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Research for Literature Reviews

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Working with Your Topic

When you're getting started with searching for information about your topic, here are a few things you can consider to help you:

  • What am I trying to find out?
    • This might help you further define your topic and better formulate your research question. If you just have a general idea of what you would like to research (for example, homework in elementary schools), think about what specifically you would like to learn (does homework benefit children in elementary schools?).
    • If you don't know what specifically you would like to find out about your topic yet, do some background reading or find some general articles in the library or on the internet to help you think of what else your topic could be.
  • Can I find articles about different parts of my topic and synthesize them myself?
    • If you have two distinct ideas in your topic that you are comparing, it is possible that very few articles have been written about both ideas. You may need to search for one idea at a time and use your own analysis of the articles to write your literature review. If you are having trouble finding articles that are about your entire topic, think of ways you can break it down.
    • For example, if you are comparing educational styles in China and in Canada, you may not be able to find many articles that compare what you are looking at; you may need to find information about educational styles in China and educational styles in Canada separately, then analyze and compare this information yourself.
  • Is there an "other side" to my research that I should consider?
    • If you want to discuss benefits of social media to high school students, keep in mind that articles that discuss the detriments of social media to high school students may be of value to you as well.


  • What are the main ideas of my topic and how can I represent them?
    • These will become your keywords!

Keywords and Search Strategy

Once you have selected your topic, break your topic into its concepts. For each concept, brainstorm different synonyms. Using different words to search for the same idea helps you to retrieve all the literature about the topic.

Here are some strategies for brainstorming keyword synonyms:

  • Ask yourself these questions:
    • What are synonyms for this idea?
    • How do people refer to this concept in everyday life?
    • How do you think academics or professionals are referring to this concept?
    • What are common abbreviations for this concept?
    • Do different regions call this idea different things/spell it differently?
    • Has this concept been referred to as different things in the past?
  • Use academic reference sources or online sources such as Wikipedia to find out other keywords
  • As you conduct your research, make note of new keywords you come across and use them in your search

Once you have some keywords, combine them using AND and OR to search.

For example, suppose that you wanted to find articles about whether elementary students in a bilingual program have difficulty with language acquisition, especially learning to read.


Keyword A: elementary students OR primary OR intermediate
Keyword B: bilingual OR immersion OR second language learning
Keyword C: language acquisition OR language processing OR reading instruction


Here is what that search would look like in Discover.

  • Tip: use quotation marks around phrases like "language processing" to search those words as a phrase.

Here are some guides with further search tips and techniques:

Review Your Search Results

1. Did you find relevant articles on your topic?

  • Sometimes a keyword search retrieves articles that contain your keywords but are not relevant to your topic. Tips for improving the search:
    • Try using different keywords
    • Try searching a different article database
    • Try searching for one or more of your keywords as a subject
    • Ask your liaison librarian for help!

2. Did you retrieve too many articles?

  • Sometimes a keyword search retrieves hundreds or even thousands of articles –– way too many to consider. In this case, you need to reduce the number of articles by narrowing your search topic, usually by adding another keyword to your search. For example:
    • elementary students and bilingual and language acquisition and English
  • Be careful: The more keywords you link with "and", the more specific your search becomes, and thus the fewer the articles you will retrieve.

Did you retrieve too few articles?

  • Keyword searching will not find everything that is available on your topic! Try other combinations of words using synonyms or related terms to your original keyword to find more articles on your topic. Many databases apply subject headings to articles and you can discover which subject headings to use by looking at the databases' thesauri.