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Literature Review Guide

This guide will walk students through the process of developing a literature review.

The Literature Review

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

  • A literature review is not an annotated bibliography.  An annotated bibliography provides a brief summary, analysis, and reflection of resources included in the bibliography.  Often it is not a systematic review of existing research on a specific subject.  That said, creating an annotated bibliography throughout your research process may be helpful in managing the resources discovered through your research.
  • A literature review is not a research paper.  A research paper explores a topic and uses resources discovered through the research process to support a position on the topic.  In other words, research papers present one side of an issue.  A literature review explores all sides of the research topic and evaluates all positions and conclusions achieved through the scientific research process even though some conclusions may conflict partially or completely.

From the Online Library

The Literature Review: Step by Step

Follow this step-by-step process by using the related tabs in this Guide.

Getting Started

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 known about the subject?
  • Are there any gaps in the knowledge of the subject?
  • Have areas of further study been identified by other researchers that you may want to consider?
  • Who are the significant research personalities in this area?
  • Is there consensus about the topic?
  • What aspects have generated significant debate on the topic?
  • What methods or problems were identified by others studying in the field and how might they impact your research?
  • What is the most productive methodology for your research based on the literature you have reviewed?
  • What is the current status of research in this area?
  • What sources of information or data were identified that might be useful to you?
  • How detailed? Will it be a review of ALL relevant material or will the scope be limited to more recent material, e.g., the last five years.
  • Are you focusing on methodological approaches; on theoretical issues; on qualitative or quantitative research?

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)

  • Articles are shorter and are written for the general public
  • General interest topics or current events are covered
  • Language is simple and easy to understand
  • Source material is not cited
  • Articles often include glossy photographs, graphics, or visuals
  • Articles are written by the publication's staff of journalists
  • Articles are edited and information is fact checked

Examples of magazines that contain popular articles:



Scholarly Article (Academic Journal)

  • Articles are written by scholars and researchers for academics, professionals, and experts in the field
  • Articles are longer and report original research findings
  • Topics are narrower in focus and provide in-depth analysis
  • Technical or scholarly language is used
  • Source material is cited
  • Charts and graphs illustrating research findings are included
  • Many are "peer reviewed" meaning that panels of experts review articles submitted for publication to ensure that proper research methods were used and research findings are contributing something new to the field before selecting for publication.
  • Articles are edited and information is fact checked

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

3. Pre-research

      - 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:

Data Science

Healthcare Management

Human Resources


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:

  • Abstract  (An executive summary of the study)
  • Introduction (Definition of the research question to be studied)
  • Literature Review (A summary of past research noting where gaps exist)
  • Methods (The research design including variables, sample size, measurements)
  • Data (Information gathered through the study often displayed in tables and charts)
  • Results (Conclusions reached at the end of the study)
  • Conclusion (Discussion of whether the study proved the thesis; may suggest opportunities for further research)
  • Bibliography (A list of works cited in the journal article)

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

2. Abstract

3. Introduction

4. Conclusion

If the article fits your information need, go back and read the article thoroughly.

TIP: Create a folder on your computer to save copies of articles you plan to use in your thesis or research project.  Use NoodleTools or APA Academic Writer to save APA references.

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:

  • ​Are you looking for an overview of a topic? an explanation of a specific concept, idea, or position?
  • Are you exploring gaps in the research to identify a new area for academic study?
  • Are you looking for research that supports or disagrees with your thesis or research question?
  • Are you looking for examples of a research design and/or research methods you are considering for your own research project?

Step 3: Read Critically

Before reading the article, ask yourself the following:

  • What is my research question?  What position am I trying to support?
  • What do I already know about this topic?  What do I need to learn?
  • How will I evaluate the article?  Author's reputation? Research design? Treatment of topic? 
  • What are my biases about the topic?

As you read the article make note of the following:

  • Who is the intended audience for this article?
  • What is the author's purpose in writing this article?
  • What is the main point?
  • How was the main point proven or supported?  
  • Were scientific methods used in conducting the research?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why?
  • How does this article compare or connect with other articles on the topic?
  • Does the author recommend areas for further study?
  • How does this article help to answer your research question?

Managing your Research

Tip: Create APA references for resources as you discover them in the research process

Use APA Academic Writer or NoodleTools to generate citations and manage your resources.  Find information on how to use these resources in the Citation Tools Guide.


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:

  • Consider various ways to organize the literature discovered in the research process:
    • Chronological
    • By trend
    • By theme
    • By research method used
  • Compare and contrast sources
    • Explore contradictory or conflicting conclusions
    • Take a stance on the issue and use the research to support that stance
      • Read each study critically
      • Critique methodology, processes, and conclusions
      • Consider how the study relates to your topic

Need help?

From the Online Library

Database Search Tips


  • Library databases are collections of resources that are searchable, including full-text articles, books, and encyclopedias.
  • Searching library databases is different than searching Google. Best results are achieved when using Keywords linked with Boolean Operators
  • Applying Limiters such as full-text, publication date, resource type, language, geographic location, and subject help to refine search results.
  • Utilizing Phrases or Fields, in addition to an awareness of Stop Words, can focus your search and retrieve more useful results.
  • Have questions? Ask a Librarian

Boolean Operators connect keywords or concepts logically to retrieve relevant articles, books, and other resources.  There are three Boolean Operators:

  • AND
  • OR
  • NOT

Using AND 

  • Narrows search results
  • Connects two or more keywords/concepts
  • All keywords/concepts connected with "and" must be in an article or resource to appear in the search results list

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).

Using OR

  • Broadens search results ("OR means more!")
  • Connects two or more synonyms or related keywords/concepts
  • Resources appearing in the results list will include any of the terms connected with the OR connector

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.

Using NOT

  • Excludes keywords or concepts from the search
  • Narrows results by removing resources that contain the keyword or term connected with the NOT connector
  • Use sparingly

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.


  • Natural language words or short phrases that describe a concept or idea
  • Can retrieve too few or irrelevant results due to full-text searching (What words would an author use to write about this topic?)
  • Provide flexibility in a search
  • Must consider synonyms or related terms to improve search results
  • TIP: Build a Keyword List

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.

Subject Headings

  • Predetermined "controlled vocabulary" database editors apply to resources to describe topical coverage of content
  • Can retrieve more precise search results because every article assigned that subject heading will be retrieved.
  • Provide less flexibility in a search
  • Can be combined with a keyword search to focus search results.
  • TIP: Consult database subject heading list or subject headings assigned to relevant resources

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. 


"cell phone"

"distracted driving"

"car accident"

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.

For example:



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:

  • Full text
  • Resource type
  • Publication date
  • Language
  • Geographic location
  • Subject

In both the EBSCO and ProQuest databases, the limiting tools are located in the left panel of the results page.

                                                 EBSCO                                                     ProQuest


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:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Journal title
  • Date of Publication
  • Abstract
  • Subject Headings
  • Publisher

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

Stop words are short, commonly used words--articles, prepositions, and pronouns-- that are automatically dropped from a search.  Typical stop words include:

  • a
  • an
  • and
  • the
  • also
  • but
  • for
  • in
  • is
  • of
  • so
  • which
  • when
  • was

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:

  • company in America
  • company of America
  • company for America

Creating an Search String

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.