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Conducting Your Literature Review (Concise Guides to Conducting Behavioral, Health, and Social Science Research Series)

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conducting your literature review

Conducting Your Literature Review (Concise Guides to Conducting Behavioral, Health, and Social Science Research Series) 1st Edition

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  • ISBN-10 1433830922
  • ISBN-13 978-1433830921
  • Edition 1st
  • Publisher American Psychological Association
  • Publication date September 10, 2019
  • Part of series Concise Guides to Conducting Behavioral, Health, and Social Science Research
  • Language English
  • Dimensions 6 x 0.25 x 8.75 inches
  • Print length 145 pages
  • See all details

conducting your literature review

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Conducting Your Literature Review (Concise Guides to Conducting Behavioral, Health, and Social Science Research Series)

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Editorial Reviews

This book provides an excellent introduction to different kinds of literature reviews and guides readers through the steps involved in systematic reviews. Practical aspects are illustrated by examples of fictional students working on a literature review. This approach, benefitting from Hempel’s wealth of experience, makes this a highly recommended book for anyone considering to prepare a literature review.

About the Author

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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ American Psychological Association; 1st edition (September 10, 2019)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 145 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1433830922
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1433830921
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 8 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6 x 0.25 x 8.75 inches
  • #141 in Popular Psychology Reference
  • #189 in Medical Psychology Reference
  • #362 in Social Sciences Research

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About the author

Susanne hempel phd.

Susanne Hempel, PhD is a professor of research Preventative Medicine and faculty member at the Gehr Family Center for Health Systems Sciences and Innovation, University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine. Dr. Hempel is the director of the Southern California Evidence Review Center (, overseeing a large portfolio of evidence synthesis projects; including systematic reviews, scoping reviews, evidence maps, and stakeholder panels.

The Southern California Evidence Review Center conducts multi-discipline and multi-site projects for federal agencies such as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the Psychological Health Center of Excellence (PHCoE), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), as well as professional societies and nonprofit organizations such as the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI).

Dr. Hempel is an affiliate adjunct behavioral scientist at RAND and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Prior, she worked at the Center for Reviews and Dissemination (CRD), University of York, UK. Her academic background is personality psychology with a PhD from the University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany.

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conducting your literature review

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conducting your literature review

Conduct a literature review

What is a literature review.

A literature review is a summary of the published work in a field of study. This can be a section of a larger paper or article, or can be the focus of an entire paper. Literature reviews show that you have examined the breadth of knowledge and can justify your thesis or research questions. They are also valuable tools for other researchers who need to find a summary of that field of knowledge.

Unlike an annotated bibliography, which is a list of sources with short descriptions, a literature review synthesizes sources into a summary that has a thesis or statement of purpose—stated or implied—at its core.

How do I write a literature review?

Step 1: define your research scope.

  • What is the specific research question that your literature review helps to define?
  • Are there a maximum or minimum number of sources that your review should include?

Ask us if you have questions about refining your topic, search methods, writing tips, or citation management.

Step 2: Identify the literature

Start by searching broadly. Literature for your review will typically be acquired through scholarly books, journal articles, and/or dissertations. Develop an understanding of what is out there, what terms are accurate and helpful, etc., and keep track of all of it with citation management tools . If you need help figuring out key terms and where to search, ask us .

Use citation searching to track how scholars interact with, and build upon, previous research:

  • Mine the references cited section of each relevant source for additional key sources
  • Use Google Scholar or Scopus to find other sources that have cited a particular work

Step 3: Critically analyze the literature

Key to your literature review is a critical analysis of the literature collected around your topic. The analysis will explore relationships, major themes, and any critical gaps in the research expressed in the work. Read and summarize each source with an eye toward analyzing authority, currency, coverage, methodology, and relationship to other works. The University of Toronto's Writing Center provides a comprehensive list of questions you can use to analyze your sources.

Step 4: Categorize your resources

Divide the available resources that pertain to your research into categories reflecting their roles in addressing your research question. Possible ways to categorize resources include organization by:

  • methodology
  • theoretical/philosophical approach

Regardless of the division, each category should be accompanied by thorough discussions and explanations of strengths and weaknesses, value to the overall survey, and comparisons with similar sources. You may have enough resources when:

  • You've used multiple databases and other resources (web portals, repositories, etc.) to get a variety of perspectives on the research topic.
  • The same citations are showing up in a variety of databases.

Additional resources

Undergraduate student resources.

  • Literature Review Handout (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  • Learn how to write a review of literature (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Graduate student and faculty resources

  • Information Research Strategies (University of Arizona)
  • Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students (NC State University)
  • Oliver, P. (2012). Succeeding with Your Literature Review: A Handbook for Students [ebook]
  • Machi, L. A. & McEvoy, B. T. (2016). The Literature Review: Six Steps to Success

Graustein, J. S. (2012). How to Write an Exceptional Thesis or Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Guide from Proposal to Successful Defense [ebook]

Thomas, R. M. & Brubaker, D. L. (2008). Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing

  • UWF Libraries

Literature Review: Conducting & Writing

  • Steps for Conducting a Lit Review

1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.

2. decide on the scope of your review., 3. select the databases you will use to conduct your searches., 4. conduct your searches and find the literature. keep track of your searches, 5. review the literature..

  • Finding "The Literature"
  • Organizing/Writing
  • Chicago: Notes Bibliography
  • Sample Literature Reviews


Conducting a literature review is usually recursive, meaning that somewhere along the way, you'll find yourself repeating steps out-of-order.

That is actually a good sign.  

Reviewing the research should lead to more research questions and those questions will likely lead you to either revise your initial research question or go back and find more literature related to a more specific aspect of your research question.

Your literature review should be guided by a central research question.  Remember, it is not a collection of loosely related studies in a field but instead represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, interpreted and analyzed by you in a synthesized way.

  • Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow.  Is it manageable?
  • Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.
  • If you have the opportunity, discuss your topic with your professor.

How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover? 

Tip: This may depend on your assignment.  How many sources does the assignment require?

Make a list of the databases you will search.  Remember to include comprehensive databases such as WorldCat and Dissertations & Theses, if you need to.

Where to find databases:

  • Find Databases by Subject UWF Databases categorized by discipline
  • Find Databases via Research Guides Librarians create research guides for all of the disciplines on campus! Take advantage of their expertise and see what discipline-specific search strategies they recommend!
  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.
  • Write down the searches you conduct in each database so that you may duplicate them if you need to later (or avoid dead-end searches   that you'd forgotten you'd already tried).
  • Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.
  • Ask your professor or a scholar in the field if you are missing any key works in the field.
  • Use RefWorks to keep track of your research citations. See the RefWorks Tutorial if you need help.

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions. Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited?; if so, how has it been analyzed?


  • Again, review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.
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  • Last Updated: Aug 24, 2023 9:59 AM
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Conducting a Literature Review

  • Literature Review
  • Developing a Topic
  • Planning Your Literature Review
  • Developing a Search Strategy
  • Managing Citations
  • Critical Appraisal Tools
  • Writing a Literature Review

What is a Literature Review

A literature review is a  systematic review of the published literature on a specific topic or research question designed to analyze-- not just summarize-- scholarly writings that are related directly to your research question .  That is, it represents the literature that provides background information on your topic and shows a correspondence between those writings and your research question.  This guide is designed to be a general resource for those completing a literature review in their field. 

Why a Literature Review is Important

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Helps focus your own research questions or problems
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
  • Suggests unexplored ideas or populations
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Tests assumptions; may help counter preconceived ideas and remove unconscious bias.
  • Identifies critical gaps, points of disagreement, or potentially flawed methodology or theoretical approaches.
  • Indicates potential directions for future research.

A Literature Review Must:

A literature review must do these things

  • be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you are developing
  • synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known
  • identify areas of controversy in the literature
  • formulate questions that need further research

A Literature Review is NOT

Keep in mind that a literature review defines and sets the stage for your later research.  While you may take the same steps in researching your literature review, your literature review is NOT:

  • Not an annotated bibliography i n which you summarize each article that you have reviewed.  A lit review goes beyond basic summarizing to focus on the critical analysis of the reviewed works and their relationship to your research question.
  • Not a research paper  where you select resources to support one side of an issue versus another.  A lit review should explain and consider all sides of an argument in order to avoid bias, and areas of agreement and disagreement should be highlighted.

Types of Literature Reviews

D ifferent projects involve different  kinds  of literature reviews with different  kinds  and  amounts  of work. And, of course, the "end products" vary.

  • Honors paper
  • Capstone project
  • Research Study
  • Senior thesis
  • Masters thesis
  • Doctoral dissertation
  • Research article
  • Grant proposal
  • Evidence based practice

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Conducting a Literature Review

  • Getting Started
  • Developing a Question
  • Searching the Literature
  • Identifying Peer-Reviewed Resources
  • Managing Results
  • Analyzing the Literature
  • Writing the Review

What is a Literature Review?

Conducting a literature review is the process of assessing the current state of research and knowledge on a particular topic or research question. You may conduct a literature review to provide background on your current research and include it as an introduction to your paper, or it may be a formal and systematic method used to understand gaps in the literature and/or synthesize current knowledge on a topic.

Some of these formal literature reviews take the form of:

  • Scoping Reviews:  Scoping reviews are a type of evidence synthesis that aims to systematically identify and map the breadth of evidence available on a particular topic, field, concept, or issue, often irrespective of source (ie, primary research, reviews, non-empirical evidence) within or across particular contexts. Scoping reviews can clarify key concepts/definitions in the literature and identify key characteristics or factors related to a concept, including those related to methodological research. (Munn, 2022)
  • Systematic Review:  A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a specific research question. (Cochrane)
  • Meta Analysis:  Meta-analysis is a quantitative, formal, epidemiological study design used to systematically assess previous research studies to derive conclusions about that body of research. Outcomes from a meta-analysis may include a more precise estimate of the effect of treatment or risk factor for disease, or other outcomes, than any individual study contributing to the pooled analysis. (Haidich, 2010)

Steps in a Literature Review:

  • Develop a question
  • Search the literature
  • Analyze the literature
  • Write the review


About Cochrane Reviews. (n.d.). Cochrane Library. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from

Haidich A. B. (2010). Meta-analysis in medical research. Hippokratia, 14 (Suppl 1), 29–37.

Munn, Pollock, D., Khalil, H., Alexander, L., Mclnerney, P., Godfrey, C. M., Peters, M., & Tricco, A. C. (2022). What are scoping reviews? Providing a formal definition of scoping reviews as a type of evidence synthesis. JBI Evidence Synthesis, 20 (4), 950–952.  

TIP : Set up a research consultation appointment at the library for assistance with a literature review. Just fill out and submit the Book A Librarian form:

  • Book a Librarian Book an appointment with a librarian for additional assistance with your research.

Why Conduct a Literature Review?

There are many reasons to conduct a literature review:

  • To provide a theoretical framework for a given topic
  • To define terms and variables for an area of research
  • To provide an overview and synthesis of current evidence
  • To demonstrate a gap in the literature
  • To identify methodologies and research techniques for a research area

Baker, J.D. (2016). The purpose, process, and methods of writing a literature review. AORN, 103 (3), 265-269. doi: 10.1016/j.aorn.2016.01.016

Books on Reviews

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Meta Analysis

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Literature reviews

  • Introduction

Why write a literature review?

What is a literature review, how do i get started, searching for sources.

  • Undertaking your literature review
  • Developing your literature review
  • Writing systematic reviews

Useful links for literature reviews

  • Study Advice Helping students to achieve study success with guides, video tutorials, seminars and one-to-one advice sessions.

conducting your literature review

  • Doing your literature review (video) Watch this brief video tutorial for more on the topic.
  • Doing your literature review (transcript) Read along while watching the video tutorial.
  • Literature searching guide A guide to finding articles, books and other materials on your subject
  • Doing your literature search video - University of Reading Brief video on literature searching from our Academic Liaison Librarians.
  • Royal Literary Fund: Writing a Literature Review A guide to writing literature reviews from the Royal Literary Fund
  • What it means to be a critical student A brief and very useful video tutorial from the University of Leicester.
  • Reading and notemaking LibGuide Expert guidance on managing your reading and making effective notes.
  • Dissertations and major projects LibGuide Expert guidance on planning, researching and writing dissertations and major projects.

Before getting started on sourcing and reviewing the background literature for a research project, it is important to understand the role that a literature review plays in the research process, and how it can be helpful later on for placing your own findings in context. Knowing the job that a literature review does means you can be more targeted and systematic in your literature searching. The guidance on this page will explain what you need to know about the purpose of a literature review and how to begin scoping your search.  

New discoveries don't materialise out of nowhere; they build upon the findings of previous experiments and investigations. A literature review shows how the investigation you are conducting fits with what has gone before and puts it into context.

If you are doing a thesis, dissertation, or a long report it is likely that you will need to include a literature review. If you are doing a lab write-up or a shorter report, some background reading may be required to give context to your work, but this is usually included as an analysis in the introduction and discussion sections.

A literature review is a select analysis of existing research which is relevant to your topic, showing how it relates to your investigation. It explains and justifies how your investigation may help answer some of the questions or gaps in this area of research.

A literature review is not a straightforward summary of everything you have read on the topic and it is not a chronological description of what was discovered in your field.

A longer literature review may  have headings  to help group the relevant research into themes or topics. This gives a focus to your analysis, as you can group similar studies together and compare and contrast their approaches, any weaknesses or strengths in their methods, and their findings.

One common way to approach a literature review is to  start out broad and then become more specific . Think of it as an inverted triangle:

conducting your literature review

  • First briefly explain the broad issues related to your investigation; you don't need to write much about this, just demonstrate that you are aware of the breadth of your subject.
  • Then narrow your focus to deal with the studies that overlap with your research.
  • Finally, hone in on any research which is directly related to your specific investigation. Proportionally you spend most time discussing those studies which have most direct relevance to your research.

conducting your literature review

  • What research has already been done on this topic?
  • What are the sub-areas of the topic you need to explore?
  • What other research (perhaps not directly on the topic) might be relevant to your investigation?
  • How do these sub-topics and other research overlap with your investigation?

Note down all your initial thoughts on the topic. You can use a spidergram or list to help you identify the areas you want to investigate further. It is important to do this before you start reading so that you don't waste time on unfocussed and irrelevant reading.

It's easy to think that the best way to search for texts is to use the Internet - to 'Google it'. There are useful online tools that you may use, like Google Scholar. However, for most literature reviews you will need to focus on academically authoritative texts like academic books, journals, research reports, government publications. Searching Google will give you thousands of hits, few of them authoritative, and you will waste time sorting through them.

A better idea is to use databases. These are available through the Library in paper and electronic (usually online) forms.

Use journal articles: They normally have the most up-to-date research and you will be expected to refer to them in your literature review. The Library has a guide on finding journal articles. 

The Library also has an Academic Liaison Librarian for each subject and guides to finding information in your subject. 

You may find review articles that survey developments in your field. These are very useful for identifying relevant sources - but do go back to the original texts and develop your own critical analysis if possible.

Another good way to find sources is to look at the reference lists in articles or books already identified as relevant to your topic. You will be expected to prioritise recent research, but it's also important to acknowledge the standard texts in your field. An easy way to identify these is to check reference lists to see which texts are frequently cited.

  • Guide to searching databases Guide from the Library to help you make the most of your database searches.
  • Finding journal articles A guide from the Library about how to find articles for your research.
  • Contact your Academic Liaison Librarian
  • Subject guides Guides to specialist resources in subjects studied at the University.
  • Keeping up-to-date (Library) Library guide to keeping up to date with new publications in your subject.
  • Doing your literature search - University of Reading Short video tutorial on literature searching from the Library.
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  • Last Updated: Aug 22, 2023 4:51 PM
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