Literature Review Tutorial

These pages have been developed by staff at CQUniversity to help postgraduate students conceptualize, research and write a literature review. The pages are intended as a guide and it is the responsibility of the supervisor to give advice.

Using information sources - Introduction

Using information sources in a systematic and structured manner will save you a good deal of time.  Developing a search strategy is vital as it provides you with an overall structure for your search and provides a record of your search history.  This is an extremely useful record to have as you find yourself needing to refine or change the focus of your searching as your research develops.  It can also improve the relevancy of results obtained as you have thought about keywords and synonyms and how these relate to each other.

Step 1. Defining the information need and stating it as a question

Start by expressing your information need in words. Give your topic a working title and write an abstract. This will assist you in thinking about what you need and determining terms to be used later.  You may need to consult dictionaries or encyclopedia to clarify the topic. 

Step 2. Breaking the topic into its component parts

From the title and abstract of your topic it is possible to identify various concepts and keywords.  A concept map / mind map is a useful way to plot ideas.

For example:
Title: Attitudes and levels of knowledge of Hepatitis B in Aboriginal women

Concept map

Step 3. Identifying synonyms and prioritising keywords

At this stage you need to identify synonyms for the keywords and concepts you have previously developed.  You should choose words that uniquely describe the topic, and you should also list words and concepts you do not want included.  You may also need to think about the discipline area and database(s) you will be searching, as there may be a subject specific or database-specific thesaurus that will help you further identify keywords. One way of listing keywords and alternate terms is in a table.

For example:
Title: The impact of humans on the Great Barrier Reef
Description: Identify examples of activities by humans and discuss the effect on the reef.

 impact  humans  Great Barrier Reef  activities
 damage   people  marine life  agriculture
 pollution  population  ecosystem  mining
 climate change  tourists  water temperature  tourism
 global warming    coral  dredging
 coral bleacing      shipping

Step 4. Searching specific sources

The sources you select will be determined by the requirements of the breath the literature review covers. No matter how carefully you have thought out your keywords you will only retrieve relevant material if you are using an appropriate source. CQUniversity Library has a range of LibGuides and list of Databases by subject to help identify appropriate sources. It is also important that you ascertain the scope (content, years covered) of each source and learn the features (eg. is truncation used? is boolean logic supported? etc). The help screens on each information source and the advanced searching tips will allow for more accurate searching.

Step 5. Evaluating the information

As sources are retrieved, look at each one closely.  Read the abstract, introduction and conclusion to determine whether the work is relevant to your topic. The steps below will guide you in assessing the scope, integrity and standing of the relevant sources.

  • assess the standing of the author - is he/she an academic? a journalist? another student? a researcher?
  • look at the date of publication - is the topic representative of thinking at that time
  • who is the intended audience - was the material written for a general audience? other researchers? particular groups with particular views?
  • notice the writing style - is it conversational? academic? provocative? sensational? descriptive?
  • look at the presentation - does the author use tables, graphs, diagrams, illustrations appropriately?  are the descriptive details sufficient?
  • refer to the bibliography and references - has the author referred to the work of others?  have all ideas been acknowledged and cited? are there any citations listed which would further your work?
  • look at the type of publication and its' purpose - is it a scholarly journal? a popular journal? a refereed publication? a book? conference proceedings?
  • identify the seminal works.

As sources are selected to be used in your literature review, use the steps below as a guide to critically analyse the content.

  • determine the facts / arguments / points of view
  • look at new findings - is there clear evidence to support each finding?
  • ascertain the reliability and accuracy of the document - are all assumptions valid? are there any flaws in the methodology? is the research based on established fact?
  • determine the significance of work - is it a landmark article? does it merely discuss what is already known? what does it contribute to accepted theory?
  • ascertain the limitations, flaws, weaknesses, strengths and underlying assumptions of the analysis in relation to the related literature and current thought.
  • contextualise the work within the discipline - where does it fit?  which thoughts and ideas relate/contradict/support current thought?
  • study the methodology - is it appropriate to the type of study?

Step 6. Evaluating the search process

Keep reviewing your search strategy. Too few, too many or irrelevant results means that you need to consider breaking your search into smaller batches; using narrower or broader search terms; or combining your search terms in a different way. Be comphrehensive and look for different types of sources.

It may be helpful to keep a list of keywords, search strategies and techniques along the way.  Also keep a list of those that didn’t work. By adding a date to all your searching activity you will be prompted when searches need updating.


  • bibliographies and references usually found in sources often prove useful when looking for further information.
  • it is useful to identify researchers who have worked in the selected field, ascertain exactly what they have done and if possible, contact them to discuss further ideas.
  • not all the required sources will be readily available - at some stage you will need to use document delivery services.
  • after your initial search you may find it useful to develop a current awareness system to keep you up to date with developments in the area.