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Literature Review

A guide to planning, researching and writing a literature review.

Why Should You Write a Research Question?

Regardless of the forms and methods used to tell a research story, a scholar needs to have a clear sense of which story they're trying to tell. That means focusing on a topic that's narrow enough to be manageable and clearly defined enough to guide decisions on what past research is relevant to the discussion. Often, the best way to right-size your literature review topic is to phrase it as a research question.

Let's look at some examples. Let's say you're interested in studying the scholarly work on the E. coli bacterium or on theories of race. These topics are too broad for a focused literature review, but let's still use them as starting points. Here are a couple of ways we could phrase these topics as questions:

What scholarly work has been done on E. coli?

What are the theories of race that scholars have come up with?

Searching for materials on these topics returns an overwhelming amount of material, and that immediately provokes with more questions.

For E. Coli, we might ask:

  • Which strains of E. Coli?
  • What aspects of those strains?
    • Bacterial structure?
    • Diagnosis of infection with harmful strains?
    • Sources of infection?

For theories of race, we might ask:

  • Are we focusing on scholarly theories or ideas from pop culture and politics?
  • From which countries or regions?
  • During which time periods?

Remember, the goal with a literature review isn't to produce a broad-strokes summary of the kind you might find in a Wikipedia article. Rather, the idea is to wade into the details of the scholarly work that's been done in order to uncover how previous scholars have answered (or failed to answer) specific questions.

Consider, then, how we can formulate more specific variations on these questions:

Which antibiotics / dosages have been shown to be effective in the treatment of humans infected with E. coli O157:H7?

How did categories of race change in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid?

Notice all the aspects of these topics we've narrowed down. We may find that our questions change even more as we delve even further into the research on a topic, but these questions at least provide a more focused starting point for our research.

Activity: Defining and Refining Your Question

How do you actually narrow your question? This section will guide you through the process, which looks something like this:

If it looks like we're already jumping into the research process, you're right. Defining a question is research.

When defining an initial question, you're never actually starting from scratch. Use your course readings and lectures as a guide. The key first question is:

What topics in the course have most engaged your interest?

This is your initial guide. Your next step is to investigate further what it is that draws you to the topic through some directed free-writing--sort of like a free-form diary entry on your topic. It'll also provide you with keywords to search databases with.

So, for this step, open up your writing application of choice and free-write around 200-250 words on your topic.

Remember, when free-writing, the goal isn't to produce a polished piece of writing--rather, the idea is to get whatever thoughts you may have down onto the page, to see and reflect on those thoughts, and to use them to propel your thinking further. Here are a few guiding questions that may help:

  • What about this topic do I find particularly interesting, inspiring, and/or maddening?
  • What about this topic do I find confusing and want to know more about?
  • What have I already read on this topic? What other media have I consumed on it?
  • What are the names of major figures and works on this topic do I already know about?

Now take a look at your free-write. How can you phrase some of what you've written as questions that you'd like to find the answer to? (You may find that you've already explicitly asked questions in what you've written.) Based on your free-write, write 3 or 4 initial research questions that you might like to investigate. Don't worry if your questions look more like the broad, general versions of the questions about E. coli or race theory above; we're going to tackle refining your questions in the next steps.

Now that you've done your free-write and formulated some initial questions, you may feel ready to jump into some initial research. You may also feel like you don't know enough about your topic to actually formulate a decent, narrowly focused research question. That mix of excitement, anxiety, and/or confusion is a very normal part of the research process.

Either way, the next step is to use what you've written to find some background information that can help you understand your topic more deeply, answer some of your initial questions, and point you toward more refined questions that you'll want to investigate. This can take quite a bit of time. Start as early as you can, but also, remember to be patient with yourself. Expect to go through cycles of confusion and clarity.

So, how do you go about finding background sources? The first step is to generate some keywords you can use in library databases. This video will demonstrate how to use your free-write to do that:

Use your free-write and initial research questions to generate 5-10 keywords that you can use. You'll want to keep collecting more as you proceed with your research, but these will give you a place to start.

Once you've generated keywords, your next step is to use them in some databases. But which databases should you use at this stage? It depends on your topic and questions and how much information you need. Here are a few options.

Overview Books from the Library's Catalog

Books are the secret weapons of finding overview information. In fact, the "accessible introduction" is an entire scholarly genre. There's no one-size-fits-all rule for identifying these kinds of books, here are some tips:

  • Keep an eye out for shorter, textbook-like titles that pinpoint the field they're covering (developmental psychology, sociology, etc.)
  • Look for titles that include the terms "Introduction" or "Handbook"
  • Introductions or first chapters often may provide relevant overviews
  • Look at tables of contents to zero in on other highly relevant sections

Try taking some of your keywords and searching for a book or ebook in the library's General Search bar below. Try including "introduction" or "handbook" in your search, too.


Reference Sources and Encyclopedias

Reference works providing relatively short overviews can be a perfect place to find your footing and begin the process of formulating a research question. The most obvious and familiar one is, of course, Wikipedia. We're often told not to use Wikipedia in papers, and in one sense, that's very true:

DO NOT cite Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, directly citing Wikipedia in a paper just looks like you haven't done your research, and more importantly, the fact that Wikipedia articles continually change means that you wouldn't be able to guarantee what you've cited will still be there if someone looks. However, you can definitely use Wikipedia as a starting point for background information, keywords, and links to other sources in a reference list.

Given that Wikipedia articles vary in quality, you'll want to watch out for a few red flags that might make an article less than trustworthy. Don't use a Wikipedia article for background information if:

  • The article lacks adequate references, or is a "stub"
  • The article has notifications in the header about being biased or lacking adequate citations

Another reference source to check out is Credo Reference, which provides access to numerous subject-specific encyclopedias and reference works. Its scope on some topics will be narrower than Wikipedia, and indeed, in some cases you won't find any relevant articles there. However, what is there has been produced by scholars, is of very high quality, and can lead you quickly to major work addressing your topic or question.

Take some of your keywords and search for both Wikipedia and Credo Reference for reference articles related to your initial research question(s).

Key Databases in the Field

Some research questions will be specialized enough that you'll simply want to jump straight into key databases used in the field or discipline you're working within. The best way to know which databases to search is to use Cushing Library's subject research guides. Every research guide has an Articles page that includes a list of links to useful databases. You'll also see tabs for General Databases that can also be helpful in your search. We'll go deeper into methods for searching these databases in the Finding the Right Research section of this tutorial, but in the meantime:

Take a look at the drop-down list of subject research guides and find the research guide most relevant to your research question(s). If you haven't had luck finding relevant background sources using books or reference works, go ahead and use your keywords to search some of the key databases in the field.

Okay, so you've created some initial research questions, derived keywords based on those questions, and found and read a bit of background research on your question. How, then, do you move from your initial research question into something more refined? Let's demonstrate one way this process could work:

An Illustrative Example

Let's say your initial question was:

How has the media represented the male body?

You searched for these terms in a database, and you found a variety of sources related to the topic, but it quickly became clear that the topic was too broad. You use what the background sources you found to narrow your focus, by adding a specific medium and a time period:

How did film represent the male body in the 1990s?

That's a better, more manageable topic, but it still doesn't suggest which sources are going to be relevant for your argument.

Consider, instead, the questions that could be asked related to your topic. They could be questions around historical change, such as:

How did representations of the male body on film change from the 1980s to the 1990s? 

Or they could be questions around societal effects, such as:

How did representations of the male body on film shape the body perceptions of male teenagers in the 1990s?

Tips on Creating Good Research Questions

We can see in the example above that the process involves brainstorming, investigation, and refinement. Honing your skills in this takes time. However, these tips can help you at any level of experience:

Don't Set Your Question in Stone Too Quickly

Like your research topic, your research question will evolve. Allow the process of discovery to refine your question or send you into different directions. The questions on male body representation outlined above may be good starting questions, but inevitably they would change based on what their researchers find.

Keep Verbs in Mind

One difference between research topics and questions is that the questions have verbs; in the examples, we see "represent, "change," and "shape."  Good research questions will include strong verbs, and more often than not, those verbs will describe a relationship between one or more entities. Examples:

"What role does X have in causing Y?"

"How does A affect B?"

"How does P help us understand the meaning of Q?"

Pay close attention to the verbs in your question--they can help direct your research, or let you know you need to put in some more work in defining your question.

Question Your Terms and Assumptions

Look at the terms you're using in your question. What are you taking for granted that could use further investigation or explanation? Take the examples above: when we say "representations," what do we mean? Who are we including under "male"? What are we meaning by "body perceptions"? Questioning our terms can point to deeper research questions, or at least help us do a better job of exploring our existing question (i.e., how are men of different races and classes represented differently in film, etc.?). 

Based on the investigation you've done so far and the initial research questions you wrote, compose at least two to three refined research questions on your topic. You can use the question templates in the "Keep Verbs in Mind" section above as a guide, if you wish. Remember, these are just starting points--your questions will evolve as you do more research.