Do you want to do a good literature review? Here’s how.

You have been given the task of doing a literature review. It could be for an assignment, a paper you are writing, for a research proposal or for submitting your original article to a journal to get it published.

This is a daunting task to say the least. How will you find the most recent studies done? How can you find all the studies done about the most specific topic ever? Has someone already written an article on this topic? Well, here’s how you do it.

There are steps we usually follow to do a review of literature. First, we have a topic of research. This topic has two or more important keywords in it. For e.g. In the topic “association between e-cigarettes and smoking cessation” the key words are “e-cigarettes” and “smoking cessation” . (I did a systematic review for this topic, thus using this example). Pick two or more important words in your topic. We start with:

  1. Google:

Using Google has advantages and disadvantages. If you are allowed to use Grey Literature, then Google is a good option. You can get government reports, news articles, videos, images etc from Google. Just type in one key word at a time/ combination of words and look at the results.

However, what you really want are the scholarly articles about your topic. For this, use:

2. Google Scholar:

Photo credit: http://guides.libs.uga.edu/c.php?g=349639&p=2691568

This is more specific that using Google. It will give you links to scholarly articles that have been published. So, go ahead and type in your keyword. Remember to type one key word at a time and see the results. Then, type in two or more key words in combination.

You can use different versions of the same key word or use shortcuts like * . For e.g. e-cigarette* will give you results where the key word is e-cigarette and e-cigarettes. If you use smok* you will get results with the key words smoke, smokes, smoking, smoker, smokers, etc. This makes a search more comprehensive and you will not miss out on articles that have key words which are similar but grammatically different.

Using single key word for search: e-cigarettes
Using shortcut to search for related words: e-cigarette*
Using combination of two words for search: e-cigarette* smoking cessation

Once you have typed in your key word, look at the right hand side of the title of the article. There will be a link to get the full article in pdf/ html format. Click on that link to get the full article.

To get the full article: Click on the link given on right hand side.

There are other shortcuts that can be used while searching as well. e.g. using AND to combine two key words will give you articles that have both the key words, using OR to combine two key words will give you articles with either key word in it etc. This link will give you other such shortcuts.

Always try using different versions of the same word. For e.g. Some articles might not use the words “smoking cessation”, they may use “quit smoking”. Also, some articles might not use “e-cigarettes”, they may use “vaping”. Make a short list of all the possible words that articles use to describe your area of interest. Go strategically through your list, using every word or combination of words. For e.g. combine vap* with smoking cessation, combine e-cigarette* with quit* smoking etc. This will give you the best results for a comprehensive literature review.

The issue with using Google Scholar is that it does not include all scholarly articles. Also, not all articles will be available in full text. Thus, the next step is to search more databases. Lets start with a database that is easily accessible to everyone:

3. PubMed:

In PubMed, there is a search bar that you can use to type in your key word.

Using PubMed for searching scholarly articles

You will find a number of articles related to your key word. You can narrow down to your specific area of interest with the help of Filter and Sort.

Filter to find RCT, Meta analysis, Clinical trials etc
Sort with Title, Author name

If your review needs only Randomized Control Trials then use Filter, if your topic is very specific, then Sort by using Title or Author.

Your can also use options given by PubMed like Related searches on the right hand side, Text availability on the left hand side.

Just like in Google Scholar, there are shortcuts in PubMed to combine two key words or search for a phrase. You can find these shortcuts here.

The issue with searching only one database is that, there are articles which are present in one database and not in others. So, if we search only PubMed, we might miss an article present in PsycINFO. This missing article might turn out to be a very important article for your review. For a comprehensive review, search at least two or more databases.

The other databases available are:

  1. Cochrane
  2. EMBASE
  3. Web of Science
  4. BIOSIS etc.
PsycINFO search for E-cigarette and smoking cessation showing 248 articles
Embase search for Vap* and smok* cessation
Web of Science search

Access to these databases and full articles might vary depending on your university’s access. If you don’t have access, try not to pay for articles but email the corresponding author. He/ she might send you the full article.

The rules are mostly the same for these databases. Have a few key words, with their different versions. Search these key words one by one and in combination, try selecting only Title for search, use AND / OR / other shortcuts to get specific articles. A good literature review includes the most recent studies, which you will get in different databases.

You can use Snowball technique as well. In this technique, you get a full article about your topic of interest, go through the references in that article and search for articles given there. It is a very effective method to find related articles quickly. Similarly, you can use systematic reviews and meta-analysis articles to look for previous research done about your selected topic.

A literature review will help you learn what research has been done already, what questions are still unanswered, what limitations of previous research have to be overcome etc. Use the above information for a comprehensive literature review and write an excellent paper. All the best.


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