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Literature Reviews

Choose databases and search

Choose databases

One place you may wish to search is the Library catalog. The Library catalog contains books, videos, music, art, primary sources, and some article databases. For more information about how to search the library catalog, see this guide.

To find articles, search Library databases. If you're not sure which article databases to search, the UT Library lists databases by subject, title, and type here.

Another way librarians organize databases is in Research Guides. Research Guides highlight a few databases in each subject area and they are an excellent place to start, but there may be other databases in your subject area. Please ask your subject librarian, if you're not sure where to search.


Database searching is an iterative process. This means that you will repeat it several times because as you search you are learning about your topic, including keywords and concepts. Or you may repeat your search because you want to try it in a different database or you might have heard about a particular author in your field. In general, you might have three phases of searching:

  1. Exploratory. Here's where you test concepts and keywords and find out what sorts of information might be available. In this phase, you will search inter-disciplinary databases such as Google Scholar, Web of Science, EBSCO or ProQuest or Academic Search Complete. In some disciplines (such as the hard sciences), you may have subject-specific databases in mind for the initial searching.
  2. Subject-oriented. This is where you will use subject specific databases (from the Library Guides), and you'll search includes key authors and publications.
  3. Citation searching. This is where you'll examine the references from excellent articles to make sure you've found the seminal (or key) pieces of research. You'll also look at the articles that have cited these excellent articles (cited references) to see what is currently happening in your topic, and how others have built upon this research.

Not all literature reviews are the same. Some are for an assignment, some are for an article, and some are for a thesis. Each requires a different level of effort and a different degree of comprehensiveness and detail. For example, for a class assignment, you might just use the exploratory phase. For an article you might use the first two phases, and for a thesis, all three would be appropriate.

It's a good idea to use a research log to track your key terms, databases, and where you leave off in your research. Here's one that our librarians designed.

Develop a Search Strategy

There are several best-practices that will help make your literature review search strategy more effective.

1) For each key concept in your research question, make a list of all the terms (including synonyms) that might help you locate relevant results. 

2) When searching, list each key concept on its own search bar, and within those bars, use ORs to string together synonyms for that concept. If an advanced search with multiple search bars isn't available, nest like terms within parentheses and connect nested terms with ANDs.


3) Use truncation and wild cards to enlarge your search. The way to do this may vary by tool, but in most databases using teach* as a search term will bring back results for teach, teaching, teachers, etc. Look in your databases help pages to learn more about these search broadeners.

4) Take advantage of publication type and date limiters. Use these limiters as appropriate for your study. However, be cautious. Some databases have more consistent indexing that others. For example, if a geographic field is applied inconsistently, don't use the limiter or try to search by location. Use your own screening process to include or exclude for this category.

5) Don't limit or search by methodology or type of study. In most cases, the methodology has been indexed inconsistently, so using such limiters sets you up for potentially missing studies. 

6) Be selective. Capture the most relevant articles for your research question. This means keeping your search fairly broad and dealing with lots of results at first and then narrowing it down by figuring out how to exclude articles later.  

Citation Searching


Citation searching allows you to see what's been done in the past, and where the research is progressing. You can trace (or chase) citations backward and forward in time. 

Cited References are listed at the end of a research paper. These sources have been read by the author(s) and show which books or papers influenced their work. Looking up these citations may lead you to the seminal pieces of literature, those that are key to the field. They have been cited many times (thousands?) and have introduced key concepts or research techniques. Looking at the references in most of your articles and finding which are quoted over and over again is part of your research. This is looking backwards.

Times Cited refers to the number of papers that have cited a particular paper. A word of caution, sometimes a paper cites something that has been read and rejected, so it may be of interest. These books or articles may help to find new areas of research and new methodologies or controversies. This the forward looking part of your research.

Related Records refer to papers that share references. This can help you identify areas that are similar or adjacent to your research. Looking at these is optional. 

Ask Your Librarian!

Librarians are very familiar with the databases available to UT scholars and students. We have insight about their journal coverage, indexing quality, and search capabilities. If you're not sure where to start or which databases to include in your study, ask us!

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