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Social Work Research Methods: Lit Reviews

What is a literature review?

Did you know that a literature review is a research method?

The term literature review can either refer to a type of research paper that relies on existing scholarly literature to help develop new ideas, or it can refer to a portion of a paper, in which a review of the existing literature serves to inform an original study that the paper documents. In the first case, the literature review serves as its own type of research method. In the second case, the primary research method will depend on the type of study being conducted and the data collected from that study.

Think of scholarly papers like a conversation. A paper takes a look at what people are saying on a particular topic and then adds something new to the conversation based on their own research. A literature review is how scholars get caught up on the conversation so they will know what to ask or say next.

A literature review can be a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern that combines both summary and synthesis.

A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization of that information that results in new ideas. 

Sage Research Methods method map entry for Literature Review, including broader terms, related terms, and narrower terms

Click the image above to explore the Literature Review entry in the Methods Map from Sage Research Methods.

What is a research question

A research question is what forms and guides your literature review. It is the question that you want the literature to answer for you. A research question should be specific, focused, and concise.

To develop a research question, start with a general topic of interest to you. You'll want to do some preliminary and background research on this topic to think through what specific questions you might have.


Sample Topic: impact of social media on adolescent physical activity levels

Sample Research Question: Can social media serve as an effective tool for increasing levels of physical activity among adolescents?

Need more guidance on developing your topic into a research question? Check out this video from the library at Northern Kentucky University.

Turn a Research Question into a Search Strategy

In order to search most effectively for articles that pertain to your research topic, take a little time at the beginning of your project to plan out your search strategy.

1. Break up your topic/research question into it's primary concepts

  • i.e. What impact does tobacco use have on the lung health of teenagers?
    • Population - teenagers
    • Problem - tobacco use
    • Outcome - lung health

2. Brainstorm synonyms for your terms

  • i.e. teenagers, teens, adolescents, youth, young adults, juvenile

3. Add quotation marks around exact phrases and be sure to include both singular and plural

  • i.e. "young adults", "young adult"

4. Search one concept at a time using ORs to include all of your synonyms and then combine your searches with AND

  • Search 1: teenagers OR teens OR adolescents OR youth OR "young adults" OR "young adult" OR juveniles
  • Search 2: tobacco OR smoking OR vaping OR cigarettes OR nicotine
  • Search 3: lung health OR "respiratory health" OR "respiratory distress" OR dyspnea OR asthma OR "pulmonary disorder" OR "pulmonary disorders" OR "pulmonary disease" OR "pulmonary diseases"