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How to do a Literature Search: Introduction

What is a literature review?

You may be asked to write a literature review as part of an undergraduate project or postgraduate dissertation.  A well-conducted literature review will showcase your ability to:


  • Survey the literature and select the most important contributions on your topic
  • Critically evaluate the literature to identify key developments, trends, issues, gaps in knowledge
  • Present your findings in a clear and coherent manner

The structure of a literature review may vary according to your specific subject but it will normally include these three areas:

  • Introduction: an overview of your topic explaining why it is important, putting it in the wider context and perhaps highlighting recent progress and future potential.  It may also explain the scope and the organisation of your review.
  • Main body: a discussion of how research in the topic has progressed to date, critically evaluating the key studies and explaining their significance.  
  • Conclusion: a summary of current knowledge, highlighting any gaps in current knowledge or practice and suggesting how these may be overcome in future research.

Having identified the topic of your review, the first step will be to undertake a literature search.  

What is a literature search?

literature search is an organised way of finding articles and other publications to discuss in your literature review.
Literature searching is an iterative process, which means that you normally need to repeat the process a number of times before achieving your goal.  It goes something like this:
Define your research question(s)
First think carefully about what you actually need to find out: there are likely to be a number of questions to be answered. 
Choose a database to use to carry out your search(es)
identify the appropriate database for each question you need to answer.
Design your search strategy/ keywords according to the resource being used
Make sure you find out how your chosen database works because it may not be like Google! Each library database has its own 'syntax' or rules for a search.
Conduct search(es), evaluate results
We recommend that you invest time and effort in this part of the process: if you can get your search strategy right, it will save you time in the long run as you'll avoid reading a lot of irrelevant literature.
Refine search strategy and repeat as necessary
Take a look at the first few results: how many of them are really relevant?  If the answer is 'not many', go back and try a different search strategy.
Keep a record of your searches
Keeping track of which databases you have searched and which search terms you used will help you to avoid wasting time by repeating the searches at a later date. You normally need to register and login to a database to save your searches online.

Define your research question(s)

Before you login to a database to begin your search it's crucial that you analyse your topic, breaking it down into a number of research questions.

Take, for example, this topic:  Are biofuels the answer to falling oil reserves?

You could type this sentence into a database search box, but that is usually not helpful, as the sentence may not contain the most appropriate keywords.  Also this single sentence is unlikely to encompass everything that you want to find out.  You need to break down the topic into a number of separate questions and then look for the answers. For this example here are some of the questions you could ask:

  • What is a biofuel?  
  • How are they made?
  • How much of our fuel is already from biofuel (market share)?
  • Could we make enough to replace oil and/or gas?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using biofuels compared with oil and gas?
  • Could we use biofuels for transport?
  • What is UK government policy relating to biofuels?

You may find the answers to all of these questions using a single search engine such as Google Scholar, or a single Library database, but you are more likely to succeed if you match each question to a relevant source.