Skip to Main Content

Project Planning for the Beginner: Reviewing the Literature

This Sage Research Methods tool is designed for the first time researcher to guide you through your research project.


You are almost certainly not the first to investigate your topic! You need to be aware of what others have written on the general area of your research and even on your specific issue. You will need to draw on their work to construct your own project. But you will also need to distinguish your own work from theirs. Originality is important, and for PhDs and academic publication it is vital.

In the natural sciences, the “literature review“ is the term used to describe an agreed body of knowledge, which the researcher will set out before building on that base in their project. In the social sciences there are more likely to be different approaches and different accounts of the information you need for your research. So we use the term “the problematic” to indicate the issue around which these arguments have developed and these articles/books have been written. In social science a literature review always includes the sense of the issues being contested, not only in terms of what we know, but how we know it. 

What Types of Literature Should I Review?

There are several different types of literature available and you will probably draw on all of them. The ones you will refer to in your literature review fall into two main areas.

This is the work done by specialists in the field. Their writings will become your secondary sources on which you will draw in your own research. These are usually published, either in printed or e-book format. The main types are monographs—books describing a particular piece of research in detail (e.g., a PhD thesis)—and articles in academic journals.

This refers to written materials which fall between secondary sources and primary sources. Mostly these are documents which use social science research methods but are written for a non-academic purpose. Examples are: 

Government reports, which include policy recommendations

​​Private sector research, often marketing research, which is produced for business purposes

Surveys to provide material for planning enquiries.

The use of grey literature in social science is not new: Karl Marx used Royal Commission government reports in writing Capital.

In referring to academic research and grey materials it is important to cite all of your sources, explicitly and accurately. You must never, ever, reproduce chunks from any text without acknowledgement. To do so is to plagiarize. You can avoid plagiarizing by accident by always highlighting or using inverted commas around direct quotations when making notes from your sources.

Primary sources are the documents on which you do your original research. They are the fresh evidence that you bring to the field and, as such, they are not regarded as “literature” for the purposes of the literature review, which deals with material that is already published. Your primary sources will be described in your section on research methods and processes. 

Introduction to Literature Reviews

How Do I Do a Literature Search

There are two main approaches to doing literature searches: searching using a search term and searching citations, both of which rely on the availability of online databases. Examples of databases include: 

These databases have different strengths and attributes, but all have good help facilities which will guide you through using them.  

Search terms can be: 

• An author name: You know somebody who has written on the topic of interest to you and you want to know what they have said.

• A keyword or phrase which relates to your topic: Keywords can generally be found in either:

• The topic of the published work. Usually this means the word or phrase will appear in the abstract of a journal article.

• The title of the piece. Tying keywords to titles will produce fewer “hits” but if the keyword is in the title, then you can be pretty sure that the piece will be relevant for you.

Typically, you can refine your search in various ways to reduce the number of hits to manageable proportions. You can do this by specifying a range of years for publication and/or the general area of work in which you are interested by discipline or field.

Here you start by locating a published piece of work in a database and then the search engine will locate all the subsequent published works in the database which have cited the original piece. This allows you to find related work which may be useful for you. 

For more resources about doing a literature search, see Search Filters for Various Databases: Home

How Do I Do a Literature Review

If you have chosen your topic yourself, you may have a good general knowledge of the subject area. If you are a professional social researcher who has been given the topic, then you need to start by building up your general knowledge.

Scholarship refers to organized critical overviews of the literature on the subject. These can be divided into four kinds, beginning with the most basic.

These are sometimes called tertiary literature, and provide a useful starting point. However, you should note that it’s not usual to cite them in your review.

Overviews of the subject written by eminent scholars are more useful. You will always find something like this, either as a single-authored book, or in the editorial introduction/conclusion to a large collection on a given subject. Ask your supervisor for recommendations of the big books in your topic area if you don’t already know what they are. You may cite these in your literature review.

These are particularly useful and take three forms.

• Special issues of journals: These are very valuable as sources. They contain sets of articles on a theme, usually with an introduction by the editor(s) which summarizes and considers the topic as a whole.

• Edited collections: These have more content and a wider remit than special issues of journals. They include examples of empirical work and overview articles by editors, as well as scholarly articles debating issues around a subject.

• Edited multiple-volume collections of previously published material: These draw lots of material together and have excellent scholarly introductions and overviews. You’ll find these in your library.

These can be found through web searches.

In the final written version of your research it is likely that you will be required to include a chapter based on your literature review. The best way to organize this is thematically. Just as you identify themes when dealing with the findings of your research, you should find thematic sub-headings to discuss the literature you have read.

This will help you to conclude your chapter with a set of questions which emerge from the review and which will be addressed in your own research. Your literature review thus provides you with a preliminary structure for organizing your research findings. For more resources about doing a literature search, see SPH Writing Support Services: Getting Started: Literature Reviews

What Makes a Successful Literature Review?

Here are eight steps toward completing a successful literature review.

1. Search terms: Formulate appropriate search terms as the basis for your literature searches.

2. Database search tools: Use database search tools to identify relevant journal articles and related materials.

3. Key publications: Identify a series of key publications in your area and use these as the bases for citation reference searches.

4. Web search tools: Use web search tools to identify pieces of interest, in particular grey literature, relevant to you.

5. Scanning: Scan abstracts of articles, reviews of books, executive summaries of government reports, and other summaries of published work to determine if you need to read the piece in full.

6. Reading: Read the pieces you have identified and make notes from them.

7. Thematic organization: Use these notes as the basis of a thematic organization of your literature review.

8. Writing the review: Write the review, based on the thematic organization, in such a way that you can construct one or more interesting research questions which you will address in your investigation. 

How Do I Keep a Bibliography

All reporting of scientific research must include a bibliography. It is vital that you keep a good record of everything you have read and will use in writing up your research, so that you are able to include it in your bibliography. Here are some things to remember:

• It is essential to cite every source you mention, and not just the sources from which you have directly quoted.

• It is not necessary to cite sources you have read when doing your research but have not used in writing it up.

• It goes without saying that if you have used something to shape your ideas and work it should be mentioned. Due tribute must be paid to those      whose work has helped you. Using ideas and/or findings without crediting their original source is a form of plagiarism.

There are a few different referencing styles that can be used in writing up your literature review and research findings. See SPH Writing Support Services: Getting Started: Citing Sources.

There are tools you can use to help you keep a systematic bibliography. See RefWorks: Setting up your RefWorks AccountTip: Don’t postpone starting your bibliography.  Some effort early on avoids a lot of work later. You can enter citations into your bibliography as you are actually writing up your dissertation/thesis/report.