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Literature Review: Why and How?

A guide to literature reviews

What is a Literature Review?

 A critical analysis of a segment of a published body of knowledge through summary, classification, and comparison of prior research studies, reviews of literature, and theoretical articles.

(University of Wisconsin Writing Center)

Why do a literature review?

  • Understand the existing body of knowledge 
  • Discover your research niche and create your research agenda
  • Identify controversies in your discipline
  • Expose gaps in knowledge areas of dispute and uncertainty 
  • Identify the vocabulary of their topic
  • Identify appropriate research methodologies
  • Justify your proposed study as one that contributes something new to the body of knowledge

Literature Review Sources

UNC Chapel Hill general description of a literature review and description of the steps for completing one

Learn how to write a review of the literature from University of Wisconsin Madison

Stages of a Literature Review


See this video on literature reviews from North Carolina State University: 

Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students


Scoping search

Try a search by keyword in a few subject specialized databases

Keep in mind the difference between keyword and subject searching.

By trial and error and reading titles and abstracts, identify the vocabulary of your topic in your discipline

Identify key search terms (by subject and keyword)

Take notes on your searches already completed and how effective they were


Thorough, full search

Methodically check all book catalogs and article databases using keyword and subject terms (subject terms may change for each database used)

By reading books and articles, identify major authors

Do an author search for this author

  • Who do these authors cite?
  • Do an author search for these cited authors

Repeat your search in various book catalogs and article databases

Search for unpublished or grey literature using Google Scholar, think tank websites, and government sources (government reports often do not show up in Google results—search relevant agency sites for reports)

Take notes on any modification of the search as more information is gathered

Reference chaining:

  • Go back in time with your topic
  • Search bibliographies of papers found for additional studies related to your topic
  • Go forward in time with your topic: use Google Scholar “cited by” to see how each article informed future studies on your topic. Also gives an idea of an author or article’s prominence in the field

Consider contacting experts to determine if all relevant writing has been reviewed.

How Do You Know When You're Done with Your Literature Review?

Your literature review should be an ongoing process as you’re writing. Check in on the literature at certain points as you write. You can also subscribe to alerts from databases and use RSS feeds to keep abreast of your topic.

You will start to see the same arguments, theories, and authors pop up again and again.

You’ll find that you're discovering no new citations.

You’ve already read articles cited in newly discovered literature.

If this happens, you're done!