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Literature Review Step by Step

First Steps

To decide on a topic:

Choose a topic that interests YOU. 

  • Narrow your topic to something manageable. (More on this further down)
  • Background reading (quick, you can skim until you are interested. See links below for access to this.)
  • Review the guidelines on topic selection outlined in your assignment.  
  • Refer to lecture notes and required texts to refresh your knowledge of the course and assignment.
  • Talk about research ideas with a friend who may be able to help focus your topic by discussing issues that didn't occur to you at first.

The best way to get this right is to really use your own imagination to see what you respond to. Your first tries are important. You can narrow them down later.

How to Narrow your Topic for Literature Review

Here are some ways to narrow your topic:

Theoretical approach:  Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.  For example, if your topic concerns cloning, examine the theories surrounding of the high rate of failures in animal cloning.

Aspect or sub-area:  Consider only one piece of the subject.  For example, if your topic is human cloning, investigate government regulation of cloning.

Time:  Limit the time span you examine.  For example, on a topic in genetics, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's versus the 1990's.

Population group:  Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group.  For example, on a topic in genetics, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.

Geographical location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue.   For example, if your topic concerns cloning, investigate cloning practices in Europe or the Middle East.

(From MIT Libraries)

Places to look for Background Information

For Literature Review (Only)

Once you identify your general area of interest, start clarifying your ideas by asking questions.  Clear, specific and answerable research question(s) are essential to a successful review. For instance ‘Is family therapy an effective treatment for anorexia nervosa?’ will be a more effective question and produce a more focused set of search results than ‘How do I help people with eating disorders?

Though you want a clearly defined topic at the outset, it is a natural that the topic will alter as you learn more about what has been writtlen about it. However it is important that you retain a clear point of view or theory as you work.


Once you start to narrow your topic, finding the right keywords is important. Don't be afraid to let your topic change as you do more research. Note: when the narrator says "one search" what she really means is "Article Quick Search"

If you cannot access the above video, you can watch it here

Find it! (Full Text Finder)

When searching the library databases, look for thefull text finder buttonbutton to locate the full-text of an article or request interlibrary loan for items that the Library does not own.

Defining your Topic and Search Terms

❖ Start by putting your topic into a sentence.

Example: What effect does seeing fights and shootings have on children?

❖ Separate out the terms that can not be removed from your question without destroying the meaning.

Examples: See; fighting/shooting; kids

❖ Think of synonyms.

Examples: See= witness, experience, observe
                Children=kids, juveniles, minors
Fighting/shooting= aggression, violence   

❖ Type a selection of terms in to the Search box. 
Example: Children and violence and (see or experience or witness)

From the results landing page you can add more filters in the left hand column.

Background Reading

When considering a choice of topic for your assignment, you need to read quickly and at times skim content. As you go through material, notice when your interest increases or decreases.  This will help you decide which aspect of a broad topic really interests you.

What resources should you be reading quickly and even skimming? Traditionally encyclopedia articles provide this kind of general description of a topic, and they can be very useful. But always notice when the encyclopedia was published. If your topic is about an issue in contemporary life such as education, public health, sociology or medicine, research in these areas moves very quickly. In these cases finding a credible website can offer guidance to more up to date research than the encyclopedia. For a deep dive in to the topic, encyclopedia articles can be invaluable.

What Database to Use for What Topic

If you're looking for... Try using... For...
history of photography library catalog, eBook Central, Ebsco ebook collection books
popular articles on dating websites Academic Search Premier, Academic OneFile, Article Quick Search magazines
scholarly articles on phobia Psycinfo, Annual Reviews, Article Quick Search journal articles
scholarly articles on nanotubes Science Direct, Compendex, Scifinder, Article Quick Search journal articles
a breaking national event CNN, (media sites on web) websites
a local event Boston Globe, Lowell Sun websites
statistics on unemployment US Department of Labor website
an overview of eating disorders Sage Knowledge, Credo Reference, CQ Researcher encyclopedia