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Literature Review

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

Determining Relevance

Deciding whether a source is relevant to your purposes can be more challenging than it would initially seem. It's not simply a matter of finding sources that use the keywords you've landed on for your topic and research question. Rather, you need to really determine the "aboutness" of the source: What questions is it trying to answer?

Let's look at an example. Let's say your research question for your literature review is:

To what degree does social media use contribute to symptoms of depression?

In searching for articles that might address this question, you come across the two in this slideshow:

Both articles are on the topic of social media use (in this case, Instagram) and depression. But take a closer look at the titles and descriptions, and then recall the question you're trying to answer.

Which article will help you explore how other scholars have tried to answer your research question?

The article on Slide 1 focuses on using Instagram as a tool for screening for and predicting depression, whereas the one on Slide 2 is focused on the ways Instagram use may cause depressive symptoms. So in this case, the source on Slide 2 is the relevant one.

A source doesn't always have to directly address the same question you're investigating in order to be relevant for inclusion in your literature review. Sometimes a source addresses a variation on or portion of your question, and sometimes it may use theories or research methods that are relevant to the discussion. Ultimately, your general criterion for determining relevance should be not "Is this source on my topic?" but rather:

Does this source help me explore my research question?

Remember: in a literature review, all or most of your sources should be original research. You may come across textbooks, general introductions, or reference works that are relevant and seemingly helpful in answering your research question, but those sources are generally written through distilling insights from sources in scholarly journals. Make sure you use the original source where the research appeared.

Understanding How a Source Fits Into the Story

Determining whether a source is relevant to the question you're exploring is vital, but it's only the first step in the process of analyzing a source. Remember, you're telling a scholarly story, and as we mentioned at the beginning, 1) The plot is the research on a topic done over a period of time and 2) the characters are the researchers who engaged in that work. Extending that metaphor, you'll need to explore whether a given source is a minor plot point featuring side characters or a major episode with central figures driving the story forward.

To do this, you'll need to examine two aspects of every source:

What the source is saying--its arguments, methods, evidence, and conclusions


the explicit and implicit responses to that source by other researchers, scholars, and critics.

Let's explore how to engage in this process.

In a scholarly literature review, the majority of sources you'll be using will be peer-reviewed, scholarly articles, as this is considered the main arena in which the scholarly conversation takes place. These sources can make for difficult reading, even for experts.

Luckily, despite the often-dense nature of academic material, it frequently also follows structural patterns that we can use as guideposts in our reading. This video breaks down the major parts of academic articles and suggests a useful process for reading them, a process sometimes known as "pre-reading" or "purposeful skimming":

Scholarly articles won't always use standardized subsection headers, like Abstract, Introduction, Discussion, and so on, but scholars will still engage in familiar sets of analytical actions regardless of whether they're explicitly labeled as such. Learning to identify these actions takes practice; we'll get into the details in the next section.

Theoretically, peer review yields the highest quality of research. That's often indeed the case, but there is plenty of peer-reviewed research that is methodologically poor or reaches specious conclusions, so it's important to dive in and closely read the sources you've deemed relevant to your literature review. This section will give you some guidance on how to locate and comprehend the arguments, methods, evidence, and conclusions of a scholarly source.

Note: Depending on the field you're working within, there may be important sources that appear outside of peer-reviewed, scholarly journals. This is especially the case in the humanities and some social sciences. These sources may require a different approach for reading and comprehension.

To identify an argument, take a look at the introductory sections in an article, chapter, or book. As shown in "Formal Moves in Scholarly Work," the introductory area is where scholars will lay out where their paper fits into the bigger picture of the scholarly conversation. As part of that, they will assert their own argument, discuss their findings, and explain the crux of their analysis. Here's one example from an article about selfies:

Not every text will state its intentions and argument as clearly as this one does; still, in it we see clues on what to look out for when identifying an argument:

  • Notice when the authors refer to themselves or their articles ("In this article, I argue that...")
  • If you don't see any instances of self-reference, then look for any reference in the introduction to the methodology used; the argument is sure to be close by
  • Keep a close watch for keywords other than "argue(s)" or "argument," such as "analyzes," "demonstrates," "suggests that," or "provides evidence for/against."

Descriptions of research methods, processes, and analytical approaches vary widely depending on the subject area an author is writing in. Similarly, while you'll get a hint of the method in the introduction, where in a text that fuller descriptions appear can vary. Sometimes they make it easy for you and title a section "Method" or "Methodology," but other times you'll have to do a bit of digging. Here's an example of the latter:

We don't see "Method" in the section title, but we do see "Approach," a close synonym. And as with the example in "Identifying the Argument," we also see self-referential language about what the authors did in their study. Given that certain fields of scholarship are especially allergic to the use of "I" pronouns, this language will sometimes be in passive voice, i.e., "Faculty and librarians were asked to engage..."

Descriptions of methods and processes can sometimes be very involved, so it may take some rereading to fully understand. Also, in some fields (particularly the natural sciences), methods are standardized, and knowledge of their details may be assumed. You may need to look at outside descriptions of those methods in order to get a complete picture of the procedure that an author followed.

Summarizing (and evaluating) evidence and analysis is the most substantive part of the source analysis process. It can be immensely helpful to start by zeroing in on how a source is structuring its analysis. The slideshow below illustrates a few patterns you'll commonly run into:

Once you've determined the structure, it's time to wade into the details. When you do this, you should have the goal of answering three key questions:

What are the facets of the argument?

You've identified the broad argument, but what are the details that make up that argument?

What evidence is being used in support of the argument?

Where does the evidence come from? Does the evidence support the conclusions? Why or why not?

What are the limitations of the author's analysis?

How broadly can the conclusions be applied? Are they limited to certain populations, regions, etc.?

Complete answers to these questions will give you a solid sense of the content of the source and have you well on your way to evaluating it for use in your literature review.

Of course, this is often easier said than done. If you're running into problems understanding the content of a source, it can help to keep a few things in mind:

  • Perseverance is key with dense academic material, for scholars at all levels. You may simply have to read the source multiple times to fully grasp what's being argued.
  • If you run into a paragraph or section that is particularly challenging, it can help to map the structural function of that section. Why does that paragraph/section appear where it does? What purpose is it serving? This outline of Formal Moves in Scholarly Work can be helpful in this process. Pay particular attention to the Argumentative Moves section, as you'll see a lot of these actions cropping up.
  • Try searching Credo Reference, the library's General Search, or Wikipedia for additional work that may help clarify any ideas you run into that confuse you.
  • An source's bibliography can be a great place to find other materials that'll help the source make more sense.

Activity: Analyzing a Source

Since you're going to be analyzing multiple sources for your literature review, it makes sense to have a central place to track your work. This spreadsheet will help with that. We'll be using it in this activity, too, so go ahead and download and open it now.

Download Literature Review Source Matrix Template.xls

This spreadsheet aims for maximum flexibility and applicability, so you'll notice other columns in addition to Argument, Methodology, and Analysis columns that you may be expecting. You may find these columns helpful especially when you're trying to find trends and patterns around which you can organize the drafting of your literature review.

Choose a source from those that you've collected. If you haven't already pre-read the source, go ahead and do so now following the process outlined in the video in the section above.

This is a great time to do some basic mapping of the source through marginal notes, whether in a printed copy or using a PDF reader that allows for comments and markup. (Adobe Reader DC is a great free option.) If you can find and mark where the argument, method, and analysis occur in the source, you'll be ahead of the game for Step 3.

Having pre-read the source and noted where relevant sections appear, now it's time to do a deeper read. First, read through the source in full, getting a global sense of the source's argument. Then, go back through and engage in each step outlined in "Analyzing Individual Sources" above, recording your understanding of:

  1. The source's argument
  2. Details of its methodology
  3. Key parts of the analysis and evidence used

Use the appropriate field on the source matrix for each step.

Now you'll investigate the scholarly context of the source using the methods outlined above. What are the key sources being cited? How many sources have cited this source? And have there been any substantive responses to the argument the source is making? Put anything of note in the Connections to Other Sources field. You may also find that in the process of putting a source in context you start to begin to evaluate the quality of your source's argument; you can put any thoughts you have on this in the Evaluation & Notes field.

You may find that not many other scholars have overtly engaged with the source you're looking at, and that's okay. Sometimes the connections between sources are only revealed once you've looked at a number of different sources and made connections between them. This is why you want to repeat this process for each source you're potentially going to cite in your literature review. We'll dive deeper into finding patterns among multiple sources in the next section.