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Conducting Literature Reviews

Contact the Madonna University Writing Center or look at the Writing Center's video presentation and handout on literature reviews if you need help writing your literature review!

Revised 3/21

 What is a Literature Review?

What is a Literature Review?

Literature reviews review the published literature on a particular topic. The purposes of a literature review are to:

  • Bring readers up-to-date on current research
  • Situate your research in the existing knowledge base
  • Summarize and synthesize the critical knowledge on the topic
  • Discuss gaps in the knowledge and show how your research addresses these gaps or contributes to debate about the topic

There are seven steps to producing a good literature review:

Literature Review Cycle Image

Image created by University of Sheffield

A literature review should show the reader:

  • You have in-depth knowledge of your topic.
  • You understand where your topic fits into the research and how it adds to existing knowledge.
 Types of Literature Reviews

There are many different types of literature reviews. Here are five of the most popular:

Narrative Literature Review

  • Critiques and summarizes body of literature,
  • Researched from relevant databases with selective materials.
  • Requires focused research question.
  • Gives comprehensive overview of topic and highligh significant areas of reserach.
  • Criteria for selection not always made open to reader.
  • Subject to bias that supports theses.

Systematic Literature Review

  • Overview of existing evidence pertinent to reserach question.
  • Focuses on very specific empirical questions (cause-and-effect form)
  • Uses pre-specified /standardized methods to identify/critically appraise reserach.
  • Rigorous and well-defined approach to searching.
  • Details time frame of selection and methods of evaluation/synthesis.

Example of Systematic Literature Review

Historical Literature Review

  • Focuses on examining research throughout period of time and tracing its evolution.
  • Places research in a historical context to show familiarity and identify likely future directions.

Methodological Literature Review

  • Focuses on methods of analysis in previous research.
  • Provides understanding of theory, research approaches, data collection, and analysis techniques.
  • Helps highlights ethical issues regarding conducting research.

Example of Methodological Literature Review

Theoretical Literature Review

  • Examines accumulated theories in regard to issues, concepts, or phenomena.
  • Establishes existing theories and relationships between theories; develops new hypotheses.
  • Reveals inadequacies of current theories and explains need for new/emerging research.

Example of Theoretical Literature Review

 Define Your Research Question and Review Discipline Examples

Define Your Research Question

Research questions are the beginning to all of your research processes. A research question provides focus to your searches and guides you in selecting the correct sources for your literature review. Either way, research questions:

  • Must be clear and concise in order to be effective.
  • Must be complex enough to require research and analysis
  • Must consider key themes and elements of the assigned topic.
  • Must be of interest to you - you want to learn more about the topic, not dread doing your research!

Choose a topic that is neither too broad nor too narrow so that you find too much or too little research on your topic.

  • Narrow down your research question by exploring the topic online or in books and then think about what issues you want to research in your literature review. 

Narrowing down topics like this is essential to creating an effective and complex research question:

                                   Research Topic Triangle

Miller, K. and Childs, T.

Look Up Discipline Examples

Literature reviews differ throughout the academic disciplines. Look at published journal articles to become familiar with how literature reviews are presented in your discipline.

Also look for literature reviews in our databases by using the search term "literature review."

 Search the Literature

How do I Begin Searching for My Literature?

Before you being writing your literature review you must find articles related to your research question. Here are some effective tips for creating a search strategy to find articles in our Library Databases:

  • Create a list of keywords, key concepts, variables, synonyms, and terms related to your research question.
  • Use Boolean operators like AND, OR, and NOT to make your search more precise
    • AND = search for all of the words together.
    • OR = search for any of the words in the search box. 
      • This is useful for synonym searching (e.g. "social isolation" OR "social exclusion" OR loneliness).
    • NOT = not to search for the terms that follow it.
  • Watch this YouTube Video to help you learn how to turn your question into a search strategy!
  • Watch the general database searching tutorials on our Databases page!
  • Use the Databases page on our website to find relevant databases to your subject.
    • You need the Remote Access Password to access databases off campus. You can find this on the Students tab of your MyPortal.
  • Use your search strategy, keywords, and any "peer-reviewed" selection boxes to find relevant, scholarly articles for your topic.
  • Find other keywords by looking at the Subject are on the results page and searching for those Subject headings.
  • Write down what you have searched so that you can replicate your searches if needed.
  • You can also use the references in your articles to find other articles or use the "Cited by" function on Google Scholar to look for articles that have cited your article.
  • How to: Cited By searches in Google Scholar - Citation Searching -  LibGuides at University of Toledo Libraries
 Manage and Evaluate Your References

What Does Managing and Evaluating My References Mean?

To manage and evaluate your references, you must look at their relevancy and content. First, review the abstracts of your article to see if they are relevant.

Read your articles and ask yourself these questions:

  • What question/problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concpts?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods shown? Does the author take an innovative approach to the topic?
  • What are the results and conclusions?
  • How does the study relate to other studies in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • Are there inconsistencies or controversies within the research?
  • How does the publication contribute to your own understanding of the topic?

 Take notes, cite sources, and look for similar authors/topics.

 Synthesize the Information

Tips for Synthesizing Your Information!

  • Watch this video to understand the key concepts of synthesizing your articles for your literature review.
  • Use a Synthesizing Matrix to group articles by like themes like this example at the University of Arizona Writing Center or the following example from Oswego State University of New York.

Synthesis Matrix

  • Analyze how and why information from different studies overlap.
  • Compare new knowledge with old knowledge for a unique perspective.
  • Organize readings by:
    • Different theoretical approaches
    • Specific concepts or issues
    • Different methodologies employed
  • If you need help with writing your literature review, contact the Madonna University Writing Center or look at the Writing Center's video presentation and handout on literature reviews.
 Nursing Literature Review Search Tips

Nursing-Specific Database Search Tips

CINAHL Complete

  • Use the CINAHL Subject Headings to find controlled vocabulary to more effectively search the database
    • Indexers add specific CINAHL subject headings to every article in the CINAHL database, so this method is more efficient in finding articles.
    • Click on the CINAHL Subject Headings link on the menu at the top of the database page and go to this Cascadia College page and follow the steps to find the right subject heading. Watch this video to learn more about CINAHL Subject Headings and MeSH.

              CINAHL Subject Heading - Link image

    • Click the peer-reviewed box to narrow down the results to those in peer-reviewed academic journals.
    • Narrow down the search results by age group (if needed) by scrolling down to the Age Groups box on the main search page and clicking on the correct age group.


  • Use MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) to find controlled vocabulary to more effectively search the database.
    • The National Library of Medicine’s controlled vocabulary thesaurus is assigned to describe the content of each article in the MEDLINE database.
    • Click on the Look up MeSH subjects link and type in the search terms to find the related MESH subjects.
    • Narrow down searches by age group (if needed) by scrolling down to the Age Group box on the main search page and clicking on the correct age group.


  • Watch this video to see how to use MeSH to search PubMed
  • Enter the first string of search terms (e.g. loneliness OR “Social isolation”) where it says Add terms to the query box and click the ADD button to the right of the search box.
    • Enter the second string of search terms (e.g. aged OR elderly OR “old age” OR senior) in the same box as the first string and click the AND button to the right of the search box to add it to the Query Box.
    • Narrow down search results by age group (if needed) by clicking on the Filters link on the results page and clicking on Additional Filters at the bottom of the Filters menu.
  • Not all articles on PubMed are full-text; those that have full-text usually have links out to the article that say “full-text article” or “free full text.”
    • Articles that have Free PMC article in the title and description contain free, full-text access to articles.

PubMed Free PMC Articles