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Writing a Literature Review

Includes definitions, approaches to literature reviews, finding sources, organizing the literature review, and practical tips.

Searching the literature

"The literature" refers to a body of knowledge on a particular topic.  This includes:

  • scholarly articles
  • books
  • conference proceedings
  • dissertations and theses

Your job is to critically analyze these sources.  

Librarians can also help you locate resources on your topic. Check with the Liaison Librarian for your discipline to schedule a one-on-one research consultation as you prepare for your literature review, or at any point in the process.

Organize Citations with Zotero

Consider using a citation management system as you begin searching for sources. Often, literature reviews cover over 20 unique sources, so starting with an organizational system first can help you manage each source and its relevance to your topic. They can also make creating in-text citations and final bibliographies much easier.

UCM students get free, unlimited storage on the citation manager Zotero. Check out our Zotero Guide here and ask your Liaison Librarian if you have any questions about getting it set up! 

Use a research log

It may be helpful to utilize a research log during your search for scholarly information.  This will help you identify those keywords that returned the most relevant results. Keywords are very important to your research and are often included in your final paper. A keyword helps you accurately and succinctly describe WHAT you are looking for and increases efficient searching in databases. Different databases may use different keywords so expect trial and error before you identify the best keywords for your research question.

Example of a basic research log
Date of search Successful Keywords used in search Unsuccessful Keywords  Where you searched

You may also want to include additional information in your research log, such as number of results, and comments.

Searching the Library Catalog

To begin your search at, select the most important 2-3 terms related to your topic.  Put the word AND between each new term to search for all words together.

education AND behavior

Use quotation marks ( "  " ) around phrases of two or more words that need to be kept together

"special education" AND "behavior management"

Use an asterisk (*) to find multiple endings of one word. For example, educat* for education, educate, educators, etc.

library catalog search bar with keyword terms

Search library databases and journals

Literature Links or "Chaining"

Searching with keywords or by subject can exclude a number of results. Once you've found some good sources, another strategy is to "chain" those results to find additional, related research.

Backward Chain

  • Who did the author of the book/article cite within their work? Check their References list and perform title searches in the library catalog, databases, or Google Scholar to find that source.

  • Look up that article/author– have they written on your topic? Can you cite them as foundational to that body of knowledge?

Forward Chain

  • Who has cited the work and author you are currently reading? Use the "Cited by" feature in Google Scholar (see below) or the upward arrow in the library catalog result to find these newer titles. 

  • Look up that article/author– have they written on your topic more recently? Who do they cite?

Forward Chaining with Google Scholar

Google Scholar results will typically show the title of an article or book as a hyperlink with author and publisher information below. Each entry will also show Google's links for the result.

By clicking the "Cited by" link on an entry, you can see which other scholars have subsequently cited that article or book. This is known as forward chaining. The link for "Related Articles" will show similar results to the title using Google's algorithm. These could include articles with similar keywords, authors, subjects, or abstracts.

An image of an article result in Google Scholar for an exploration of school counselor small group work experience

If you are signed in with your UCM email address, you will also be able to click the double arrow icon under the result to see Resources @ My Library or Request through UCM. These links will take you back to the UCM Interlibrary Loan request or the UCM library catalog, respectively.

image of resources at my library link on a google scholar result