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Writing a Literature Review: Phase 2: Finding Information

Tips on writing a literature review (in any subject). (adapted from Brendan Rapple's LibGuide of the same title at Boston College, O'Neill Library.)

About this page

Finding sources is just one part of the literature review process, but the idea of locating a broad and thorough set of sources can seem daunting. Where do you start? How do you know you have finished?

Here are some tips from Armacost librarians on the basics of smart searching. Hopefully they can help save you time at this early stage in the process.

Locating and Accessing Information

a) Using Existing Literature Reviews
Literature reviews may already exist on some aspect of your topic. Search online databases carefully to find literature reviews. For example, the ERIC database has "Literature Reviews" as a descriptor. If, say, you are searching for an existing literature review on standardized tests, it might be productive to perform the following search in ERIC:

DE=(Literature Reviews) and standardized tests

The database PsycINFO allows one to search by publication type. Accordingly if one is searching for an existing review on aspects of monozygotic twins, one might perform the following search (‘monozygotic twins’ is a descriptor in this database):

DE=(Monozygotic Twins) and pt=literature review

b) Classic and Landmark Studies
It is usually important to comment on classic works on your topic. Not doing so might be considered a failing of your review. While it is not always easy for one not yet an authority on the subject to be aware of landmark or particularly influential works, the more one researches, generally the more one recognizes names that are mentioned over and over as seminal and/or influential authorities.

Careful research in databases will often bring to light articles that mention classic works. It may be useful to use such keyword terms as “classic” or “landmark’ in your searching of databases.

Search Strategies I: Concept Mapping

Planning pays off

Effective searching often starts with a good plan. Once you have identified a topic that interests you, try to answer questions such as:

  • what time period or location am I focusing on?
  • what kinds of interactions between people, places, and processes am I interested in?
  • what kinds of sources might I need in order to learn about/support my argument about this?
  • do I already know of any researchers working on these or similar questions? Do I already know of helpful sources?

Concept mapping
Second, translate your own understanding of your topic into terms and phrases likely to yield search results. Map out how the terms are related, if this helps. Don't forget to account for common synonyms and translation variants.

Say I was interested in researching the relationship between Bach's keyboard music and technical innovations in harpsichord construction. I might produce a concept map including the following search terms:

Johann Sebastian Bach     harpsichord      temperament

Baroque style                  klavier             tuning            

17th century/18th century      innovation        construction, etc.

I can then use this concept map to combine the terms using Boolean operators or identify relevant subject headings (see below)

Search Strategies II: Operators and Truncation

Using operators and symbols: AND, OR, *, and " "                                      

Boolean operators and truncation symbols are two more ways to extend the power of your search.

The three operators AND, OR, NOT can be used during your initial search when you are uncertain about what you will find. They can also be used to refine your follow-up searches if you discover you have too many or too few search results.

Truncation symbols include *, ? and " ". They free you from having to anticipate every possible version of the words you're searching with.

Operators and truncation symbols can be used together, as in the search query

Bach AND (temper* OR tun*)

AND narrows your search to only results that mention both keywords (here "Bach" and everything in the parenthesis)

OR expands your search by including both keywords (here "temper*" and "tun*"

NOR would narrow the search by returning only results with "Bach" that do not have the other keyword.

The * covers tempered, temperament, tempering, tuned, tuning, etc.

In some databases " " are used to find an exact phrase, i.e. "well-tempered clavier"

While most databases and search engines follow the same logic, the syntax or type of operators and symbols they use may vary. Fortunately, almost all databases have help screens that list their particular rules.

Search Strategies III: Subject Searching

What are Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and how can I use them?

Subject headings are terms applied by professionals to each record in the library catalog to describe what that item is "about". The terms are chosen from a predetermined list, or controlled vocabulary. Having subject terms chosen from a list compensates for the normal variations in the way we might describe what we're trying to find. This means that we can get more accurate search results faster when we use subject headings than when we use keyword searching alone.

Here are a couple ways you can make use of subject headings in your searching:

1. Try doing a direct subject search in the catalog for your topic.

It may help if you brainstorm additional concept terms before you try this (see "concept mapping" box above, coming soon)

2. If you have found a useful book using keyword, author or title searching, click on the record to open it up and examine the subject headings:

subject headings example

Notice that each of the subject headings is made of several parts. For example, this book about Schubert's lieder has been given the heading Songs, German (meaning it is about German songs) but also 19th century (the time period that is being studied) and History and criticism (indicating the approach that this book takes to 19th century German song).

If you click on the link, it will likely take you to a whole list of books on the history and criticism of 19th century German songs. Many of these books may be items that you would not have otherwise thought to look for.

Subject headings commonly fall into these types of patterns. What this means for you as the researcher is that if you have thought ahead of time about the topics, time period, and type of sources you are interested in before searching the catalog, then you will be ready to capitalize on the opportunities offered by a great subject heading.