What is a Literature Review? What is its purpose?
The purpose of a literature review is to offer a comprehensive review of scholarly literature on a specific topic along with an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of authors' arguments. In other words, you are summarizing research available on a certain topic and then drawing conclusions about researchers' findings. To make gathering research easier, be sure to start with a narrow/specific topic and then widen your topic if necessary.
A thorough literature review provides an accurate description of current knowledge on a topic and identifies areas for future research. Are there gaps or areas that require further study and exploration? What opportunities are there for further research? What is missing from my collection of resources? Are more resources needed?
It is important to note that conclusions described in the literature you gather may contradict each other completely or in part. Recognize that knowledge creation is collective and cumulative. Current research is built upon past research findings and discoveries. Research may bring previously accepted conclusions into question. A literature review presents current knowledge on a topic and may point out various academic arguments within the discipline.
What a Literature Review is not
From the Online Library
The Literature Review: Step by Step
Follow this step-by-step process by using the related tabs in this Guide.
Consider the following questions as you develop your research topic, conduct your research, and begin evaluating the resources discovered in the research process:
What is Academic Literature?
What is the difference between popular and scholarly literature?
To better understand the differences between popular and scholarly articles, comparing characteristics and purpose of the publications where these articles appear is helpful.
Popular Article (Magazine)
Examples of magazines that contain popular articles:
Scholarly Article (Academic Journal)
Examples of academic journals that contain scholarly articles:
Define your research question
Selecting a research topic can be overwhelming. Consider following these steps:
1. Brainstorm research topic ideas
- Free write: Set a timer for five minutes and write down as many ideas as you can in the allotted time
- Mind-Map to explore how ideas are related
2. Prioritize topics based on personal interest and curiosity
- Explore encyclopedias and reference books for background information on the topic
- Perform a quick database or Google search on the topic to explore current issues.
4. Focus the topic by evaluating how much information is available on the topic
- Too much information? Consider narrowing the topic by focusing on a specific issue
- Too little information? Consider broadening the topic
5. Determine your purpose by considering whether your research is attempting to:
- further the research on this topic
- fill a gap in the research
- support existing knowledge with new evidence
- take a new approach or direction
- question or challenge existing knowledge
6. Finalize your research question
NOTE: Be aware that your initial research question may change as you conduct research on your topic.
Searching the Literature
Research on your topic should be conducted in the academic literature. The Rasmussen University Online Library contains subject-focused databases that contain the leading academic journals in your programmatic area.
Consult the Using the Online Library video tutorials for information about how to effectively search library databases.
Watch the video below for tips on how to create a search statement that will provide relevant results
Need help starting your research? Make a research appointment with a Rasmussen Librarian.
TIP: Document as you research. Begin building your references list using the citation managers in one of these resources:
Recommended programmatic databases include:
Analyzing Your Research Results
You have completed your research and discovered many, many academic articles on your topic. The next step involves evaluating and organizing the literature found in the research process.
As you review, keep in mind that there are three types of research studies:
Consider these questions as you review the articles you have gathered through the research process:
1. Does the study relate to your topic?
2. Were sound research methods used in conducting the study?
3. Does the research design fit the research question? What variables were chosen? Was the sample size adequate?
4. What conclusions were drawn? Do the authors point out areas for further research?
Reading Academic Literature
Academic journals publish the results of research studies performed by experts in an academic discipline. Articles selected for publication go through a rigorous peer-review process. This process includes a thorough evaluation of the research submitted for publication by journal editors and other experts or peers in the field. Editors select articles based on specific criteria including the research methods used, whether the research contributes new findings to the field of study, and how the research fits within the scope of the academic journal. Articles selected often go through a revision process prior to publication.
Most academic journal articles include the following sections:
TIP: To begin selecting articles for your research, read the highlighted sections to determine whether the academic journal article includes information relevant to your research topic.
Step 1: Skim the article
When sorting through multiple articles discovered in the research process, skimming through these sections of the article will help you determine whether the article will be useful in your research.
1. Article title and subject headings assigned to the article
If the article fits your information need, go back and read the article thoroughly.
Step 2: Determine Your Purpose
Think about how you will evaluate the academic articles you find and how you will determine whether to include them in your research project. Ask yourself the following questions to focus your search in the academic literature:
Step 3: Read Critically
Before reading the article, ask yourself the following:
As you read the article make note of the following:
Writing the Literature Review
Once research has been completed, it is time to structure the literature review and begin summarizing and synthesizing information. The following steps may help with this process:
From the Online Library
Boolean Operators connect keywords or concepts logically to retrieve relevant articles, books, and other resources. There are three Boolean Operators:
Venn diagram of the AND connector
Example: The result list will include resources that include both keywords -- "distracted driving" and "texting" -- in the same article or resource, represented in the shaded area where the circles intersect (area shaded in purple).
Venn diagram of the OR connector
Example: The result list will include resources that include the keyword "texting" OR the keyword "cell phone" (entire area shaded in blue); either is acceptable.
Venn diagram of the NOT connector
Example: The result list will include all resources that include the term "car" (green area) but will exclude any resource that includes the term "motorcycle" (purple area) even though the term car may be present in the resource.
A library database searches for keywords throughout the entire resource record including the full-text of the resource, subject headings, tags, bibliographic information, etc.
Example: The keyword list above was developed to find resources that discuss how texting while driving results in accidents. Notice that there are synonyms (texting and "text messaging"), related terms ("cell phones" and texting), and spelling variations ("cell phone" and cellphone). Using keywords when searching full text requires consideration of various words that express an idea or concept.
Example 1: In EBSCO's Academic Search Complete, clicking on the "Subject Terms" tab provides access to the entire subject heading list used in the database. It also allows a search for specific subject terms.
Example 2: A subject term can be incorporated into a keyword search by clicking on the down arrow next to "Select a Field" and selecting "Subject Terms" from the dropdown list. Also, notice how subject headings are listed below the resource title, providing another strategy for discovering subject headings used in the database.
When a search term is more than one word, enclose the phrase in quotation marks to retrieve more precise and accurate results. Using quotation marks around a term will search it as a "chunk," searching for those particular words together in that order within the text of a resource.
TIP: In some databases, neglecting to enclose phrases in quotation marks will insert the AND Boolean connector between each word resulting in unintended search results.
Truncation provides an option to search for a root of a keyword in order to retrieve resources that include variations of that word. This feature can be used to broaden search results, although some results may not be relevant. To truncate a keyword, type an asterisk (*) following the root of the word.
Library databases provide a variety of tools to limit and refine search results. Limiters provide the ability to limit search results to resources having specified characteristics including:
In both the EBSCO and ProQuest databases, the limiting tools are located in the left panel of the results page.
The short video below provides a demonstration of how to use limiters to refine a list of search results.
Each resource in a library database is stored in a record. In addition to the full-text of the resources, searchable Fields are attached that typically include:
Incorporating Fields into your search can assist in focusing and refining search results by limiting the results to those resources that include specific information in a particular field.
In both EBSCO and ProQuest databases, selecting the Advanced Search option will allow Fields to be included in a search.
For example, in the Advanced Search option in EBSCO's Academic Search Complete database, clicking on the down arrow next to "Select a Field" provides a list of fields that can be searched within that database. Select the field and enter the information in the text box to the left to use this feature.
Stop words are short, commonly used words--articles, prepositions, and pronouns-- that are automatically dropped from a search. Typical stop words include:
In library databases, a stop word will not be searched even if it is included in a phrase enclosed in quotation marks. In some instances, a word will be substituted for the stop word to allow for the other words in the phrase to be searched in proximity to one another within the text of the resource.
For example, if you searched company of America, your result list will include these variatons:
This short video demonstrates how to create a search string -- keywords connected with Boolean operators -- to use in a library database search to retrieve relevant resources for any research assignment.