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How to Conduct a Literature Review: A Guide for Graduate Students

This is a guide to help graduate students successfully find, evaluate, and manage resources for a literature review.

What Literature Should I Use?

When considering literature to review, it's important to understand that different types of information sources may be critical for particular disciplines. Below are examples of different types of information sources to consider. Depending on your discipline, you may need to consider more than one type of source. Additionally, necessary information may be available in various formats (such as print, electronic, microfilm, and other media). Please contact your liaison librarian for additional guidance on information sources appropriate to your research.

Types of Literature to Search

  • Books can provide reference information, broad introductions to topics, in-depth treatments of specific topics, and can even serve as primary source material, depending on their content. They can be scholarly or popular, so consider what type of information you need when selecting books for review.  
  • Books can be found in catalogs such as the ISU Library's QuickSearch and Worldcat, a union catalog containing millions of records cataloged by OCLC member libraries. Catalogs can be searched by author name, titles words or phrases, Library of Congress Subject Headings, Keywords, ISBN numbers, and other identifiers.
  • Books not available locally can be requested via Interlibrary Loan.
  • Reference materials contain reputable background and quick information on specific topics and are rarely read front to back. Examples of reference works include dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, standards, cookbooks, handbooks, directories, etc. References can orient users to basic information, to experts in a particular discipline, and to specialized vocabulary used in particular disciplines. Reference works are rarely cited in academic literature.
  • The Library does have some reference databases available for searching. For additional information about reference materials, contact your liaison librarian.
  • Scholarly journal articles are written by scholars to communicate information with other experts in the same field or discipline, and often use specialized language used by scholars in the same field or discipline. 
  • Scholarly articles are produced in a standard, formal format and usually list the scholarly affiliations of the authors. They almost always include references to literature consulted by the authors. They are also often peer-reviewed and edited by editors with scholarly credentials.
  • They can be found by searching appropriate library article indexes (such as Web of Science) or discovery tools (such as ISUs Primo discovery tool). NOTE: Primo only links to selected article databases. Use article indexes above for a complete list of titles.You can also find scholarly articles by browsing the contents of scholarly journals that serve the needs of a particular topic or discipline, or by reading through the cited references at the end of other articles.
  • Theses and dissertations on topics similar to yours may contain information not available elsewhere. You may also get inspired by how others approach similar topics during their graduate career.  
  • The Iowa State University Library's Digital Repository has copies of theses and dissertations done at Iowa State. For other sources of theses and dissertations, see the Theses and Dissertations tab.
Archival materials may include personal papers, manuscripts, diaries, posters, fliers, maps and other primary sources. Locating archival materials takes time, patience and many times help from a librarian. For help locating archives consult  our guide: Archives - What They Are and How to use Them. To see our local collections visit the Special Collections and University Archives page.
  • For many fields, researchers present their most up-to-date research results at professional conferences. These results will later be published in conference proceedings, abstracts, or preprints. Sometimes, the conference proceedings can be full research articles as in many engineering and computer science areas. Conference Proceedings should often be consulted for latest development on your topic. 
  • The Library's Conference Proceedings: A How-To Guide has extensive information about locating conference proceedings.
  • Search for Conference proceedings via Web of Science or Scopus by limiting the type of documents as Conference Proceedings.
  • Conference proceedings may also be found by limiting document type to conference proceedings in many of our Article Indexes & Databases.

Data sets are collections of data that are often collected during the course of scholarly research. Data can be spatial and/or numeric, raw or processed, and qualitative or quantitative.If you are collecting data for your thesis, having a a data management plan will help you keep track of your data in the future. See our Data Management Plan (DMP) Guide for more information.

The United States Government Printing Office has and continues to produce a great deal of information useful to researchers each day. Congress, the Supreme Court, the Office of the President and federal agencies can be rich sources of policy information, legislation and historical records. The Iowa State University Library is a congressionally designated federal depository library There is a guide to Government Information for the United States that includes federal and state information sources.

  • Grey literature is a blanket term for hard to find documents not formally published for public consumption (examples include technical reports, conference literature, white papers, memos and meeting minutes), not indexed in conventional indexing tools.
  • Grey literature can be invaluable for the research you are doing. 
  • The University of Michigan has an excellent Grey Literature Research Guide to see how you can use them in your research.

Magazines and Newspapers

  • Magazines can be a rich source of cultural and anthropological research material. The library offers many magazines in print, microfilm and online through our Article Indexes & Databases.
  • Consult the Library  Finding Newspapers Guide for information on finding newspaper resources. 

Review Articles

Not to be confused with a “peer reviewed journal,” review articles are a subset of scholarly articles that synthesize the current state of the research on a particular topic. Review Articles will tell you about::

  • the main people working in a field
  • recent major advances and discoveries
  • significant gaps in the research
  • current debates
  • ideas of where research might go next

If you are new to a research area review articles are a great way to quickly find key articles are for a given topic. They also tend to be full of references that you can use as a starting point for your literature review searching.

In many indexes and databases, you can limit your search to include only review articles. Some databases might use the term "literature review," but it's the same thing. After you've done a search in the Web of Science Core Collection, you can limit to a publication type called "Reviews."

If the index you are using doesn't allow you to limit to review articles, you can construct your search like this:

[topic] AND ("review article*" OR "literature review*")  - make sure to use the quotation marks, that forces a search as a phrase

Standards and Patents and Preprints, Oh My!

  • Statistics reported by government or private sources can be useful when your dissertation relates to social issues.  You may need  statistics to illustrate the importance of your work.
  • Visit the Statistical Data Sources guide or contact your liaison librarian for more information.

Attribution

This section adapted from Literature to review - The Literature Review: For Dissertations, by University of Michigan Library. Available: https://guides.lib.umich.edu/dissertationlitreview.