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Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide: Strategies to Finding Sources

The Research Process

Interative Litearture Review Research Process image (Planning, Searching, Organizing, Analyzing and Writing [repeat at necessary]Finding sources (scholarly articles, research books, dissertations) for your literature review is part of the research process, a process that is iterative--you go back and forth along the process as new information is gathered and analyze until all necessary data is acquired and you are ready to write. The main steps in this research process are:

Planning: Before searching for articles or books, brainstorm to develop keywords that best describe your research question.

Searching: While searching take note of what other keywords are used to describe your topic  and use them to do more searches

     ♠ Most articles include a keyword section

     ♠ Key concepts names may change through time so make sure to check for variations

Organizing: Start organizing your results by categories/key concepts or any organizing principle that make sense for you. This will help you later when you are ready to analyze your findings

Analyzing: While reading, start making notes of key concepts and commonalities and disagreement among the research articles you find.

♠ Create a spreadsheet document to record what articles you are finding useful and why.

♠ Create fields to write summaries of articles or quotes for future citing and paraphrasing.

Writing: Synthesize your findings. Use your own voice to explain to your readers what you learned about the literature your search; its weaknesses and strengths; what is missing or ignored

Repeat: at any given time of the process you can go back to a previous step as necessary

Advanced Searching

All databases have Help pages that explain the best way to search their product. When doing literature reviews, you want to take advantage of all these features since it will facilitate not only finding the articles that you really need but also control how many results and how relevant they are for your search. The most common features available in any advanced search (in databases and library online catalogs) are:


  • Boolean Searching (AND, OR, NOT): Words that help you connect your terms in a logical way for the system understand you 
  • Proximity Searching (N/# or W/#): It allows you to search for two or more words that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other in the databases.
  • Limiters/Filters: These are options available on the advanced page to let you control what type of document you want to search (articles), dates, language, peer-review, etc...
  • Wildcard and Truncation searches: When in doubt about how a keyword is spelled out, have multiple spelling or different endings, you can add symbols to your search:
    • Question mark (?) or a pound sign (#) for wildcard: useful when you don't know how something is spelled out, e.g. if you are looking about articles about color, if you want to find articles with the spelling colour (British English), you can use colo?r to find either spelling.
    • Asterisk (*) for truncation: useful for getting results with keywords with multiple endings, e.g. comput* for computer, computers, computing, etc.


Each database has its own peculiarities regarding searching, so take your time and check each database help page and become an expert searcher!



There is no magic number regarding how many sources you are going to need for your literature review, it all depends on the topic and what type of literature review you are doing:


  • Are you working on an emerging topic? You are not likely to find many sources, which is good because you are trying to prove that this is a topic that needs more research. But, it is not enough to say that you found few or no articles on your topic in your field. You need to look broadly to other disciplines (also known as triangulation) to see if your research topic has been studied from other perspectives as a way to validate the uniqueness of your research question.
  • Are you working on something that has been studied extensively? Then you are going to find many sources and you will want to limit how far you want to look back. Use limiters to eliminate research that may be dated and opt to search for resources published within the last 5-10 years.
  • Want to keep track of your searches, send alerts to your email when new articles in your topic are available? Create an account in any of our databases!

Following the Citation Trail!

One way to start the process of selecting articles for your literature review is by identifying an influential and/or groundbreaking work or a very relevant article on your topic and see who had cited since its publication giving priority to the most recent articles. This practice is called following the citation trail and it is a good way to locate research on a topic from the significant to the most current. Another way to follow a citation trail is by perusing the bibliography from an article that discusses your research topic. I recommend looking for the most recent article on your topic since the literature cited by the author in the bibliography will also be the most recent in the subject. After identifying that key article, you can focus your search for new articles published afterward!


Many databases today have special featured that show you how many times an article was cited by and by who and offer you links to those articles.

Don't hesitate to contact your Subject Librarian if you need help following a citation trail or checking if a citation is correct! Sometimes citations can be incomplete which makes them hard to find.


See below some recommended resources:

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