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Mathematics & Statistics

Getting started with your Literature Review

A literature review is a comprehensive and critical review of literature that provides the theoretical foundation of your chosen topic.

A review will demonstrate that an exhaustive search for literature has been undertaken. It might be used for a thesis, a report, a research essay or a study. 


A good literature review is a critical component of academic research, providing a comprehensive and systematic analysis of existing scholarly works on a specific topic. Here are the key elements that make up a good literature review:

  1. Focus and clarity: A good literature review has a clear and well-defined research question or objective. It focuses on a specific topic and provides a coherent and structured analysis of the relevant literature.

  2. In-depth research: A comprehensive literature review involves an extensive search of relevant sources, including academic journals, books, and reputable online databases. It ensures that a wide range of perspectives and findings are considered.

  3. Critical evaluation: A good literature review involves a critical assessment of the quality, credibility, and relevance of the selected sources. It evaluates the methodologies, strengths, weaknesses, and limitations of each study to determine their impact on the overall research.

  4. Synthesis and analysis: A literature review should go beyond summarizing individual studies. It involves synthesizing and analyzing the findings, identifying patterns, themes, and gaps in the existing literature, and presenting a coherent narrative that connects different works.

  5. Contribution to knowledge: A good literature review not only summarizes existing research but also contributes to the knowledge base. It identifies gaps, inconsistencies, or unresolved debates in the field and suggests avenues for further research.

  6. Clear and concise writing: A well-written literature review presents complex ideas in a clear, concise, and organized manner. It uses appropriate language, avoids jargon, and maintains a logical flow of information.

  7. Proper citation and referencing: Accurate citation and referencing of the reviewed sources are crucial for maintaining academic integrity. Following the appropriate referencing style guidelines ensures consistency and allows readers to access the cited works.

In summary, a good literature review demonstrates a thorough understanding of the topic, critically engages with existing literature, and offers valuable insights for future research.

Where should you search?

The Library uses MultiSearch as an access point to our subscriptions and resources. Using MultiSearch is a good place to start. 

You can also search directly in databases. Every discipline has specialist databases and there are also good multidisciplinary databases such as Scopus. Check the Databases page on this guide or ask your Faculty Librarian for advice.

You might also like to consider statistics, government publications or conference proceedings. This will depend on the question you're researching.

What should you read?

Not everything! 

  • Skim the title, the keywords, the abstract ... know when to pass on something and move on. 
  • Also know when to stop your literature review. When you start seeing the same material repeated in searches, or no new ideas or perspectives, maybe you have it covered. 

Evaluating Literature

You will need to read critically when assessing material for inclusion in your literature review. Each piece of information you look at (whether a journal article, a book, a video, or something else) should be assessed. 

  • Is the material current?
  • Does it have a bias (why was is published)?
  • Is the author authoritative?
  • Is the journal well regarded in the field (peer reviewed journals are  the gold standard but other journals are worthy too). 
  • Does it provide enough coverage of the topic, or is it basic?
  • Will books or journal articles be most useful for your interest area - or do you need to find other materials like government publications, or primary sources?

Analyse the Literature 

Once you've read widely on your subject, stop to consider what new insights this knowledge has provided. 

  • Can you see any ideas emerging more strongly than others?
  • Have you changed your position since starting your reading? Perhaps the evidence has made you reconsider your starting viewpoint - or it might have made you more committed to it. However, you should read with an open mind, and be prepared to change your thinking if the evidence points that way.
  • Make note of a few points every time you read something. Key arguments or themes. Perhaps a note of ideas you'd like to explore more. You might want to attach this information in the same file we've mentioned in the 'future proofing' tab. 

Keep a search diary

Set up a document or spreadsheet to record where you've searched, and also the search strategies you've used. Record the search terms and also the places which have served you well. For instance, is there a particular database which had good coverage?

You may need to repeat searches in the future and this information will help. It might also be requested by your supervisor. 

Saving alerts

There are many options for setting up alerts which will help you keep track of new publications by a journal, or an author who is key in your research area, or even when other people cite the papers you have noted (maybe their work will be of interest to you).

These include: 

  • Table of contents (TOC)
  • Citation alerts
  • Topic or subject alerts
  • Author alert


Developing a comprehensive search strategy

1. Consider the guidance in the "getting started" box above before starting your search. 

2. Develop your research question or need.

3. Set up your search diary to record your progress and as a reference guide to come back to. 

1. Identify the major concepts from your research question or topic.

Let's say that our topic is: How do alternative energy sources play a role in climate change?  

The major concepts will be

  • alternative energy sources
  • climate change

2. List synonyms or alternative terms for each concept and organise them in a table like the one below - using a column for each major concept. Use as many columns as you have major concepts.

Alternative energy sources Climate Change
wind power global warming
solar power greenhouse gases
solar energy  
renewable energy  


Tools and tips to assist with this process:  

  1. Run scoping searches for your topic in your favourite database or databases such as Google Scholar or Scopus to identify how the literature can express your concepts. Scan titles, subject headings (if any) and abstracts for words describing the same things as your major concepts.
  2. Text mining tools including PubMed Reminer especially if you are using a database with MeSH such as Medline or Cochrane. There are many others however.
  3. As you find something new, add it to the appropriate column on your list to incorporate later in your search.

Create your search strategy from the concepts, synonyms, phrases etc in your Concept Grid 

Identify the best databases for your topic. Check the databases tab in the left menu on this Guide.

N.B.The syntax/search tools for your search may depend on the particular database you are searching in. Most databases have a Help screen to assist.  

However, the majority of databases will use Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) and other commonly used search tools:

  • Use "OR" to connect each of your synonyms (eg "climate change" OR "global warming")
  • Use "AND" to connect each of your concepts.
  • (Use "NOT" to exclude terms - but these should be used sparingly as they can knock out useful results.)
  • Use the Truncation symbol * at the end of word roots which might have alternative endings eg: manag* will retrieve: manage; management; managing, managerial etc.
  • Use quotes to keep together words of phrases (eg "climate change")
  • Group your concepts algebraically using parentheses. 
  • Consider, is your term alternatively expressed as two words? (eg hydro electricity or hydroelectricity (you should include both!))

So with our question/topic: How do alternative energy sources play a role in climate change?

After identifying our major concepts and synonyms for each and employing some of the tools mentioned above, our constructed search strategy might look something like this:

("alternative energ*" OR "wind power" OR "Solar power" OR "Solar energy" OR Renewabl* OR geothermal OR hydroelectricity OR "hydro electricity") AND ("climate change" OR "global* warm*" or "greenhouse gas*" or "green house gas*")

3. Be prepared to revise, reassess and refine your search strategies after you have run your initial searches to ensure you get the best possible results. If you retrieve too many false results or "noise", try to analyse why. For example, you may have used a word which has alternative meanings.

If you have too many results, you can either add another concept or remove some synonyms

If you have too few results, try searching with fewer concepts (identify the least most important to omit) or add more synonyms.

Your Faculty or Clinical Librarian will be able to assist with this process.

Further reading


We have guidance on Literature Reviews in StudyWISE.  This guides focuses on the writing skills associated with Literature Reviews.  

You'll find it  on iLearn (Macquarie University's learning portal)