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Writing a Literature Review

Where do I start? A guide to writing a literature review.

Identifying Key Terms

Up to this point you have identified your topic and scope of the review. Next, begin identifying resources to use in the review.

Take a piece of paper and jot down any keywords that describe your topic. Use a thesaurus or reference tool to help generate the list, since both types of sources provide general information. These words act as great search terms when you begin researching in the library's databases. Having the correct keywords can open up your search results and return may helpful articles and sources. With the wrong keywords or non-descriptive ones, your searching will return shallow results and take longer to perform.

Defined: Types of Resources

Below is a brief list of different types of resouces. Clicking on the name will take you to a Wikipedia entry defining the term and describing what type of information you will find located within them-

Scholar vs. Trade vs. Popular

This comparison chart will help you identify which journals are appropriate to use when researching.







Informal; entertainment; secondary explanation of someone else's research; includes opinions.

Journalists; staff or freelance writers; sometimes articles go un-credited

General public; interested non-specialists.

People; TIME; The New Yorker; National Geographic


Presents practical information for professionals working in a particular industry; industry news, developments, and trends.

Staff writer or industry specialist

Professionals in the industry field.

American Libraries; PC World; Advertising Age


Reports on the findings of studies and research performed; methodologies; theories; scholarly book reviews.

Subject authorities, expert or specialist (PhD); articles usually peer-reviewed

Scholars, researchers, and students.

Journal of Marketing Research; American Economic Review; Journal of Abnormal Psychology


Search Methods

If you want to discover the best search results, try the following methods described below.

  • " " Quotation marks: Placing a search phrase in quotation marks allows you to search for that phrase rather than each individual word. The database/search engine will return hits that only include all the words within the quotation marks and in that specific order.

Give it a try! Go to your favorite database from the database page and perform the following two searches:

Search terms: biographies on african americans  (without quotation marks)
                        "biographies on african americans" (with quotation marks)
Notice the difference in results. Without quotation marks return many more results than with them.


  • Search by Fields: When searching in databases (EBSCOhost, CINAHL, PubMed, etc.), make sure to utilize the search fields. Often times you will notice a drop down box next to the search box. Here you can select specific fields to search in. If nothing is selected, database will search every field and return any resources that has your search term included in it. You can imagine how many resources are listed. Here are some of the most helpful fields to search it:


Abstract: Often author generated, these brief summaries provide the researcher with the article

Subject: This is a great place to use those key terms you wrote down. Many databases feature an internal thesaurus. It acts like a book index. Like the abstract, subject terms are often supplied by the author. If the author lists one of your search terms as a subject term, it is very likely that their article will be of use to you in your research.

Title: If your search terms appear in the title, it is likely the article will be useful.