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How To Get Started On A Literature Review

Tips For Making The Process A Little Easier


If you are an undergraduate or graduate student, there is a good chance that you will be asked to conduct at least one literature review during your coursework. A literature review is a paper, or a part of a larger paper, that reviews the critical points of current knowledge on a particular topic. It includes substantive findings as well as theoretical and methodological contributions that others bring to the subject. Its ultimate goal is to bring the reader up to date with current literature on a topic and usually forms the basis for another goal, such as future research that needs to be done in the area or serves as part of a thesis or dissertation. A literature review should be unbiased and does not report any new or original work.

Starting the process of conducting and writing a literature can be overwhelming. Here I will provide you with a few tips on how to get started that will hopefully make the process a little less daunting.

1. Determine your topic. When choosing a topic to research, it helps to have a clear understanding of what it is you want to research before setting out on your literature search. If you have a very broad and general topic, your literature search is likely to be very lengthy and time consuming. For example, if your topic was simply “self-esteem among adolescents,” you will find hundreds of journal articles and it would be nearly impossible to read, comprehend, and summarize every one of them. If you refine the topic, however, to “adolescent self-esteem in relation to substance abuse,” you will narrow your search result significantly. It is also important not to be so narrow and specific to where you find fewer than a dozen or so related papers.

2. Conduct your search. One good place to start your literature search is online. Google Scholar is one resource that I think is a great place to start. Choose several key words that relate to your topic and do a search using each term separately and in combination with each other. For example, if I were search for articles related to my topic above (adolescent self-esteem in relation to substance abuse), I would conduct a search for each of these words/phrases: adolescent self-esteem drug use, adolescent self-esteem drugs, adolescent self-esteem smoking, adolescent self-esteem tobacco, adolescent self-esteem cigarettes, adolescent self-esteem cigars, adolescent self-esteem chewing tobacco, adolescent self-esteem alcohol use, adolescent self-esteem drinking, adolescent self-esteem cocaine, etc. As you start the process you will find that there are dozens of possible search terms for you to use, no matter what your topic is.

Some of the articles that you find will be available through Google Scholar or whichever search engine you choose. If the full article is not available via this route, your school library is a good place to turn. Most college or university libraries have access to most or all academic journals, many of which are available online. You will likely have to go through your school’s library website to access them. If you need help, contact someone at your school’s library for assistance.

In addition to Google Scholar, check your school’s library website for other online databases that you could use to search for journal articles. Also, using the reference list from articles that you gather is another great way to find articles.

3. Organize your results. Now that you have all of your journal articles, it is time to organize them in a way that works for you so that you don’t get overwhelmed when you sit down to write the literature review. If you have them all organized in some fashion, this will make writing a lot easier. What works for me personally is to organize my articles by category (one pile for articles related to drug use, one pile for those related to alcohol use, one pile for those related to smoking, etc.). Then, after I am done reading each article, I summarize that article in a table that can be used for quick reference during the writing process. Below is an example of such a table.

4. Begin writing. You should now be ready to begin writing the literature review. The guidelines for writing will likely be determined by your professor, mentor, or the journal you are submitting to if you are writing a manuscript for publication.

Example Of A Literature Grid

Author(s)Journal, YearSubject/KeywordsSampleMethodologyStatistical MethodMain FindingsFinding Relevant to My Research Question
Abernathy, Massad, and DwyerAdolescence, 1995Self-esteem, smoking6,530 students; 3 waves (6th grade at w1, 9th grade at w3)Longitudinal questionnaire, 3 wavesLogistic regressionAmong males, no association between smoking and self-esteem. Among females, low self-esteem in grade 6 led to greater risk of smoking in grade 9.Shows that self-esteem is a predictor of smoking in adolescent girls.
Andrews and DuncanJournal of Behavioral Medicine, 1997Self-esteem, marijuana use435 adolescents 13-17 years oldQuestionnaires, 12 year longitudinal study (Global Self-worth subscale)Generalized estimating equations (GEE)Self-esteem mediated the relationship between academic motivation and marijuana use.Shows that decreases in self-esteem associated with increases in marijuana use.

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