for more than 800,000 electronic theses and dissertations from around the world.

DART-Europe: A partnership of research libraries and organisations working together to provide access to European research theses, http:// nfo.php

Trove: Helps you find and use resources relating to Australia; it brings together content from libraries, museums, archives and other research organisations,

Using communication technologies and social networking platforms to stay abreast of new literature

Social networking platforms (such as Facebook and Linkedln), microblogging sites (such as Twitter) or researchers' own personal blogs can be an excellent way to find out about the most current research in your area. Many researchers will publicise their work through sites such as these and will sometimes link you to free copies of their articles. It is worth following some of the key researchers in your area; you might even start a conversation with them. If you are wanting to keep up to date with news sources, Reddit, the social news website, will allow you to follow discussions about specific issues relating to your dissertation.

Another way to keep up to date with your reading is to set up automatic alerts that let you know that a new article has been published in your area. You might set alerts up with specific journals or through a profile on Google Scholar, for example, or a Table of Contents alerting system, such as JournalTOCs: Harzing (2018)'s blog gives some useful guidance on how to keep on top of your reading without overloading yourself.

The bliss of browsing

The previous section has focused particularly on online searches (from catalogues to information gateways). However, you should not underestimate how productive perusing your library collection can be. It is worth spending some time browsing the shelves in the library. Once you have located a book that your search has highlighted, have a look and see what's placed around it — you never know what you might find!

Sourcing references

Having searched a number of sources, you might be overwhelmed by the volume of literature that your search produces. This is why it is so important to have defined the parameters of your topic when you begin planning your research, so that you can ascertain what is relevant to your topic and what is not. You should remember, however, that your dissertation is more than the literature that you review; so, set yourself a timeframe for searching and stop when your time is up. You must ensure that you leave sufficient time to cover the rest of your research.

With a list of references that you want to look at, you need to source those documents. If you are lucky, the document will be available at your own library. In this case, you will need only to go and collect it. Increasingly, universities have a large number of resources available in electronic or digital form. Sometimes, however, your library will not have a copy of the reference that you need. Initially, it is worth asking your supervisor if they have a copy you could borrow; if it is a key text in your area, they might well do. If not, then you need to see where the copies are held. If another library in your city has a copy, you might decide to go and access the document there. Most libraries have ‘reading access' rights, meaning that you can go to their library and read the source but not take it away. You are unlikely, however, to get access to their electronic sendees. It is best to phone ahead and see whether it is worth making the trip.

If you are struggling to find a resource, your university will most likely operate an Inter-Library Loan (ILL) system. This means that the source you need will be ordered from another library and delivered to you. If the source is a book, you will be given a date by which you will need to return it. If it is a journal article, then you will probably be sent a photocopy by post or, increasingly, by email, but either way be aware that access will not be instant. You may also have to pay for this service, so make sure that the source is relevant for your research. At this stage, you will have access to the sources that will be the foundation to your research. It is worth checking your list with your supervisor; they will be able to tell you whether there are key references missing.

Working with sources

As you collect your list of references, you can keep a check on their relevance without initially reading them all in depth. You can pick up clues as to whether your source will be useful by reading the abstract, the conclusion and/or the contents page.

You will also need to evaluate the documents you have retrieved and the credibility of the author(s). If you are working with internet sources, you need to be even more careful when evaluating what you read because anyone can put anything on the internet (think Wikipedia!). Carefully consider the accuracy of the information you obtain from the internet and note the authorship, dates when the site was last updated and how you accessed the site.

Your institution's library may provide training on information literacy tutorial which will guide you in how to evaluate your sources. In the course of your literature review, you may disregard texts that do not meet the criteria of your study; however, you may need to refer to the bibliographies again to check whether there are sources listed there that look interesting, but which are not on your developing reference list.

It is essential that you keep a record of your sources and references as you go along, this will make your life much easier in the long run when you come to construct your reference list. Even articles you dismiss initially may subsequently prove to be of interest or useful as your ideas become more developed. There is nothing more frustrating than spending time that you do not have searching for the details of a source you can remember reading but did not record. As you collect your sources, you should be keeping a note of:


Title (of article, journal, chapter, book)

  • • Editor (for edited books)
  • • Edition, volume, issue
  • • Publisher
  • • Place of publication
  • • Web page and date of access for internet sources
  • • Key words
  • • How you found the source - keep a record in your search strategies (some information databases will allow you to save searches and set up alerts).

You might also want to add in your comments on the source, to remind you at a later date why this particular piece was important.

There are different ways that you can store this information. The least technical is to make a note of details on index cards, which you then store alphabetically in an index-card box. You could, instead, keep a record in a Word or Excel document. The sorting function will enable you to quickly and easily arrange the references into alphabetical order; the find function will allow you to search for specific pieces of information.

Alternatively, you might decide to use a piece of bibliographic software, such as Endnote, RefWorks, Mendeley and Zotero or Citationsy. These tools can help you manage your references by creating a database which can be searched and organised. They will keep all of your references in one place, they sometimes link to databases and they will make constructing consistent reference lists much easier. It is likely that your institution will support one of these tools. So, go to the library, find out which one is available and sign up for some training. If you start to use the bibliographic software early in your dissertation process, you will find that it saves you time in the long run. Whichever system you use, however, you should aim to keep complete and systematic notes on your references.

Reading the references

You should now have a list of and access to references which are relevant for your study. Now you should start reading those sources critically. Look for the key themes in the documents and try and identify how the sources fit together. This process is going to be time-consuming because you will be reading a large amount of material. Furthermore, once you start your reading, you might find that some of the literature is of little relevance to your study. Don’t panic; this is something that many researchers and dissertation students experience and is often a necessary part of the process. It is better to read something that is not central to your dissertation than miss something that might be an important and relevant contribution to the field.

While reading, make notes about the central themes and arguments of the book, chapter or article. Try and get a sense of the theoretical perspective of the author; this will be of use when you come to organise and present your literature review. Also, emphasise the way in which the piece of literature you are reading seeks to set itself apart from other literature. Importantly, start to think critically about the piece you are reading: what is this person trying to say and why? How is it different from the way others have dealt with this issue? This critical component is very important as it demonstrates that you are engaging with relevant literature in an appropriate manner to develop your academic discourse and that you can discriminate between different perspectives and approaches that exist within your chosen field.

Keep track of what you read and try to organise all your notes into themes. As you read, ensure that you also keep a note of page numbers. This is important if you want to come back to the source to check your interpretation and also, when you write your dissertation, you will need to include page numbers in your citations. Making a note now can stop you wasting a lot of time later trying to find an elusive quote. Good note-taking and critical reading in the initial stages of your dissertation will lead to a much more effective and focused literature review.

Moving to the literature review

The literature review incorporates the notes that you have made during the reading of the literature that you have found. It is an important part of your dissertation because it performs a number of related functions. It demonstrates to your reader that you have read widely and that you are aware of the range of debates that have taken place within the given field. It provides the proof that you have more than a good grasp of the breadth and depth of the topic of the dissertation.

The literature review can provide the rationale for the research question in the study. This can be done by highlighting specific gaps in the literature — questions that have not been answered (or even asked) and areas of research that have not been conducted within your chosen field. In this way, the literature review can provide a justification of your own research. It can allow you to build on work that has already been conducted. For example, you might adopt a similar methodological or theoretical approach in your work to work that exists within the literature yet place your actual emphasis elsewhere. In this way, you are building on work that has already been conducted by adopting similar strategies and concepts yet focusing the question on something that interests you.

It also helps to define the broad context of your study, placing your work within a well-defined academic tradition. Poor dissertations often fail to relate to broader debates within the academic community. They may have a well-defined research question, yet, without placing this question in the appropriate context, the research can lose its significance. The literature review, therefore, can add weight to your question by framing it within broader debates within the academic community.

Drawing on support from others

Library staff

Library staff are available to answer general enquiries in person, by telephone and online (by email or online form). For subject-specific enquiries, subject librarians or subject specialists will usually be the best people to help, including advice regarding special collections. To get the most out of your subject librarian, make sure you are prepared before you make contact. You may need to make an appointment to discuss your queries.

  • • Think about your questions and write them down in advance.
  • • If you have a query about a specific publication or research report, allow enough time for the material to be located — an inter-library loan may be required.
  • • It will help the librarian if you give detailed information about your topic and mention which information sources you have already consulted.

If you have queries about searches, think of key words and terms to start with. The librarian may have ideas on other helpful search terms.

How can a librarian help you?

The librarian can help you to identify relevant bibliographical databases to search in order to identify appropriate materials. The librarian can then help with:

  • • Explaining the search strategy
  • • Identifying keywords
  • • Navigating an information database
  • • How to save searches and results
  • • How to access full-text links
  • • How to set up alerts
  • • How to broaden or focus your search
  • • Explaining about subject terms and descriptors
  • • Explaining about the thesaurus for getting the best results from any bibliographical tool
  • • Citation searching.

Libraries have online and paper-based guidance on a wide range of information issues. Typically, these include:

  • • Searching databases and finding research literature
  • • Web searching
  • • How to reference (including citing electronic resources) and managing references (for example, using software)
  • • New developments in search tools and websites
  • • Academic skills such as writing effectively
  • • Online tutorials
  • • Advice and help for students with specific learning needs.

Libraries may also run training in-house on many of the above, and you may find, depending upon your individual learning style, that attending one or more of these may increase your skills and confidence more quickly than using online tutorials. The hope is that not only will you produce a dissertation that helps you to gain a good degree but that you will learn skills of information literacy that you will be able to use again and again both in your academic and professional careers.

Your supervisor

Do not forget that your supervisor is there to help you as well. They are likely to have expertise in your area and will be able to point you in the direction of some good initial sources. As you build your database of documents, check with your supervisor that you are going in the right direction. You should also share any new references that you find; supervisors will be pleased if you come across references that they have not seen before. Your supervisor will also be able to give you advice as to how you can best structure your literature review (see Chapter 2).

Key messages

  • • A literature review is an informative, critical and useful synthesis of research or knowledge relating to your study.
  • • You need to decide on the appropriate literature search strategies for your dissertation.
  • • Smart searching is key to success in writing your literature review.
  • • Be systematic in your search and keep a note of everything that you find.
  • • Make use of the full range of support available to you from within your institution and go and talk to your subject librarian.

Key questions

  • • Where can you find information for your literature review?
  • • Have you defined your research clearly enough in order to construct search strategies that return sources relevant to your research?
  • • Do you have the right skills to search for material online (journals, indexes, databases, etc.)? If not, where can you get access to such support within your own institution?
  • • What support does the library offer in terms of help with finding literature and other research (training courses, individual support)?
  • • Are you familiar with what your own library offers — online resources, books, journals, audio-visual material, etc.?
  • • How will you structure or organise your literature review?


1 Harzing, A-W. (2018) How to keep up to date with the literature but avoid information overload, available from: ciences/2018/05/18/how-to-keep-up-to-date-with-the-literature-but-avoid-infor mation-overload/

Further reading

Aveyard, H. (2018). Doing A Literature Review in Health and Social Care: A Practical Guide (4th Edition). London: Open University Press.

Booth, A., Sutton, A. and Papaioannou, D. (2016). Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review (2nd Edition). London: Sage.

Denney, A. and Tewksbury, R. (2013). How to Write a Literature Review, Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 24 (2), June 2013, 218-2.34.

Hart, C. (2018). Doing a Literature Review, Releasing the Research Imagination (2nd Edition) Sage Study Skills Series. London: Sage.

Panda, J. and Alekya, P. (2018). How to Conduct an Effective Literature Review and Its Management, International Journal of Education and Psychological Research HJEPR), 7 (3), September 2018, 74-81.

WORDVICE. (2019). How to Write a Literature Review. {Online} Available at Accessed 10 May 2019.

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