Tips for Conquering the Literature Review from the Beginning

The literature review process can be one of the most stressful aspects of the dissertation, often because it comes so early in the writing process. This single chapter of your dissertation represents all of the background research you’ve done on your topic, the long history of academic work that has been completed on your area of specialty, as well as what you are going to do with that wealth of information.

This guide offers a handy overview of how to begin tackling your literature review. Here, we take you from understanding the term itself through the note taking process.

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review or “lit review” serves a number of purposes. While one of those is to demonstrate all of the homework that you’ve done on your topic, the lit review is more than simply a series of article and book summaries. Your main job is to tie the various articles that you’ve read together to create a cohesive narrative and demonstrate the reasoning behind your particular study. The lit review generally provides the theoretical and methodological framework for your future research and demonstrates how previous studies relate to your work.

In short, the literature review is the justification you are providing for the study you’re going to do and how you are going to do it, which requires a lot of research! To get you started on this process, we’ve provided a number of steps that will assist you with locating and selecting sources for your lit review.

Finding Databases

Most universities have subject guides for various topics on their library websites, for example NYU Abu Dabi Library’s select databases for the social sciences. Once you click on your field, most websites will provide the names of research librarians who specialize in your area, resources for locating primary sources online, and a list of subject-specific research databases. If you have any additional trouble, you can also contact a librarian at your own school—such a practice is often incredibly useful since librarians are experts at helping you to pull together sources for your specific research.

One of the more general databases that has become quite impressive in recent years is the open-access Google Scholar. What makes this database work even more effectively, however, is tying it to your university library account or accessing it via your university’s virtual private network (VPN). By making this connection, you can not only view the sources that exist but, often, you can access the full text of the source as well. Remember, however, that not all of the sources listed by Google Scholar are peer reviewed.

During the course of your research, you are likely going to use a broad array of databases and many different combinations of search terms. One process for this search is to begin with more general databases and keywords and progressively move toward searches and databases that are more specific to your particular topic.

Choosing Keywords

Now that you’ve found some databases to work with, it’s time to plug in the first set of keywords. Chances are pretty good that you will end up with hundreds of articles, which is a lot of literature to wade through. So, where to begin?

Well, first, if you end up with thousands of sources, you should immediately consider refining your search terms. If I’m doing research for a study considering the relationship between watching cat videos and job satisfaction, for example, and I just type “cat videos job satisfaction” in Google Scholar, I end up with almost 25,000 hits—too much to sort through. If, however, I utilize quotation marks between terms, typing “‘cat videos’ ‘job satisfaction,’” I end up with 13 relevant results.

Similarly, you may want to exclude certain phrases or terms from your search. If I’m doing a study on the architectural feasibility of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, for example, I might initially search, “Oz ‘Emerald City,’” producing about 8,000 results. Knowing, however, that there is an HBO prison drama called OZ in which there is also an Emerald City, I’d likely want to limit my search by instead searching, “Oz ‘Emerald City’ -HBO –TV,” producing instead 1,600 more relevant results.

For a list of other tips to help you limit your search in most academic databases, visit For tips specific to Google Scholar, visit

Choosing Sources to Peruse

Once you’ve found a list of sources, you will to need to look through them to decide which ones are relevant, scholarly, and trustworthy. Remember to think about the elements that are essential to your particular field. If you are working in the field of journalism, for example, newspaper articles will be far more of an acceptable source than they would be for, say, nuclear physicists.

We recommend that you begin the process of choosing your sources by considering the following elements, which you can generally view without needing full text access:

  1. The article title—is this document going to be relevant to your research? Is it related to your topic?
  2. Where was the document published? Was it peer reviewed?
  3. The date of publication–is there more recent scholarship? Is the information potentially outdated?
  4. Who wrote the article? Are they considered leaders in your field? Have you heard of them? Is their affiliated institution considered reputable?
  5. For books—is there a newer edition with revisions? Who is the publisher? If it is a university press, it is likely to be scholarly, but otherwise, you may want to check the publisher’s website.

Once you’ve decided that you’d like to peruse an article further, you will want to import the reference into a RefWorks account, download the PDF, or print the document, depending on your own scholarly practice.

Analyzing and Perusing Sources

After you’ve located sources that look useful and trustworthy, you’ll need to do a deeper overview of their content. Generally, rather than plunging into reading the whole article, you’ll start by reading the abstract, the introduction, the first few paragraphs, headings or subheadings, and/or the conclusion. If, after this secondary test, an article seems relevant to your needs, you’ll proceed to read it in its entirety.

Make sure to take notes between articles in a manner that is consistent and well documented. It is often useful to further group your various sources into subcategories, which can be arranged via RefWorks, with notecards, or using a variety of other techniques. There are numerous aspects of the work to consider, but pay particular attention to how each article relates to your intended study. In what ways would your research differ from that of these authors? What techniques do you find useful? Are there any new terms that you learned from the text?

You will be differentiating yourself from and drawing upon these sources, so you’ll want to take concise but significant notes.

We hope that this guide has been a helpful source for you as you begin the process of writing a lit review. Remember, keep track of your sources, and don’t forget to add them to your reference page!


Keep Writing,
Katrina Oko-Odoi
Founder & Chief Editor

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