Research: Conducting a literature review

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A literature review is both a process and a text.  It is a process of searching, reading, thinking and writing about the academic literature, which will inform and enable you to craft a well-written text (a text that establishes the intellectual geography of your research topic and locates, elucidates and justifies your research question).  A literature review is also a circular exercise – your reading will help shape and direct your ideas and research, and the latest version of your work will help inform what you look for in the literature.

A comprehensive literature review enables you to: scope the work that has already been done on your topic; establish the most important papers on your subject; identify current directions and the latest thinking; compile a list of authors working in the field; establish which journals are publishing content of the most relevance; and more.

A literature review may involve identifying the primary resources that support your research (surveys, interviews, data-sets, etc.), as well as secondary resources (those works which report, analyze and comment upon research such as articles and textbooks).  For some disciplines, systematic reviews are also important, summarising and appraising the results of multiple research studies.

Developing effective search skills is a key part of undertaking a literature review.  This involves turning a research question in to a search statement (keywords, synonyms, truncation, Boolean operators, parentheses, combining search sets, etc.); identifying the range of resources in which to search (abstracting and indexing services, reports, theses, datasets, full-text resources, the open web, etc.); employing appropriate search strategies (keyword searching, citation searching, related records, etc.); and then manipulating results sets and exporting records.

Your subject librarian can help you identify the most useful search tools and resources for your thesis, and provide further training on search skills.