Conducting a Literature Review

This guide is designed as a starting point for graduate students conducting literature reviews for their thesis, dissertation, or grant proposal.

Definition:

A literature review is an assessment of a body of research that addresses a research question. It aims to review the critical points of current knowledge, as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic.

Purpose of a Literature Review:

  • is a building block for your thesis or dissertation
  • is an account of the major, peer-reviewed works published about your narrow topic

Process:

  • Framing a research question
  • Searching relevant bodies of literature
  • Managing search results
  • Synthesizing the research literature
  • Writing an assessment of the literature

This process is iterative. As you gain an understanding of your research topic, you will return to earlier steps to rethink, refine and rework your literature review.

Literature Review Definitions

Below are definitions from: Booth, A. Papaioannou, D., and Sutton, A. (2016) Systematic approaches to a successful literature review. London: SAGE Publications, Ltd.

  • Mapping Review: "A rapid search of the literature aiming to give a broad overview of the characteristics of a topic area. Mapping of existing research, identification of gaps, and a summary assessment of the quantity and quality of the available evidence helps to decide future areas for research for systematic reviews." p. 264
  • Mixed Method Review: "A literature review that seeks to bring together data from quantitative and qualitative studies integrating them in a way that facilitates subsequent analysis." p. 265
  • Meta-analysis Review: "is a qualitative literature review method used widely as an alternative approach to the narrative literature review. It uses a set of statistical procedures to integrate, summarize or organize a set of reported statistical findings of studies that investigate the same research questions using the same methods of measurement. Many reviewers endorse it as a practical and systematic way of drawing review conclusions." p. 153
  • Narrative Review: "The term used to describe a conventional overview of the literature, particularly when contrasted with a systematic review." p. 265
  • Qualitative Synthesis Review: "a review that attempts to synthesize and analyze findings from primary qualitative research studies." p. 267
  • Systematic Review: "a review of a clearly formulated question that uses systematic and explicit methods to identify, select and critically appraise relevant research and to collect and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review." p. 271
  • Scoping Review: "A type of review that has as its primary objective the identification of the size and quality of research in a topic area in order to inform the subsequent review." p. 269

See also a table of main review types characterized by methods used in:  Grant, M.J. & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of the 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal 26(2), 91-108. doi/10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

Finding examples of Literature Reviews

  • Doing a literature review for a thesis or dissertation is a standard practice in academia. Completed literature reviews can be found in your discipline by examining the text of completed theses or dissertations.
  • Do a keyword search in CURVE, Carleton University's institutional repository, for electronic theses and dissertations, or search Dissertation and Theses@Carleton Proquest database.
  • Search Dissertations and Theses Global for international theses.
  • Literature reviews can also be found by searching Omni and attaching the phrase "literature review" to your topic.

1. Choose a topic. Define 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.

Tips:

  • 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.

2. Decide on the scope of your review.

  • 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?

3. Select the databases you will use to conduct your searches.

Make a list of the databases you will search. 

4. Conduct your searches and find the literature. Keep track of your searches!

  • 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 have 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 a Citation manager such as Mendeley or Zotero to keep track of your research citations.  Need help? Book an appointment with the Citation Management team and learn how to use a citation manager.

5. Review the literature.

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?

Tips: 

  • Review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep notes so that you can track your thought processes during the research process.

Databases

‚ÄčNote: If the library does not have what you need, you can order material from other libraries through RACER but you need to register before you can start using it.

Searching for Books

  • Search Omni using subject headings or keywords in the Advanced Search. Consult Omni Search Tips for help with searching.
    • Library of Congress Subject Headings are words and phrases assigned to articles, books, and other items that describe the subject content. To ensure the comprehensiveness of your literature review, you should be identifying the subject headings associated with your research. Read more on Subject Headings.
  • Research by Carleton faculty, staff and students is found in our institutional repository, CURVE.

Grey Literature and Government information

Qualitative Analysis Tool

Content last updated: September 24, 2020