Conducting a literature review is one of the most important steps of the scientific process. A good literature review will “analyze, evaluate, and creatively synthesize” published work (Froese, Gantz, & Henry, 1998). A literature review may stand alone as a published article, or it may appear in shorter form in the introduction section of a research article (Kazdin, 2003). Literature reviews may help answer the following questions: Why is your work important? How is your work new? What are the current questions in the field? What are the gaps in what we know? Despite all of the advantages of conducting a great literature review, few people receive formal training on how a literature review should be conducted (Froese, Gantz, & Henry, 1998). This article is a step-by-step guide to finding the articles you will need for an excellent literature review.
Step One: Define Your Interests
In the very beginning, find articles that spark your curiosity in a particular research area. The best way to find these articles is to talk to your professors, examine articles cited in textbooks, or start reading journals that focus on your area of interest. As you read, you are likely to come across the names of leading experts in the field. Searching for articles by these experts will help lead you towards respected articles in the field.
As you read, also begin to define the topic of your literature review. Choose a topic that will synthesize information in the field. Froese, Gantz, and Henry (1998) caution that a common “beginner’s” mistake is choosing a single construct of interest (e.g., depression, body image), rather than thinking about relationships between several constructs and the variables that may link them (e.g., how depression may influence body image). Synthesizing information will make your literature review a valuable contribution to the field.
Step Two: Take Note of Available Research Tools
Now that you have defined your area of interest, you must also determine what research tools are available to you. Begin by consulting with your school librarian. Your librarian will help identify the databases available at your school and the best search engines for your particular area of interest. Your librarian may also be able to provide technical assistance on how to use selected engines and other methods for conducting your literature review.
While conducting a literature review, use all of the search engines to which you have access. Schools subscribe to different search engines in order for their students to have access to academic databases. PsycINFO®, one of APA’s databases, contains over 2.5 million records and is updated on a weekly basis (APA, 2008). It is considered one of the leading databases in the field of psychology, and it is probably the one with which you are most familiar. However, other databases, such as PubMed, are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in health-related, biological and medical research. Recently, researchers have begun to use public sites, such as Google™ Scholar, because of their user-friendly interface and searching abilities. While these public sites are becoming popular and can be a great tool to augment a literature review, it is also important to utilize search engines most familiar to psychological researchers. Become familiar with several of these search engines, and experiment to find which search engine you are most comfortable using. After you find a favorite search engine, be sure to also use other search engines in order to obtain a less biased search for your articles.
Step Three: Cast a Wide Net
Now that you have determined what tools are available, use these tools to “cast a wide net” in your search for articles. It is important that you not only search for articles that may “fit” theories in which you are interested, but that you also search for articles that may disconfirm these theories (Baumeister, 2003). Conducting a broad search will make your literature review stronger, and it will make it a more honest summary of the work in the field.
Begin a broad search by examining the articles you have already found. Look at their reference sections and examine the articles they have cited. Search “backwards” by obtaining these cited articles. This is an important place to begin to expand your search for articles because it will help you gain important background information and perspective on your area of interest.
Another useful strategy for conducting a broad search for articles is called a “forward search.” Beginning with an article you find interesting, search “forward” for other works by this author. This will help you trace the trajectory of her or his research. In addition, take note of other researchers with whom the author publishes, as well as who the author frequently cites. It is very likely that you will find these scientists’ work interest¬ing. Most search options will also allow you to search for articles that have cited the article you are examining. Use this option to examine other works related to your primary articles.
Additionally, examine major journals in your area of interest. In order to determine which journals are leaders in the field, it may be useful to talk to your librarian, mentor, or professor. Examine these journals and look through their most recent issues. As Baumeister (2003) noted, beginning with recently published articles is extremely beneficial for two reasons: it introduces you to new work, and it also introduces you to older works. Older works are introduced to you because new works “will contain references to important older work” (pg. 59). While you are reading, ask yourself if certain articles are often cited. Finding these articles may point you to landmark studies or studies that are “new” and “exciting” in the field.
Further broaden your search for articles by looking for articles that employ different research methodologies. Ask yourself if the articles you are finding are experimental, qualitative, or case studies. In general, examining a mix of methodologies will enhance your literature review because each type of research offers different perspectives.
Finally, you may broaden your search for articles by looking at research conducted outside of the field of psychology. Other disciplines may be attacking your questions of interest in innovative ways. These perspectives may be important to consider as literature reviews are often enhanced by more flexible thinking about a topic and multiple perspectives (Baumeister, 2003).
Step Four: Be Rigorous and Set High Standards
As you conduct your broad search for articles, remember to employ rigorous research methods. Distinguish between good research and poor research. Where was your article published? Articles published in peer-reviewed journals are subject to a more rigorous scientific review process. Also, determine whether the work is “outdated”. Ask yourself if later articles debunked the theories posed in the articles. However, be careful before discarding older research, as it is possible that an older article is a landmark article, which influenced modern conceptualizations of a topic.
Also employ modern methods for conducting your search for articles. Utilize the literature review methods employed by Cochrane reviews and meta-analysis reviews. Both types of reviews include detailed methods section for others to understand how their literature reviews were conducted (http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/clibintro.htm#reviews; Lipsey & Wilson, 2001).
Step Five: Conserve Time and Paper
Conducting a literature review is a large task which may involve a great deal of time and a large number of articles. In order to conserve your energy, it is important to stay organized during this process. Know what you have already searched. Keep a record of the search engines you have examined and the search terms you have used to find articles. In addition, save the articles you find as pdf files. We recommend saving these files in a systematic way so that you will be able to find the articles later. Personally, the authors save files using the following format: “author_title_year”. For example, if we found an article entitled How the Ewoks Took Over Earth by Han Solo and published in 2090, we would save this article as Solo_How the Ewoks_2090.
In addition, save time by making use of a reference manager—a software tool for publishing and managing bibliographies. Endnote® and Refworks® are two commonly used reference managers that are often available through your school or in a research laboratory. These reference managers can be connected to major search engines, which will automatically download formatted references for you. Saving references as you work will conserve your energy when you need to create a reference section and cite your references.
Further, it is important to conserve paper. As you accumulate a collection of articles, you may be tempted to print and read each one. However, an individual article averages about 30 pages. If you were to print 30 articles for a review paper, you would be printing almost 1,000 pages! Not only is printing that many pages bad for the environment, it is also incredibly costly and may be unnecessary. If you keep your article references and pdf files organized, you should be able to quickly identify and select the articles that are most relevant to your topic of interest. Print only the articles that will be relevant to your literature review.
In conclusion, learning how to conduct a great literature review is a vital skill to hone as a psychology student and researcher. Following these steps will help you define your interests, identify leading research in the field and conflicting theories, and help you conserve your own time and energy. As you do so, you will gain a better understanding of your own interests, key theories under investigation, and future directions for our field.
American Psychological Association. (2008). APA databases: PsycINFO. Retrieved June 25, 2008, from the American Psychological Association Website: http://www.apa.org/psycinfo/
Baumeister, R.F. (2003). Writing a literature review. In M. J. Prinstein & M. C. Patterson (Eds.) The portable mentor: Expert guide to a successful career in psychology (pp. 57-73). New York, New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Froese, A. D., Gantz, B. S., & Henry, A. L. (1998). Teaching students to write literature reviews: A meta-analytic model. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 102-105.
Kazdin, A.E. (2003). Publishing your research. In M. J. Prinstein & M. C. Patterson (Eds.) The portable mentor: Expert guide to a successful career in psychology (pp. 85-100). New York, New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Lipsey, M.W., & Wilson, D.B. (2001). Practical meta-analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
What is a Cochrane review? Retrieved September 15, 2008, from The Cochrane Collaboration Web site: http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/revstruc.htm
Betty Lai, MS, MST, is a third-year doctoral student in child clinical psychology at the University of Miami (FL). Before graduate school, she taught middle school mathematics and science in New York City with Teach for America. Her work focuses on social networks and their influence on health behaviors.
Ryan R. Landoll, BS, is a second-year graduate student in the doctoral program in child clinical psychology at the University of Miami (FL). He received his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he graduated summa cum laude with highest honors in psychology in 2007. His interests include the interplay between peer relations, depression, and social anxiety, as well as health risk behaviors and body image among adolescents.