SMHS Literature Review

Learn to write a systematic review of literature.

What database do I use?

Check out your subject area's Research Guide to find suggested databases for your area. 

Search Tip! 

Keep in mind that search is not a linear process -- you will need to test and revise as you go. Terms that seem good may not find good results, or your topic may be too broad or too narrow.

Selection Criteria

You may want to think about criteria that will be used to select articles for your literature review based on your research question.  These are commonly known as inclusion criteria and exclusion criteria.  Be aware that you may introduce bias into the final review if these are not used thoughtfully.

Inclusion Criteria

Inclusion criteria are the elements of an article that must be present in order for it to be eligible for inclusion in a literature review.  Some examples are:

  • Included studies must have compared certain treatments

  • Included studies must be experimental

  • Included studies must have been published in the last 5 years

Choosing your search terms

Before starting your database search, think about terms that can be used to describe the key concepts in your research question. Start your search with terms that you think make sense. When you find citations that are highly relevant to your research, take a closer look at those records. Examine those records for two types of terms that you can use in your search: subject headings and keywords.

  • Subject Heading: A single, assigned term that stands for a concept. For example, in PubMed, any paper that discussesacetylsalicylic acid would be assigned the Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) term aspirin. A search for the MeSH term Aspirin in PubMed should find papers written about aspirin whether or not the word actually appears in the title or abstract.
  • Keyword: Term used for a concept in everyday language. For example, if you need to find articles written about bedpans, the Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) term Toilet Facilities in PubMed may be too broad. Just searching for bedpan OR bedpans by typing this directly into the search box might work better.

Subject headings and keywords have different advantages and disadvantages. Keywords can retrieve new articles that do not yet have subject headings assigned to them. You can also use keywords to capture alternative spellings. Subject headings, however, will help you find highly relevant articles, and may mitigate the need to search for synonyms.

When you conduct your search, consider whether it makes sense to use keywords, subject headings, or both.

Exclusion Criteria

Exclusion criteria are the elements of an article that disqualify the study from inclusion in a literature review.  Some examples are:

  • Study used an observational design

  • Study used a qualitative methodology

  • Study was published more than 5 years ago

  • Study was published in a language other than English

Reviewing results

  • FIRST, browse the text quickly. Skim and scan results by reading titles, abstracts, methodologies and review references or bibliographies. The introduction or conclusion often give a gist of the thesis and main points. Still, often a researcher must read much or all of a work, especially if it is of an authoritative or technical nature.
  • Once you have found books or articles that you feel relate to your topic, then do a "Citation Chase" or "mine your resources."
    • Find sources from the reference papers that relate to your topic
    • Do this by looking at the articles' or books' bibliographies or reference pages
    • Want to know which Journals cover your subject area? Use Ulrich's Periodical Directory to find the titles of Journals that cover your topic. Then enter the journal title in the Journal Search box on the library homepage to see if we have access to that specific journal. 
  • Begin with most recent studies and work backwards. A recent article’s list of references or bibliography might provide you with valuable works to consult.
  • Avoid "grandfather" citations. Return to original source.
  • Write all direct quotations precisely, word-for-word. Use quotation marks. Failure to put a direct text in quotes (or to credit the author) sets the stage for plagiarism.
  • Avoid copying too many direct quotations. Most of the review should be primarily in your own words with appropriate documentation of others’ ideas.
  • Do not stress just a single source or two. It is usually important in a literature review to provide evidence you consulted and used a wide range of resources.
  • For a contentious topic, present the opposing positions. Be objective. Do not overemphasize one side.