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.
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.
Before you get started on your project, it can be helpful to remember that the research process is not linear. You may have experienced this first hand when researching what technology to buy for college. At first, you may not have even known what questions to ask. Once you know what some of the requirements are for your classes, say you find out that some of your courses are going to be hybrid and you will need a computer with a webcam to participate. Then, you can ask the question, does the computer I'm looking at have a web cam?
Finding out the course requirements is the background research that you need to turn your general topic, purchasing technology for class, into that research question. But, as you find out more about the types of web cameras out there, you might need to go back to your background research to see if you need to refine that research question. For example, if the laptop with a fancy webcam is too expensive, would you be able to participate in class using the camera on your phone instead? This is the research process in action.
You will do the same thing with your research projects. You may double back at a few points to refine your question or your search strategy based on the new information that you have gained. Going back to a previous part of the research process does NOT mean that you've done something wrong. It's not the same as going backward. It's all part of the process.
Remember, you can always ask for help at any stage of the research process by reaching out to one of your subject Librarians, visiting the Research Coaches on the 2nd floor of the Library, or through our Ask Us chat.
Courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth Libraries
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
2. Brainstorm synonyms for your terms
3. Add quotation marks around exact phrases and be sure to include both singular and plural
4. Search one concept at a time using ORs to include all of your synonyms and then combine your searches with AND