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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 is a search strategy?

A search strategy is the plan you use to search for relevant information. The strategy provides you with both a structure for your search and also a record of your search history. As your research develops and your search is refined, your search history can be extremely useful. It can also improve the relevance of the results you obtained as you uncover how your search terms are related to each other.

To develop a search strategy you will need to:

  • define your research question - what you are going to research?
  • identify keywords, terms, and phrases related to your research question
  • identify keyword synonyms - this can also be done in some databases
  • Identify the time period you will be searching
  • what types of material you will include (books, journals, conference proceedings, etc.) and why?
  • identify where you will search for the information

Documenting your search plan and process

Documenting your search plan and process can help you:

  • think critically about concepts in your research topic
  • refine your searching to focus on your topic
  • reduce duplicate searches
  • save time and effort

Keeping a record of the terms you search, where you have searched, and your results will make your work more efficient. Keeping track of search terms and where you've searched can be done easily in an Excel spreadsheet. Keeping track of your references is covered in the section  Managing your references.

Search Lifecycle

Diagram illustrating the literature search cycle. A circle in quarters.  Top left quarter is identify main concepts with rectangle describing how to do this by identifying
controlled vocabulary terms, synonyms, keywords and spelling. Top right quarter select library resources to search and rectangle describing resources to search 
library catalogue relevant journal articles and other resource. Bottom right corner of circle search resources and in rectangle consider using boolean searching
proximity searching and truncated searching techniques. Bottom left quarter of circle review and refine results. In rectangle evaluate results, rethink keywords and 
create alerts.

Additional Resources