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Nursing: How to Write a Literature Review

Getting started

The best way to approach your literature review is to break it down into steps.  Remember, research is an iterative process, not a linear one.  You will revisit steps and revise along the way.  Get started with the handout, information, and tips from various university Writing Centers below that provides an excellent overview.  Then move on to the specific steps recommended on this page.

1. Start with your research question

  1. Begin with a topic.
  2. Do background reading
    • Understand the topic. 
    • Familiarize yourself with the terminology.  Note what words are being used and keep track of these for use as database search keywords. 
    • See what research has been done on this topic before you commit to the topic.  Review articles can be helpful to understand what research has been done.
  3. Develop your research question. (see handout below)
  4. Decide on the scope of your review. 
    • How comprehensive should it be? 
    • Is it for a course assignment or a dissertation? 
    • How many years should it cover?


2. Search the literature

Your next step is to construct a search strategy and then locate & retrieve articles.

  1. Determine key concepts from your research question.
    •  There are often 2-4 key concepts in a research question.
  2. Search for primary sources (original research articles.)
  3. Construct a search strategy. (see handout below)
    • Which keywords or subject terms to use?
      • These are based on the key concepts in your research question.
      • Remember to consider synonyms and related terms.
    • Which databases to search?
    • What limiters should be applied (peer-reviewed, publication date, geographic location, etc.)?
    • Review articles (secondary sources)

      • Use to identify literature on your topic, the way you would use a bibliography.  Then locate and retrieve the original studies discussed in the review article. Review articles are considered secondary sources.

  4. Additional search tips
    • Ancestry searching or backward citation searching.
      • Once you have some relevant articles, review reference lists to see if there are any useful articles.
    • Descendancy search or forward citation searching. 
      • Which articles were written later and have cited some of your useful articles?  Are these, in turn, articles that will be useful to you? 
  5. Run searches.
    • Keep track of what terms you used and what databases you searched. 
    • Use database tools such as save search history in EBSCO to help.
  6. Citations.
    • Keep track of the citations for the articles you will be using in your literature review. 
    • Use RefWorks or another method of tracking this information. 

3. Read & evaluate

The next step is to read, review, and understand the articles.

  1. Review results.
    • Start by reviewing abstracts. 
    • Make sure you are selecting primary sources (original research articles).
    • Review articles can be used to identify primary research studies, but you must locate the original study.
      • Note any keywords authors report using when searching for prior studies.
  2. Spend enough time reading the articles to understand them. 
    • You will need to evaluate and critique them and write a synthesis related to your research question.
  3. Consider using a matrix to organize and compare and contrast the articles
  4. Revise searches to narrow or broaden your focus as you find material. 
    • Which authors are conducting research in this area?  Search by author.  
    • Are there certain authors’ whose work is cited in many of your articles?  Did they write an early, seminal article that is often cited?
    • Searching is a cyclical process where you will run searches, review results, modify searches, run again, review again, etc. 
  5. Critique articles.  Keep or exclude based on whether they are relevant to your research question.

4. Finalize results

  1. How do you know when to stop searching the literature?  A thorough literature search is time consuming and laborious.  However, there is a time when you can feel comfortable completing your search:
    • When you have done a thorough search using several databases plus Google Scholar, using appropriate keywords or subject terms, plus author’s names, and you begin to find the same articles over and over.
    • Remember to consider the scope of your project and the length of your paper.  A dissertation will have a more exhaustive literature review than an 8 page paper, for example.
  2. Present your results into a summary of what is and is not known.  
    • What are common findings among each group or where do they disagree? 
    • Identify common themes. Identify controversial or problematic areas in the research. 
    • Use your matrix to organize this.

5. Write & revise

1. Write.

  • Once you have read and re-read your articles and organized your findings, you are ready to begin the process of writing the literature review.

2. Synthesize. (see handout below)

  • Include a synthesis of the articles you have chosen for your literature review.
  • A literature review is NOT a list or a summary of what has been written on a particular topic. 
  • It analyzes the articles in terms of how they relate to your research question. 
  • While reading, look for similarities and differences (compare and contrast) among the articles.  You will create your synthesis from this.


Brainfuse Online Tutoring and Writing Review

Regis Online students have access to Brainfuse. Brainfuse is an online tutoring service available through a link in Moodle. Meet with a tutor in a live session or submit your paper for review.