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Well-Executed Literature Review

by Craig Emerson - Vice President - Editorial Operations, Proquest

A well-executed Literature Review can eliminate hours of wasted effort and help build a solid foundation on which to construct your research. It will show you what is already known, what needs to be known, and how to develop your research methodology.

In General:

  • It's easy to digress when searching the literature. Formulate clear questions that your Review will answer, and don't deviate from them.
  • Finding information is easy. A critical appraisal of what you find is more difficult, but crucial. Avoid the urge to identify, acquire and assimilate all articles that may possibly be of interest.
  • Fully document all aspects of your Review, including objectives, sources used, searches conducted, and date and time. It's easy to duplicate efforts if you don't keep adequate notes.


  • Canvass your peers, your supervisory committee, and top researchers in your field for their opinion of the "top 10" publications relevant to your research. Within these articles, mine the Cited References for additional content.
  • Contact your Librarian to determine what literature search tools are available[1]. Bibliographic databases are tailored to specific subjects; those databases with links to full text will save time. Set up saved-search ?alerts' that will identify relevant content as it becomes published.
  • "Review" publications[2], high-quality journals, and conference proceedings should be given high priority, but recognize that this content is >1-2 years old. Looking at funding-agency submissions[3], upcoming conference agenda, and pre-print servers will bring you up-to-date.
  • Organize your literature citations with the help of online reference managers (e.g. Refworks[4]).
  • Rank each relevant source you find, based on source quality (see Eigenfactor[5]), author qualifications[6], and of course, relevance to your objective.
  • Don't ignore non-traditional content sources, particularly for analytical techniques (e.g. software manuals for statistical analysis), federal and state labs (e.g. analytical chemistry) and international organizations (e.g. UNESCO

    [1] ProQuest Central
    [2] Annual Review journals; 6 October 2008
    [3] NSF Funding Awards 6 October 2008 (and see COS Funding Opportunities)
    [4] RefWorks Bibliographic Manager
    [5] Eigenfactor Organization ( 6 October 2008)
    [6] COS Funding Opportunities

Craig Emerson

About the author

Craig has 11 years of research experience, and holds a BSc, MSc and PhD. For the last 13 years, he has been working in the Content Operations division of ProQuest.

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