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Nursing Resources: Conducting a Literature Review

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is an essay that surveys, summarizes, links together, and assesses research in a given field. It surveys the literature by reviewing a large body of work on a subject; it summarizes by noting the main conclusions and findings of the research; it links together works in the literature by showing how the information fits into the overall academic discussion and how the information relates to one another; it assesses the literature by noting areas of weakness, expansion, and contention. This handout reviews the essentials of literature review construction by discussing the major sectional elements, their purpose, how they are constructed, and how they all fit together.

All literature reviews have major sections:

  • Introduction: that indicates the general state of the literature on a given topic;
  • Methodology: an overview of how, where, and what subject terms used to conducted your search so it may be reproducable
  • Findings: a summary of the major findings in that field;
  • Discussion: a general progression from wider studies to smaller, more specifically-focused studies;
  • Conclusion: for each major section that again notes the overall state of the research, albeit with a focus on the major synthesized conclusions, problems in the research, and even possible avenues of further research.

In Literature Reviews, it is Not Appropriate to:

  • State your own opinions on the subject (unless you have evidence to support such claims).  
  • State what you think nurses should do (unless you have evidence to support such claims).
  • Provide long descriptive accounts of your subject with no reference to research studies.
  • Provide numerous definitions, signs/symptoms, treatment and complications of a particular illness without focusing on research studies to provide evidence and the primary purpose of the literature review.
  • Discuss research studies in isolation from each other.


Remember, a literature review is not a book report. A literature review is focus, sisinct, organized, and is free of personal beliefs or unsubstantiated tidbits.

Steps to Conduct a Literature Search

1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.

Your literature review should be guided by a central research question.  Remember, it is not a collection of loosely related studies in a field but instead represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, interpreted and analyzed by you in a synthesized way.

      1) Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow.  Is it manageable?

      2) Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.

        3) If you have the opportunity, discuss your topic with your professor.

2. Decide on the scope of your review.

How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover? 

      1) This may depend on your assignment.

      2) How many sources does the assignment require?

3. Select the databases you will use to conduct your searches.

Make a list of the databases you will search.  Remember to include comprehensive databases such as WorldCat and Dissertations & Theses, if you need to.

      1)  Look at the Library's research guides in your discipline to select discipline-specific databases.  Don't forget to look at books

      2)  Make an appointment with or contact your subject librarian to make sure you aren't missing major databases.

4. Conduct your searches and find the literature. Keep track of your searches!

      1)  Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.

      2)  Write down the searches you conduct in each database so that you may duplicate them if you need to later (or avoid dead-end searches that you'd forgotten you'd already tried).

      3)  Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.

      4)  Ask your professor or a scholar in the field if you are missing any key works in the field.

      5)  Use a citation manager (Zotero or Endnote Web) to keep track of your research citations.

5. Review the literature.  Some questions to help you analyze the research:

      1)  What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?

      2)  Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?

      3)  What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions.  Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?

      4)  If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?

      5)  How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited?; if so, how has it been analyzed?

      6)  Again, review the abstracts carefully. 

      7)  Keep careful notes of your searches so others may track your thought processes during the research process.