Once you have a general idea of a research topic in mind, it’s best to begin with conducting a literature review. A literature review is exactly what it sounds like, sifting through the published work on your topic to figure out what has already been researched and published.

Peer reviewed journals are considered the gold standard of academic publishing. They are published by professional societies, universities, and other organizations with high standards. Peer review ensures that only the highest quality work is accepted into these publications. Using Google Scholar can be a useful tool, although you may run into some issues with paywalls once you are trying to retrieve a complete article. Google Scholar works like Google, in that you need good keywords to find what you are looking for. Also, use the “Advanced Search” feature to help you narrow your results within certain time-periods and subjects. This feature is available in all scholarly databases and is quite useful.

Conducting a Literature Review

Use a Digital Database and Keywords

Most libraries have really good digital databases that can help you narrow your search for good background material. You need to find out as much as possible about your topic by reading the research that has already been conducted and published. This will help you find the gaps – areas and populations the current research doesn’t cover and variables that haven’t been considered. This is where you start to narrow your general idea to something more specific. You want your research project to fill one of those gaps so you can provide new and interesting data and add something relevant to the existing knowledge on that subject.

Depending on your topic of interest, you may need to scan dozens, and possibly hundreds, of articles before you find the ones you really should read. In your initial search, use different combinations of a variety of keywords to help you find what you are looking for.

How to Read an Article

You shouldn’t read academic articles the same way you would read a novel, especially at this stage. You need to be able to sift through dozens of articles, often with limited time for this part of the research process. Follow these steps to help you decide which articles to hold onto for later, more thorough reading.

  1. Scan the Abstract to see if the article is a good candidate for future consideration and reading.
  2. Skip to the end and read the Results and Discussion sections.
  3. If the article still seems like it fits your topic, set it aside for later reading.

Many library databases will allow you to save these articles digitally so you can go back to the list later to further narrow your search and determine what you need to read, however some people prefer to print articles so they can more easily add notations when conducting a deeper read.

Narrowing Your Search Further

Once you have reviewed as many articles as possible, go back to those that you set aside for a deeper read. Now is a good time to actually read through the entire research article from start to finish, making notes and highlighting along the way as you find information relevant to your topic of interest. Use the Introduction/Literature Review of the published work as well as the Reference Lists to help guide you to even more relevant articles that you may not have already come across. Also, if you see someone reference a primary source, go find that primary source and read it yourself. Don’t cite someone else’s interpretation in your work.

Some Possible Stumbling Blocks

If you are not already an enrolled student or academic at a specific institution of higher learning, it may be difficult to gain access to some peer-reviewed articles. Many are behind paywalls and can only be freely accessed through institutional agreements. If you are an independent researcher and not affiliated with an academy, you may be required to purchase access to some articles. This can get rather expensive. Check with your local library about their access as well as other online sources that might provide free access to articles you need.