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INFS 614

This guide provides students in INFS 614 with material for mastering the use of library resources.

Literature Reviews: An Overview

What is a literature review?

A literature review describes key prior research that is related in a significant way to your intended research project. Typically, you will see a literature review as a section of an article, as an entire article of its own, or as a chapter of a dissertation.

Why do a literature review?

  • Reading the scholarly literature related to your research topic helps you:
    • Develop and deepen your understanding of your research area.
    • Develop a research project that is significant -- one that contributes to the field.
    • Develop a research project that does not accidently duplicate other research.
  • Writing the literature review demonstrates that you:
    • Have a thorough understanding of your area of study/research -- knowledge of significant earlier research and of current progress in the field.
    • Understand how your own research fits within the context of other research in your area of study  -- how it's based on prior work of others and how it builds on that prior work.

What does a literature review involve?

  • "... discovering, assessing, and assimilating others' research and then articulating your own ideas clearly and persuasively...." [1]
                              [1]  J. Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: Modern Language Association, 2009.


What next? What else do I need to know?

  • Watch the video "Literature Reviews: An Overview" below.
Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students (North Carolina State University Libraries) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

[ 9.38 minutes ]

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.



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.


Evaluating your sources is the most important thing you can do.

The criteria to evaluate sources include:

  • Accuracy
  • Authority
  • Objectivity
  • Currency
  • Coverage

These criteria are considered more in-depth in the file below.

Introduction to Search Techniques

Searches of computerized resources are more effective if you know how to "talk to" the computer systems. Communicating with these systems requires knowing certain basic search techniques.

Because these techniques are so important for getting good search results, you should take the time to understand them -- and use them. They will vastly improve your search results in information services and when searching the Internet.

Whenever you begin to use a new computerized resource, look for "help" (or "search tips" or "instructions") that will tell you which of these search techniques is available in the resource and how to apply them in the specific resource you are using.


Boolean Operators (Connector Words)

Connectors or operators are used to tell the computer how to combine the words you want to search. The Boolean operators "AND", "OR", and "NOT" are described below.  Note: Some research databases require that the Boolean operator be capitalized: AND, OR, NOT


Use the connector "and" to tell the system that both terms are needed to describe the subject. That is, both terms must occur in the description of the article. For example, to search the topic "censorship of music" connect the keywords with "and" by typing:

censorship AND music

Both the word "censorship" and the word "music" will be in the items found.

Additional examples:

firearms AND legislation
divorce AND statistics AND dakota


Use the connector "or" to tell the system that either one word or the other must appear in the description of the item. (This connector is used where alternative words may be used to describe the same subject). For example, if you type:

bones OR skeleton

Either the word "bones" or the word "skeleton" will be in the items found.

Additional examples:

mice OR mouse
farms OR ranches


Use the connector "not" to find items that have one word and do not have the other word. The second word cannot appear anywhere in the item. For example, to search for items about "aids" when you don't want the disease AIDS, type:

aids NOT disease

The items found will contain the word "aids" but not the word "disease."

Additional examples:

guns NOT hunting
albums NOT photograph

NOTE: To find out which of these techniques is available in web search engines, look for links such as Advanced Search, Search Options, or  Search Help  when searching Google, Bing, etc.. Search engines may require that you use specific symbols (e.g., plus or minus signs) instead of AND/OR/NOT, or they may require different methods for combining terms to accomplish ANDing and other search techniques.  

Phrase Searching

Most systems provide a method for you to search for a phrase - that is, to find two or more words side-by-side. This is an extremely important and powerful search technique for making sure that your search results are focused on your topic.

NOTE: Most library databases and web search engines now use quote marks. 

To search for two words side-by-side, place quotation marks around the phrase. For example, 

          "sex discrimination"

However, other search systems may require the use of some sort of connector word. Here are two different ways used to indicate phrases in two different search systems:

sex w discrimination
sex ADJ discrimination

In some systems, to search for the phrase "sex discrimination,"  just type:

sex discrimination               [NOTE: This is a system which automatically defaults to phrase searching. In such an research database or search engine, you will need to take some action to get it to combine words  -- AND, OR, NOT -- instead of treating the words entered as a phrase]

To know for sure what method is used in any given research database (or in a web search engine), you'll need to look for a "help" (or search options, or Advanced search) link in the research database or web search engine. 

Truncation / Wildcards

Save typing by using special symbols or "wild card" characters.

For example, instead of doing the search:

educator or educators or educational or education or educate

use the "root word" (the letters these words have in common) along with a "wildcard character" accepted by the search system. For example:


Truncation or wildcard characters are different in different systems, so be sure to use the correct wildcard character. For example, here are two different systems' ways of doing this search....

In Proquest: educat*
In Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe: educat!