Search the literature to gather the works of scholars who have addressed your research question.
Remember: the literature review is an iterative process!
The following is a transcript of a video lecture available here.
To review the literature, you’ll need to search library catalogs, article databases, Google Scholar, and other sources to gather the works of scholars who have addressed your research question.
By the end of this e-lecture, you’ll be able to plan your steps to search the literature. Steps include:
Save time! When you begin your research (and, if you like, throughout the process), work with a librarian to map out a systematic search strategy. The number of resources for research, especially at Harvard, is vast. And working on a research question that spans the disciplines is complex. During a research or dissertation consultation, a librarian will work with you to identify relevant databases and search terms as well as match you to a tool to help you manage your research.
Get the big picture. As you’re framing your research question, you’ll need to understand broad concepts. Search the library catalog for books. Books, especially subject encyclopedias and handbooks, provide overviews of complex topics, identify key authors, and suggest search terms. Because books synthesize the literature, they provide important background knowledge and save you from wading through thousands of articles before you’ve focused your question.
For example, if you’re interested in the influence of parenting on empathy in children, you may want to understand how parents influence children’s social development in general. A search for this topic in the article literature would retrieve thousands of articles, most of which would look at the issue from a narrow perspective.
But a catalog search for
parenting social development handbook retrieves handbooks, which include broad overview chapters on social development. For example, one handbook includes a chapter, The interplay between parents and peers as socializing influences in children’s development.
While you’re still trying to focus your research question, let the authors of the books and book chapters guide you to relevant article literature. Mine their reference lists to identify both current and seminal article literature.
At Harvard, to get the full text of references you’re interested in, use Citation Linker.
After you complete your initial reading, you’ll have a better understanding of your area of inquiry and will focus your research question.
Now you’re ready to identify article databases to search for bodies of literature relevant to your research question; most social science research questions span the disciplines, so be prepared to search in more than one place.
Use language from your research question to begin your search. And as you get results, use the subject vocabulary of the databases to generate new search terms. If your research question includes the phrase
civic engagement, begin with a search for that phrase. Notice that the subject terms that appear in your search results include “citizen participation,” “social participation,” and “political participation.”
Generate a new search that includes those terms.
If you’re not finding much on a topic, a way to continue your search is to use “pearl” or “exemplar” article searching. Identify an article that most closely addresses your research question, check its subject headings in the database, and then use those terms for additional searching. You’ll also want to mine your pearl article’s reference list
Be flexible. If you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, you might look at bodies of research closely related to your question and see where you can find relationships.
For example, let’s say you’re not getting results when searching for literature on the effect of teacher instructional beliefs on student academic persistence. When reviewing the literature on instructional beliefs, you discover literature about the impact of instructional beliefs on reading achievement. You also know that the effects of reading achievement on academic persistence are well-documented. Now you can make inferences about the connection between instructional beliefs and academic persistence.
We’ve talked about mining reference lists to find additional articles. When you do that you’ll be looking backwards in time for the works an author has cited. To search forward in time, use cited reference searching to find later works that cite a particularly useful work.
For example, if you’re interested in finding articles that cite a 2008 work by Hiro Yoshikawa in the journal Developmental Psychology, use the cited reference search feature in Web of Science, PsycINFO, Google Scholar and other databases
The Literature Review: A Research Journey by Colin Madland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://guides.library.harvard.edu/literaturereview.