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Literature Reviews

What is a literature review and how do I write one?

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a very specific type of academic project. It is not an annotated bibliography. It isn't a research paper. It isn't a comprehensive list of everything ever published on a certain topic. 


A literature review is a survey and analysis of the scholarly literature

about a subject area, issue, theory or research question. 


Literature reviews are not created to produce new insights. They are written to explore and explain the literature on the topic or issue. 

One of the most important functions of a literature review is to lay the groundwork, provide background and context, for a larger research project such as a Masters thesis or PhD dissertation. Literature reviews often come at the start of scholarly journal articles. In the social sciences and natural sciences, a literature review comprises a section of a scholarly journal article.

Professors in research methods courses often assign standalone literature reviews so that students develop skills in searching, analyzing and organizing scholarly literature in a particular field. 


1. Selecting a Topic & Scope

The first step in any literature review is to identify a topic or subject area you wish to explore, and then setting some parameters to find the scope of your review.


One of the best decisions you can make is to choose a topic you find interesting. This will make the process of reading and synthesizing scholarly literature much more enjoyable. 


You also need to make sure you select a subject area that has already been researched. It will not be possible to locate sufficient existing literature on a brand new discovery or current event that is being written about in the news right now. It needs to be a well-established research area with existing studies you can review, organize and analyze. Some professors require you to find a topic that has 'not been researched before'. In that case, they don't mean an entire broad topic that hasn't been researched; instead, you'll want to find a sliver of a broad topic that hasn't been researched before. This is where narrowing your topic and finding parameters becomes very important. You may need to do some background reading on several different topics to find one that works, if your professor is having you do a standalone literature review as part of a research methods course.

Ways of Narrowing a Broad topic

By population:

  • Age Range
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Sexual Identity
  • Religious beliefs
  • Immigrant status
  • Animal Species

By location:

  • Country (US or international)
  • Region
    • Southeast
    • Northeast
    • Pacific Northwest
    • Midwest
  • Urban vs Rural

By time period

  • Range of years
  • Specific Decade
  • Political administration timelines

For example:

Broad topic: ADHD treatments

Narrowed question: How can neurofeedback be used in threating elementary school-aged children?

Publication Dates

The scope of your review will be a part of refining your topic area or research question. In some disciplines, medicine and health science for example, the publication date of your sources may be extremely important. So, to avoid including outdated clinical recommendations, you may want to limit your review to only the most recent research out there. For other topics, say history or literature, publication date may not be as important - and scholarly research from 20, 30, even 50 years ago may still be relevant and useful today. So it's good idea to consider setting some date ranges for your search, it that is important to your topic.

Whatever your topic area turns out to be, framing the boundaries of your research question ahead of time will make searching and selecting appropriate articles that much easier. 

2. Identify Keywords to Use in Searching

Once you have defined a suitable topic or research question for your review, you will need to create a list of keywords that you will use to search for appropriate studies to include in your review. You will be doing searches through several different databases, Google scholar, or publisher platforms and the terminology used in each may vary. It is especially important to have a good variety of search terms that you can combine in different ways. This will ensure you gather the most relevant sources that cover your topic thoroughly. 

Remember to continue to gather and change your keywords as you read more about your topic!

To start, list synonyms and phrases that have to do with the main words of a research topic:

Example: Is neurofeedback useful in the treatment of ADHD in children?

neurofeedback ADHD children
neurotherapy attention deficit disorder young children
EEG biofeedback attention deficit hyperactivity adolescents
  disorder school aged children


Now, let's consider the word "useful" in this example topic. What is meant by "useful"? The word itself will not be helpful while searching. Instead, think about what might be useful in terms of treatment of a child with ADHD. Think about benefits and outcomes and brainstorm a list of words:

attention span
academic performance
school performance
behavioral effects or improvement
self regulation
test performance
task performance
clinical benefit


3. Finding Articles

Using Research Guides to find Subject Specific Databases

For more focused searching of the literature of just one discipline, head over to the Research Guides section of our website. We have Subject Guides for all disciplines represented at UTC. Find the subject guide that has most to do with your topic, for example, if you are writing about politics, you'd choose Political Science and Public Service guide. Writing about K-12 schools? Choose Education. Each Subject Guide was created by UTC Librarians and has links to a variety of resources that you have access to.

The databases listed are smaller, specialized search engines that mainly retrieve scholarly articles. You will usually find smaller sets of results for each search you do, but those results will be from a subset of very focused resources.

Subject specific databases are searchable by keywords just like Quick Search. An example is shown in the screenshot below of the APA PsycINFO database using the keywords "neurofeedback therapy" AND "ADHD in children":

APA PsycInfo Database Search:

Example of APA PsycINFO database search screen filled in with keywords "neurofeedback therapy" and "ADHD in Children"

Using the Quick Search

Quick Search is the main search box located in the center of the Library home page. It covers all formats within our collection (physical and electronic, books, films, articles and more).and all subject areas. It is an excellent tool for locating and accessing scholarly content using keyword searches. Below is an example of how to enter your keywords for an effective search, for our sample topic we typed the words "neurofeedback ADHD children behavior problems":

An example of the library's Quick search box using keywords: neurofeedback ADHD children behavior issues for keywords

Quick Search has filters to narrow to just peer reviewed if you'd like, or you can narrow to a specific format like articles, books, or ebooks. You can also narrow by date. Look for the filters on the left sidebar after you run a search. 

As you browse results. you will notice links below each article that allow you to read the full text on the publisher website. If you decide you would like to use the article in your lit review, download the entire PDF to your device for later use. 

Example search result from library's Quick Search. Highlights finding the PDF full text link.

Using Google Scholar

Click the Databases button (just below the Quick Search box on library's homepage) and look for Google Scholar under Multisubject Databases. Using Google Scholar through the UTC Library links our library subscriptions to your Google Scholar search results- which allows you to see articles with no paywalls if we have access! 

Google Scholar search results example, highlighting the Get it @UTC button that comes up on the right of the search results. If you see Get it @UTC, use that button to get full access to the article.

4. Reading, Note-taking, and Organization

1. Review the How to Read a Scholarly Article guide

  • Learn about common sections in science and social science articles
  • Strategies and tips for reading start by reading the entire Abstract, and feel free to jump down to Discussion to decide if an article should be included in your paper

2. Save yourself time with good note-taking

As you read each study, take notes about the most important findings, key concepts, debates or areas of controversy and common themes you see. These notes will inform how you approach organizing and writing your literature review.

To keep organized, UTC Librarians recommend using a literature review matrix, or spreadsheet, to keep track of the articles you find as you go.  Add columns for the citation (including the URL of the article), and once you read it, track the authors' research question, methods, findings and themes. Importantly, keep track of notes and quotes as you go, and the page numbers you got them from. You will see themes or facts emerge as you read more and more articles. 

Here's an example Literature Review Matrix for you to view. Download a sample matrix as an Excel file and edit with your own sources.

3. Some ideas on how to compile an outline for your review:

After reading and taking notes on the sources you are including in your literature review, you will probably be able to identify common themes or threads that appear throughout. These recurring threads or themes can be very useful in creating a narrative framework for your review to make it easier for your readers to understand what literature exists, what has been learned, and why it is significant. Using our example of Neurofeedback Therapy for Children with ADHD, we might decide to organize our results something like this:

History of neurofeedback therapy, neurofeedback alone for ADHD, Neurofeedback and mediation intervention for ADHD, positive outcomes and prospects for future research

Other questions you might ask yourself as you decide how to outline your literature review: 

  • What are the major claims being made about the topic? (There may be several)
  • What significant data exists to support / explain the claims?
  • Are there connections between the claims / concepts / evidence?
  • Are there controversies in the literature? 
  • Are there knowledge gaps that have yet to be explored? 

5. Citation Management

For smaller literature review projects, simply keeping a list of your references in Word or Google Docs is probably fine. But for longer projects, or those that are going to form the basis for a thesis or dissertation, many students choose to use citation management software to keep track of, organize, and format their references. The UTC Library supports two main citation management options: Zotero and EndNote. 


Zotero is an open source tool provided by Google. It works well with Chrome and Google Docs and has a really nice, easy to use Chrome extension that allows you to seamlessly add references and full text PDFs to your reference "library" as you do your research. The Library has a guide page that walks you through the basics of downloading, configuring and using Zotero. Visit the link below to get started. 

Zotero Guide Page


EndNote is a very powerful software package with lots of advanced features. It is produced by a commercial publisher and the Library pays a subscription fee to offer it to our students and faculty. It comes in two versions: desktop and cloud-based. (The two versions work together to provide seamless access and redundancy no matter where you are). EndNote can be very labor intensive to configure and use at the beginning, but it offers hundreds of citation styles (most major journals, academic associations and scholarly publishers) and works very well for longer, more complex projects with many references and citations. It integrates really well with Microsoft Word but does not work as well with Google Docs. The Library has basic information on its website about how to download and set up EndNote, but in order to learn it effectively, a workshop or librarian consultation is usually required. Our EndNote information is found a the link below:

EndNote Help Page


Writing Assistance for Literature Reviews

The UTC Library is home to a full-service Writing and Communication Center with tutors available to assist you with writing projects at any stage - from outline, to draft, to final manuscript. The WCC has it's own section of the UTC Library website. Check out the link below to learn more about the services they offer and how to go about scheduling an appointment.

UTC Writing and Communication Center


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