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Literature Review

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

Selecting the Right Databases

In the previous section, we touched on the specialized databases and research guides available through the library. Now it's time to take a closer look, because choosing the right databases to search within can make the difference between finding a wealth of sources and finding little to nothing.

Let's take a quick guided tour of a research guide to help you get oriented.

Now that you've taken a tour, go ahead and find the subject guide that's most applicable to your paper in the drop-down menu below.

Working with Keywords

In the previous step, we explored generating and using keywords to engage in exploratory research to define a research question. The process of defining your question has undoubtedly already led you to some sources.

However, when working on a literature review, you'll need to be more thorough and systematic in your search, and knowing how to use search tricks in databases can help you immensely in that process. Many databases support the use of Boolean operators, exact phrase searching, and wild card symbols, and most provide parameters that can limit your search to particular date ranges or document types. These can be combined to create precise and powerful searches.

Check out each tab for details on each of these techniques.

Searches that include the words AND, OR, or NOT operate in a particular way in most databases. Rather than searching for those words (also known as "Boolean" operators), the database treats them as instructions on how to treat your search terms. These diagrams illustrate: 


As you can see, Boolean operators can give you a great deal more control over a search. Looking for an article on a particular topic? Use the AND operator to narrow your search to articles that include all your terms. Not sure which term scholars use for an idea? Use the OR operator to search for several synonyms at the same time. Are you getting a bunch of irrelevant results mixed in with relevant ones (i.e., you're looking for the cat "jaguar" but the search keeps returning the Jaguar car company)? Try the NOT operator to exclude certain results.

Sometimes it's not a keyword you're looking for, but a key phrase. Imagine you're looking for criticism on an important work with an ordinary-sounding title, like The Order of Things or The Theory of the Novel--how can you ensure that you don't end up with thousands of irrelevant results? The trick is to do an exact-phrase search, which you do by putting the phrase you're looking for between quotation marks. Thus, instead of searching for

the theory of the novel

try searching for

"the theory of the novel"

What if you're searching for an idea that uses many variations on a similar word? Take, for example:

psychology, psychologist, psychological

You could use the OR operator and type all of these (and more) into the search field, or you could use a wild card symbol, like this:


Be careful where you place your wild card. If, for example, you were to use


you might end up with results pertaining to the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. You can also use wild card symbols within words to accommodate varying spellings. For example:

color OR colour

can become


Note: Not all databases support this function; most that do use an asterisk (*) for their wild card, but some use a question mark (?).

Most databases also allow for the refinement or limiting of searches based on specific parameters. These will often appear on the main search page, as with this EBSCO database:

A limited number will also appear on the search results page as well:

Remember, not all databases look alike, and they vary in user-friendliness. It may take some digging to find the limiters sections in a database that you're less familiar with.

These techniques can be used in combination to create targeted searches through the use of nested searches. Nested search involves using parentheses in combination with the operators already covered. For example, if you wanted (for some reason) to find articles that mention cats and either dogs or pigeons, you could use multiple Boolean operators in a search:

(cats AND (dogs OR pigeons))

You can also combine every technique into a very complex targeted search:

((film OR movie OR "motion picture") AND psychol* NOT "alfred hitchcock")

From there, you can also use the date, document type, or other limiters to further refine your search.

Note: It can be tempting to get carried away with creating precise searches like this, often with mixed results. If using these techniques is resulting in few or no articles being returned in your searches, remember to broaden your search, whether through eliminating keywords or by using the OR operator.

Citation Hunting


Using keywords to search databases is a great way to find sources, but it's not the only way. Writers and researchers are always working in conversation with others who've come before them, and conveniently, they'll often tell you exactly what writing they're responding to and where to find it. In many ways, a bibliography (aka "references" or "works cited") is the most valuable part of a book or article, because it will point you to more work on the same topic.

Finding a source's bibliography is refreshingly straightforward; you just go to the end of the article (or chapter or book), and it's waiting there for you (though sometimes the references will be in the footnotes at the bottom of each page).

Citation Databases

If a bibliography let's you look in one direction, citation databases let you look in the other. In these database, you can see which articles have cited a source you're reading. Google Scholar is one such database. (You can reach Google Scholar through the Databases tab on the library's homepage. More information on setting up Google Scholar to interface with Cushing Library's website is available here.)

To access this feature, click on the "Cited By" link on the source record. This will lead you to a page (or pages) of article records that have cited that source, pointing you towards similar work that could be useful in your exploratory research. The "Related Articles" link can also be a useful trail to follow.

Try searching for the title of an article in the search field below:

Google Scholar Search

Activity: Using These Techniques Together

Select a research guide from the drop-down menu in Part 1 above. Navigate to the Articles page, and select a database from the list. Make sure you take a close look at database descriptions; they provide a good clue to the major databases in your subject and can let you know which databases are more narrowly focused than others.

Do some keyword searching using the techniques described above. Play around, do multiple searches, and see what you can find. If you initially find few results, don't give up--you may need to use fewer keywords or to try different ones. Take a look at the abstracts and keywords associated with any results that come up, because those can guide you towards different keywords that lead to more results. Find an article that is listed as peer reviewed or being from an academic journal.

When you find an article that interests you, locate the full text of that article. Sometimes the full text is included within the database itself, as with the two examples below:

Sometimes, however, the full-text of an article will not be included in a database, even if it has a record for the article listed. In that case, you will see a link the Full Text Resolver, which will search other databases in our collection for the full text. Those links look something like this:

For the purposes of this activity, if you're unable to find the full text of the article in the library's collection, move on and try to find the full text of another article. However, remember, the library has interlibrary loan services available that can track down copies of articles for you free of charge. Never pay for an article.

Skip to the bibliography/reference list of the article you've found. Usually this will be located at the end of the article, but sometimes the references are listed as footnotes on each page. Look at the titles of the sources listed. Do any seem relevant, interesting, or important? When you find one that does, copy the title of that article.

Then, navigate back to the database's search bar, paste the title into the search box, and search for the title of that article.

If it comes up, and the full text is available, fantastic! Move to Step 5. If it doesn't come up, you may be able to find the article in the library's General Search (located on the library's homepage) or find a copy on the open web via Google Scholar. Otherwise, once again, you can put in an interlibrary loan request.

You've probably guessed the next step: copy the title of an article that interests you (it could be the original one you found or the one you searched for in Step 4), and search for it in Google Scholar. Click on the Cited By button as demonstrated above, and find an article that interests you. Look for the PDF or Find Full Text links on the right side of the page to locate the full text. (For more information on how to set up Google Scholar to work with the library's catalog, follow the instructions here.)