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Literature Reviews

Guidance on conducting a narrative literature review for dissertations and theses

The Goal

Do you need a just few good articles, or do you need to be comprehensive? Developing a search strategy is a balance between needing a very precise search that yields fewer highly relevant results or a comprehensive search (high retrieval) with lower precision. The focus of a narrative literature review for a dissertation or thesis is thoroughness, so you should aim for high retrieval.

Balance between precision and retrieval

Search Process

  • Identify the concepts in your research question.
  • Create a list of words which researchers would use to describe each concept.
  • Add synonyms, acronyms, and alternative terms that are related to the concept.
  • Think of alternative spellings and word endings.
  • Scan the database's thesaurus (if one is available) for subject headings related to your topic.

Library databases are an important tool for searching the literature because they

  • Focus on the literature of a specific discipline
  • More reliably contain high-quality resources
  • Have advanced search features and filtering options
  • May lead to content that is not on the Web.

How do you choose from the hundreds of databases we have?

Google Scholar is a popular tool for searching and should be included for a comprehensive search because it

  • May find journal articles and other works not indexed in the databases.
  • Can give you an idea of where the research is being published.
  • Usually searches the entire document rather than just the abstract and keywords.
  • Can provide ideas for alternate keywords.

Keys for Effective Searching

  • Learn about general search tips and strategies for databases and Google Scholar.
  • Understand that you will need to adapt your search strategy when switching databases. Consult database help files to determine their search rules.
  • Look for database tutorials and guides, or ask your subject librarian for a demonstration.
  • Ask your subject librarian for advice on your search strategy.


Keep a research log to track your keywords, databases searched, search strategies, etc. Here's an example research log for inspiration. The University of Missouri Libraries also provides suggestions on How & What to Document.


Creating a Search Strategy

The 5-minute video below demonstrates how to build a search strategy.

Creating a Search Strategy, University of Arizona Libraries


Phrase Searching and Truncation

The following 2-minute video shows how to incorporate phrase searching and truncation into your search strategy.

Phrase Searching and Truncations, University of Texas


  • Examine the search results, and adjust your strategy as needed.
  • Export relevant citations to a citation manager.
  • Save the search strategy, and create alerts as needed.
  • Ask for help if you're not getting the results you expect.


Too many results?

  • Use more specific terms, or add another concept.
  • Apply search filters or limits.
  • Check your logic. Are you using OR correctly?
  • Use proximity operators.
  • Search within specific fields (e.g., abstract, title, subject).


Too few results?

  • Use fewer search terms.
  • Broaden your search (e.g., undergraduates instead of sophomores).
  • Remove a filter/limit that you've applied.
  • Examine your search strategy for possible spelling or logic errors. Are you using search operators correctly?


Additional Search Strategies

Also use these strategies to ensure that you have conducted a thorough literature search.

Citation searching is a useful way to discover relevant research by looking at what authors have cited and who has cited that their work. This 4-minute video from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater demonstrates how citation searching can contribute to a literature review.

Try directly searching key journals through the publisher's web site, especially if the journals are not indexed by the databases. You may discover newly published articles that have not appeared in the databases yet.

While it can be fruitful to search large publishers' web sites (such as ACS, ACM, IEEE, and Taylor & Francis), remember you are searching only a single publisher's content. For a comprehensive search, you should include the key databases in your area.

Some databases provide a link to related records leading you to articles that share cited references with the article you're examining. Don't worry about the large number of results that come up. The list is sorted by the number of shared reference in common, and the more relevant articles are near the top. The video below shows how to find related records in Web of Science.

Make sure you have found the seminal works or influential researchers for your area. Often, these landmark publications were published quite some time ago, so you may easily miss them if you have set date limits on your search.

  • Examine the bibliographies of your selected articles for references that are cited repeatedly.
  • Scan books, especially your textbooks, related to your topic for overviews, history, or background information. Look at the list of references.
  • Search for your topic in Web of Science and Scopus (with no date limits), and sort the results by Times Cited or Cited by to see the most cited articles in the area. Use caution, however. Some articles are highly cited because the research is controversial.
  • Read the literature review sections of other dissertations on the same or related topic.
  • Search Oxford Bibliographies to find authoritative guides to current scholarship on a topic.

What is Grey Literature?

Grey literature encompasses materials that are produced outside the traditional publishing channels and includes conference proceedings, dissertations, preprints, research reports, white papers, etc. While some databases include grey literature, you will need to search the web sites of government agencies, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, etc. for comprehensiveness.

This 3-minute video from Western University (Ontario, Canada) describes what grey literature is and how it can useful for your research.


Tips for Searching the Grey Literature

While some library databases include grey literature, you will need to search the web sites of government agencies, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, etc. for comprehensiveness.

  • Think about who is likely to research the topic.
  • Using Google is a better option than searching with Google Scholar.
  • Try adding site: to your Google search. For example,
    • site:gov
    • site:org
    • site:uk
  • Ask your subject librarian for help.

A research project can take several months, so it's important to keep up with the most current research on your topic. Consider setting up RSS feeds or email alerts for

Creating Database Search Alerts

Many databases allow you to create email alerts for updated search results, the table of contents from the latest journal issue, or if an article has been recently cited. The links below lead to instructions for some of the more commonly used database interfaces. Contact your subject librarian if you need assistance.



Browzine is a tool that enables you to browse, read, and monitor the content of journals subscribed by UT Libraries. The 2.5-minute video below demonstrates how to set up, organize, and monitor your bookshelf.


When to Stop Searching

Woman sleeping with laptop

If you have searched the article databases and start to see the same articles over and over again, then you have done your due diligence and can consider your literature review complete. That isn't to say an article might not slip through, but if you have done the steps below, then the chances of a really important article slipping past you are slim.

  1. Searched all relevant databases, using a variety of keywords and subject headings.
  2. Mined article bibliographies for their cited references.
  3. Looked in Google Scholar, Scopus, and Web of Science to see who has cited those articles.

The 4-minute video below provides guidance on when to stop reading and start writing.


When to Stop Reading and Start Writing, Erasmus University Library.


Content on this page comes from "Literature Review - A Self-Guided Tutorial," IUPUI.
Image by garetsvisual on Freepik