Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Graduate Research: Guide to the Literature Review

This guide is intended to introduce basic concepts related to preparing a literature review in the fields of information systems, information security, and computer science. Research requires time, patience, creativity, and problem-solving.

Introduction to Research Process: Literature Review Steps

When seeking information for a literature review or for any purpose, it helps to understand information-seeking as a process that you can follow.5 Each of the six (6) steps has its own section in this web page with more detail. Do (and re-do) the following six steps:

1. Define your topic. The first step is defining your task -- choosing a topic and noting the questions you have about the topic. This will provide a focus that guides your strategy in step II and will provide potential words to use in searches in step III.

2. Develop a strategy. Strategy involves figuring out where the information might be and identifying the best tools for finding those types of sources. The strategy section identifies specific types of research databases to use for specific purposes.

3. Locate the information. In this step, you implement the strategy developed in II in order to actually locate specific articles, books, technical reports, etc.

4. Use and Evaluate the information. Having located relevant and useful material, in step IV you read and analyze the items to determine whether they have value for your project and credibility as sources.

5. Synthesize. In step V, you will make sense of what you've learned and demonstrate your knowledge. You will thoroughly understand, organize and integrate the information --become knowledgeable-- so that you are able to use your own words to support and explain your research project and its relationship to existing research by others.

6. Evaluate your work. At every step along the way, you should evaluate your work. However, this final step is a last check to make sure your work is complete and of high quality.

Continue below to begin working through the process. [After you have finished reading Research Process,  your next step is to move to the tab about the "Ethical Use of Information."]



5. Eisenberg, M. B., & Berkowitz, R. E. (1990). Information Problem-Solving: the Big Six Skills Approach to Library & Information Skills Instruction. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

1. Define your topic.

I. Define your topic

A.  Many students have difficulty selecting a topic. You want to find a topic you find interesting and will enjoy learning more about.

B.  Students often select a topic that is too broad.  You may have a broad topic in mind initially and will need to narrow it.

1. To help narrow a broad topic:

a. Brainstorm.  

1). Try this technique for brainstorming to narrow your focus.  

a) Step 1.  Write down your broad topic.

b) Step 2. Write down a "specific kind" or "specific aspect" of the topic you identified in step 1.  

c) Step 3. Write down an aspect  --such as an attribute or behavior-- of the "specific kind" you identified in step 2.  

d) Step 4.  Continue to add  levels of specificity as needed to get to a focus that is manageable. However, you may want to begin researching the literature before narrowing further to give yourself the opportunity to explore what others are doing and how that might impact the direction that you take for your own research.                     

2) Three examples of using the narrowing technique. These examples start with very, very broad topics, so the topic at step 3 or 4 in these examples would be used for a preliminary search in the literature in order to identify a more specific focus.  Greater specificity than level 3 or 4 will ultimately be necessary for developing a specific research question. And we may discover in our preliminary research that we need to alter the direction that we originally were taking.

a) Example 1.      

             Step 1. information security

                      Step  2. protocols

                              Step 3.  handshake protocol

            Brainstorming has brought us to focus on the handshake protocol.

b) Example 2.  

            Step 1. information security

                     Step 2. single sign-on authentication

                              Step 3.  analyzing

                                       Step 4. methods

            Brainstorming has brought us to focus on methods for analyzing the security of single sign-on authentication

c) Example 3.  The diagram below is an example using the broad topic of "software" to show two potential ways to begin to narrow the topic. 


narrowing a topic


C. Once you have completed the brainstorming process and your topic is more focused, you can do preliminary research to help you identify a specific research question

1) Examine overview sources such as subject-specific encyclopedias and textbooks that are likely to break down your specific topic into sub-topics and to highlight core issues that could serve as possible research questions. [See section II. below on developing a strategy to learn how to find these encyclopedias]

2). Search the broad topic in a research database that includes scholarly journals and professional magazines (to find technical and scholarly articles) and scan recent article titles for ideas. [See section II. below on developing a strategy to learn how to find trade and scholarly journal articles]

D. Once you have identified a research question or questions, ask yourself what you need to know to answer the questions. For example,

1. What new knowledge do I need to gain?

2. What has already been answered by prior research of other scholars?

E. Use the answers to the questions in C. to identify what words to use to describe the topic when you are doing searches.

1. Identify key words

a. For example, if you are investigating "security audits in banking", key terms to combine in your searches would be: security, audits, banking.

2. Create a list of alternative ways of referring to a key word or phrase

a.For example, "information assurance" may be referred to in various ways such as:
"information assurance," "information security," and "computer security."

b. Use these alternatives when doing searches.

3. As you are searching, pay attention to how others are writing about the topic and add new words or phrases to your searches if appropriate.


Yes icon When you have defined your topic, continue below to the next step in the research process -- "Develop a strategy" 

2. Develop a strategy.

II. Develop a strategy for finding the information. 

A. Start by considering what types of source might contain the information you need.  Do you need a dictionary for definitions? a directory for an address? the history of a concept or technique that might be in a book or specialized encyclopedia? today's tech news in an online tech magazine or newspaper?  current research in a journal article? background information that might be in a specialized encyclopedia? data or statistics from a specific organization or website? Note that you will typically have online access to these source types.

B. This section provides a description of some of the common types of information needed for research.  

1. For technical and business analysis, look for articles in technical and trade magazines. These articles are written by information technology professionals to help other IT professionals do their jobs better. Content might include news on new developments in hardware or software, techniques, tools, and practical advice. Technical journals are also likely to have product ads relevant to information technology workers and to have job ads. Examples iof technical magazines include Network Computing and IEEE Spectrum.

2. To read original research studies, look for articles in scholarly journals and conference proceedings. They will provide articles written by  information technology professionals who are reporting original research; that is, research that has been done by the authors and is being reported for the first time. The audience for original research articles is other information technology scholars and professionals. Examples of scholarly journals include Journal of Applied Security Research, Journal of Management Information Systems, IEEE Transactions on Computers, and ACM Transactions on Information and System Security.

3. For original research being reported to funding agencies, look for technical reports on agency websites. Technical reports are researcher reports to funding agencies about progress on or completion of research funded by the agency.

4. For in-depth, comprehensive information on a topic, look for book-length volumes. All chapters in the book might be written by the same author(s) or might be a collection of separate papers written by different authors.

5. To learn about an unfamiliar topic, use textbooksspecialized encyclopedias and handbooks to get get overviews of topics, history/background, and key issues explained.

6. For instructions for hardware, software, networking, etc., look for manuals that provide step-by-step instructions.

7. For technical details about inventions (devices, instruments, machines), look for patent documents.

C.   NOTE - In order to search for and find original research studies, it will help if you understand how information is produced, packaged and communicated within your profession. This is explained in the tab "Research Communication: Graphic."



      Yes icon When you have developed a strategy, continue below to the next step in the research process - "Locate the information"


3. Locate the information.

III. Locate the information

A. Use search tools designed to find the sources you want. Types of sources were described in section II. above. 

Always feel free to Ask a librarian for assistance when you have questions about where and how locate the information you need.

B. Evaluate the search results (no matter where you find the information)

1. Evaluate the items you find using at least these 5 criteria:

a. accuracy -- is the information reliable and error free?

1) Is there an editor or someone who verifies/checks the information?

2) Is there adequate documentation: bibliography, footnotes, credits?

3) Are the conclusions justified by the information presented?

b. authority -- is the source of the information reputable?

1) How did you find the source of information: an index to edited/peer-reviewed material, in a bibliography from a published article, etc.?

2) What type of source is it: sensationalistic, popular, scholarly?

c. objectivity -- does the information show bias?

1) What is the purpose of the information: to inform, persuade, explain, sway opinion, advertise?

2) Does the source show political or cultural biases?

d. currency -- is the information current? does it cover the time period you need?

e. coverage -- does it provide the evidence or information you need?

2. Is the search producing the material you need? -- the right content? the right quality? right time period? right geographical location? etc. If not, are you using

a. the right sources?

b. the right tools to get to the sources?

c. are you using the right words to describe the topic?

3. Have you discovered additional terms that should be searched? If so, search those terms.

4. Have you discovered additional questions you need to answer? If so, return to section A above to begin to answer new questions.


      Yes icon When you have located the information sources you need, continue below to the next step in the research process - "Use and evaluate the information"

4. Use and evaluate the information.

IV. Use the information.

A. Read, hear or view the source

1. Evaluate: Does the material answer your question(s)? -- right content? If not, return to B.

2. Evaluate: Is the material appropriate? -- right quality? If not, return to B.

B. Extract the information from the source : copy/download information, take notes, record citation, keep track of items using a citation manager.

1. Note taking (these steps will help you when you begin to write your thesis and/or document your project.):

a. Write the keywords you use in your searches to avoid duplicating previous searches if you return to search a research database again. Keeping track of keywords used will also save you time if your search is interrupted or you need return and do the search again for some other reason. It will help you remember which search terms worked successfully in which databases

b. Write the citations or record the information needed to cite each article/document you plan to read and use, or make sure that any saved a copy of the article includes all the information needed to cite it. Some article pdf files may not include all of the information needed to cite, and it's a waste of your valuable time to have to go back to search and find the items again in order to be able to cite them. Using citation management software such as EndNote will help keep track of citations and help create bibliographies for your research papers.

c. Write a summary of each article you read and/or why you want to use it.

      Yes icon When you have you have used and evaluated the material you found, continue below to the next step in the research process - "Synthesize"

5. Synthesize.

V. Synthesize.

A. Organize and integrate information from multiple sources

B. Present the information (create report, speech, etc. that communicates)

C. Cite material using the style required by your professor or by the venue (conference, publication, etc.). For help with citation styles, see Guide to Citing Sources.  A link to the citing guide is also available in the "Get Help" section on the left side of the Library home page


      Yes icon When you have finished synthesizing, continue below to the next step in the research process - "Evaluate your work".

6. Evaluate your work.

VI. Evaluate the paper, speech, or whatever you are using to communicate your research.

A. Is it effective?

B. Does it meet the requirements?

C. Ask another student or colleague to provide constructive criticism of your paper/project.

Karl E. Mundt Library, Dakota State University, Madison, South Dakota 57042