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Literature reviews

Library resources to help you do a literature review.

What is a literature review?

A literature review examines, evaluates and critiques the literature on a topic.  In this context, ‘literature’ refers to academic sources of information such as books, book chapters, peer-reviewed journal articles, conference papers, theses and postgraduate dissertations.  Some subject areas will also require you to examine reports for a literature review, such as government reports.  You should check with your tutor what additional types of information sources you should consult.

A literature review is undertaken for different types of academic work and publications, for example:

  • The introduction to, or a specific section of, a dissertation or thesis. 
  • The introduction to a research journal article.
  • The entire content of a journal article, known as a review article.
  • An individual assignment where the sole focus of the assignment is a review of the literature.

Literature reviews written for an individual assignment or as an introduction to a journal article tend to be more selective in the literature reviewed.  Whereas literature reviews written as review articles or as part of a dissertation or thesis are more comprehensive in terms of reviewing the literature on that topic.

Literature reviews that are more comprehensive, require a structured approach to literature searching in order to provide a thorough overview of the research previously undertaken on the topic.

Don't forget to consult your assignment brief or unit handbook, or seek guidance form your tutor for the specific requirements of your literature review.

Why do a literature review?

The purpose of a literature review is to place your own research in the context of the wider research that has already been undertaken in that field or topic.  Undertaking a literature review is an essential part of the research process and it will help you to understand the topic and develop your own ideas in the area. When writing up your literature review you will be demonstrating your knowledge and understanding of that topic.

When examining the literature on a topic you will:

  • Build your knowledge
  • Identify trends, issues but also gaps in research
  • Identify theorists and the key authors of research on that topic
  • Identify and understand appropriate research methodologies in the field
  • Justify your research question/area and position it in the context of existing and current research

How do I undertake literature searching?

Planning your literature search.

The Library can assist you in locating the literature for your literature review.  For comprehensive literature reviews, such as when wrting a dissertation or thesis, it is important to have a structured approach to your literature searching.  This includes devising a plan for the search terms you will use and the resources (for example, journal databases) you will search.  It is also useful to record the searches you have undertaken so that you do not repeat the same searches at another time and so that you can be sure you have used all of the resources available to you.  However, first you may wish to scope the literature available to you.

First steps:

It may be useful to read published literature reviews on the topic.

  • Read literature review journal articles on the topic and related topics
    • Use Library Search and enter “literature review” as a search term along with broad search terms related to your topic.
    • Use journal databases and refine your search by document type to ‘review’ or ‘literature review’.

Search strategy

Once you have you have scoped the literature available to you and have an understanding of the broad subject area in which your topic sits, you are ready to undertake a more focused search, using search terms specific to your research area/question in order to produce a comprehensive literature review.  To do this you need to devise a search strategy.

Start by identifying the key concepts in your research question. 

Example research question:

A study of the impact of social media addiction on narcissistic behaviour and self-esteem among students.

Firstly, list the keywords in your research question, for example:

social media addiction narcissistic behaviour self-esteem students

The keywords will be used as search terms on appropriate resources.  Go to the Search terms tab to explore planning your search terms in more depth.

Search terms: keywords and alternative search terms

As part of the planning process, alternative search terms should be identified, along with the keywords in the research question/dissertation title.

Alternative search terms are search terms that are related to the keywords in the research question.  These can be synonyms, or words that are broader or narrower in scope/focus to the initial keywords.

For example:

  • 'Facebook' is narrower in focus than 'social media' but may be useful to include in a search.
  • 'University' is a broader in focus than 'student' but may be useful to include in a search.

Using our research question example, below is a list of alternative search terms for the initial keywords identified.

social media addiction narcissistic behaviour self-esteem students

social networking

Facebook

Instagram

Twitter

habit

dependence

overuse

abuse

attachment

obsession

self-centred

self-obsessed

self-absorbed

conceited

egotistical

egocentric

vanity

conduct

action

attitude

ways

confidence

self-respect

self-regard

self-assurance

 

undergraduates

scholars

college

university

higher education

 

Go to the 'Phrase searching', 'Truncation and wildcards' and 'Combining keywords' tabs above to learn about search techniques that will make your search more effective.

Phrase searching is one of the techniques that can be used to ensure your results are as relevant as possible.  It can be useful if the number of results retrieved is very high.  Simply place double quotation marks around keywords that are phrases, i.e. two or more words.  For example:

"social media"
"higher education"

However do not overuse phrase searching by placing double quotation marks around sentences, as you will narrow down your search too much and retrieve too few results.  This is an example where phrase searching is overused: "the impact of social media on narcissistic behaviour"

Truncation and wildcards are search techniques which make a search more effective and efficient.  Using truncation and wildcard symbols allow simultaneously searching for different spellings of a word and various word endings.

Truncation is most often used to simultaneously search for plurals and different but related word endings.  The truncation symbol is usually the asterisk * and it replaces one or more letters at the end of the search term entered. 

For example, truncating the search term addiction as below, will search for: addict addicts addicted and addiction

addict*

The Wildcard is most often used to search for different spellings of a word and is usually represented by the question mark ? or a hash sign # or sometimes the asterisk *.  The wildcard symbol replaces zero or one letter in the middle of a word. 

For example, placing the wildcard symbol in the correct position as below will search for the English and American spelling: behaviour and behavior.

behavio?r

NB: Truncation and wildcard symbols vary between databases, so check the help pages to establish which to use.

One of the most important aspects of a successful search is the search string.  This means the way in which you combine search terms and 'string' them together.  To successfully combine search terms together, use 'AND' and 'OR'.

Combine the different concepts together with AND.  For example:

"social media" AND addiction AND narcissistic

Combine alternative and related search terms together with OR.  For example:

"social media" OR Twitter OR Facebook

Most journal databases will have an advanced search page which provides a number of rows to enter search terms. Using the advanced search page will enable you to build a more complex search required for locating information for a literature review.

Below is an example search using some of the keywords identified from and related to the example research question.

 

Please note:

The number of rows you will use for your search string will depend on your research question and will usually be the same as the number of keywords or concepts identified.

You can also search within specific fields, such as the abstract of journal articles, as highlighted above.  This will reduce the number of results and make them more relevant.  If you do not select a particular field, your results will include articles where your search terms have appeared anywhere in the article.

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Databases

Manchester Met Library subscribes to a number of databases providing access to thousands of journal articles.  Some databases are subject specific and some are multidisciplinary covering many subject areas.

As a starting point, select appropriate databases listed on your Subject guide.  View the list of Subject guides to locate the appropriate one.

It can be useful to use a multidisciplinary database, particularly if your research question crosses disciplines.

Examples of multidisciplinary databases include:

Databases provide functions that search engines and Library Search do not have, such as 'saving a search' and 'setting up an email alert.' for new articles.

Further help

Books, ebooks and tools available at Manchester Met Library covering how to do a literature review and completing a dissertation.

Books and ebooks