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Loyola University Chicago Libraries

Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review evaluates published scholarly resources, and analyzes how they relate to a specific research question. Rather than just summarizing every article or book, a literature review integrates relevant materials into a comprehensive analysis.

A literature review should:

  1. Relate directly to your research question.
  2. Synthesize and contextualize results, not just summarize.
  3. Compare the literature, and possibly highlight contentious topics and different interpretations/methodologies.
  4. Identify gaps in the current body of research, or questions that should be asked.

Basic Steps

  1. Decide on a research topic and brainstorm some questions about that topic that you're interested in.
  2. Turn your research question into discrete search terms. Make sure to consider alternative terms that articles may use!
  3. Search relevant scholarly databases.
  4. Select and briefly evaluate articles to determine if they are worth including.
  5. Save those articles using a Citation Management tool!
  6. Thoroughly read your gathered articles.
  7. Synthesize the information and write your review according to the guidelines for your specific course/publication.
  8. Create a bibliography with all of the sources that you reference in your paper!

Citation Management tools will help you to save and organize the articles you find, create a bibliography, and add citations to your paper.

As a Loyola student, you have a lot of options available to you! Choose from the options below, or reach out to the libraries for help deciding.

Keyword Selection

  1. Decide on a research topic
    • What do you want to know? Were you assigned a topic? Are there any course readings that made you want to learn more?
    • Your topic might change as you dive into the literature. That's a natural part of the research process! 
  2. Turn that topic into a question
    • Maybe Chicago's winter has you thinking about dry skin. That's an interesting topic, but what do you want to know about it? What's happening to your skin on a cellular level? How humidity and cold balance each other? The effectiveness of different lotions to heal dry skin? These all stem from your original topic, but they are very different questions. 
  3. Break the question into separate words
    • Most search engines don't understand human syntax! They'll search every term you enter, which can lead to a lot of noise in your results. 
    • To run a precise search, take your question and break it down into concepts. For the question of "How does Aquaphor help with dry skin?" we have "Aquaphor", "help", and "dry skin". 
  4. Brainstorm synonyms
    • Search concepts will often have many synonyms and related terms. An article related to your research question might not use your search term, and so it wouldn't appear in the results.
    • Some considerations:
      • Binomial Naming Conventions
      • Colloquialisms
      • Brand Names vs Generic Names
      • Regional Dialects
      • Discipline Specific Terms
  5. Group your concepts​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
    • It's important that all of your concepts are searched, but it may not matter what synonyms are used - you just want at least one of them. In that case, you can use a variation on the search format below:
      • (Concept-1-synonym-A OR concept-1-synonym-B) AND (Concept-2-Synonym-A OR Concept-2-Synonym-B)

Subject Headings

There are often multiple terms used for the same concept in biological research. This can be because of regional dialects (i.e. USA's Pediatrics vs UK's Paediatrics), colloquialisms (i.e. diabetes vs sugars), binomial naming conventions (i.e. homo sapiens vs humans), etc.

To help you target your search, many databases use "Subject Headings". These are specific terms that they've chosen to represent XYZ concept. If the database uses Subject Headings, you can navigate to their list/guide/thesaurus and test out the terms that you want to use.


Boolean Operators are specific words and symbols that tell a database how it should process your search. You can think of them like basic coding logic, or the PEMDAS Order of Operations. These operators work on MOST, but not all databases. If you're having trouble with your search, reach out to the LibraryH3lp Chat or your Subject Librarian!

  • AND
    • Only results with both/all terms that you've entered.
    • Example: [Bugs AND Brazil]. Each result will have the term Bugs and the term Brazil.
  • OR
    • Results with either/any of the terms that you've entered.
    • Example: [Bugs OR Brazil]. Some results might have both terms, but you will also get ones with only Bugs and only Brazil. This will return more results than AND.
  • NOT
    • Excludes a term/terms from your results. Be careful with this! Papers that only mention a term once will be excluded from your results, even though that term is not central to the article.
    • Example: [Bugs OR Brazil NOT Centipedes]. You will get results with either Bugs or Brazil, but won't see any articles that mention centipedes.
    • Note: GoogleScholar also supports this exclusion functionality, but they use a minus sign instead of NOT. Example: [Bugs OR Brazil -Centipedes]
  • *
    • * (AKA 'The Wildcard') is used at the end of a term. It tells the database to return all results with that term, regardless of the end of the word.
    • Example: [Nurs*]. Results will include: Nursing, Nurses, Nurse, Nursed, Nurse-Practitioner, Nursemaid, etc.
  • " "
    • Quotes are used to search for specific word combinations or phrasing.
    • Example: ["Grizzly Bear"]. These results will not include interrupting terms (i.e. Grizzly Brown Bear), alternative word orders (i.e. Bear Grizzly), or only one of the terms (i.e. Bear OR grizzly).
  • ( )
    • ​​​​​​​Parentheses are used to group concepts together. These are helpful when searching for a concept that has many synonyms.
    • Example: [(Bugs OR Insects OR Arachnids) AND (Nest OR Den OR Home)]
      • This search has the concept of bugs, and the concept of home. By putting synonyms for each concept within parentheses, you're more likely to get results for your research topic.



It can be tempting to use any source in your paper that seems to agree with your thesis, but remember that not all information is good information, especially in an online environment.  Developed by librarians at California State University-Chico (see below for the link), the CRAAP Test is a handy checklist to use when evaluating a web resource (or ANY resource).  The test provides a list of questions to ask yourself when deciding whether or not a source is reliable and credible enough to use in your academic research paper. CRAAP stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose.  For more information, please see below.

Something to keep in mind: the CRAAP test is only one method for evaluating content. There are other methods out there that may be more appropriate such as RADAR (Relevance, Authority, Date, Appearance, Reason for writing). However, since it was one of the first evaluations for online content, we'll be focusing on CRAAP for this page.


The timeliness of the information

  • When was the information published or posted?
  • Has the information been revised or updated?
  • Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well?
  • Are the links functional?

Another thing to consider - does the website's copyright date match the content's currency?  Or is it just a standard range?


The importance of the information for your needs

  • Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
  • Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining this is one you will use?


The reliability, truthfulness and
correctness of the content

  • Where does the information come from?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
  • Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?
  • Are there spelling, grammar or typographical errors?


The source of the information

  • Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
  • What are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations?
  • Is the author qualified to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information, such as a publisher or email address?
  • Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source?

Note - to help answer Authority and Purpose questions, check out a website's About page.


The reason the information exists

  • What is the purpose of the information? Is it to inform, teach, sell, entertain or persuade?
  • Do the authors/sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional or personal biases?

Note - to help answer Authority and Purpose questions, check out a website's About page.

Literature resources can be divided into three basic categories: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary.

In scientific literature, a Primary Source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study and is the result of original scientific research or observation. Some types of primary sources include:

  • Peer-Reviewed Research Articles
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Dissertations & Theses
  • Patents
  • Organizational Reports

A Secondary Source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of secondary sources include:

  • Textbooks
  • Magazine/journal articles: These are articles which interpret or review previous findings or present findings in way more accessible to the general public. They are not written by the original researcher. Examples would be Scientific American or Psychology Today.
  • Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses
  • Annotated Bibliographies
  • Encyclopedias

Tertiary Source compiles and condenses information from other sources and give a broad overview of a topic. They are a great place to start your research, especially for the refinement of your research question and the selection of search terms.

  • Encyclopedias
  • Dictionaries
  • Wikipedia
  • Bibliographies