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Literature Review: What it is and how to get started

Narrowing your research question

It is important to clarify the professional context that should be taken into account when answering your research question. For example, questions such as “Does team-building work?” or “Does 360-degree feedback increase performance?” may be relevant, but they are also very broad. For example, you may be specifically interested to know whether teambuilding improves product quality in a German manufacturing company that has just undergone restructuring, or whether 360-degree feedback is effective as a tool for improving governmental managers’ service to the public. To make your question more context-specific you can formulate a so-called PICOC. This is a method used to describe the 5 elements of a searchable question:

The underlying thought is that all five elements are important in a focused search for evidence, and that each change in the P, I, C, O or C leads to different evidence and therefore also to a different search outcome.

For a question about the effect of agile working environments on development costs, your PICOC could look something like this:

P:  software developers
 I:  agile working
C:  status quo
O:  reduced software development costs
C:  large international IT firm operating in a highly competitive market

Once your PICOC is complete, you can search for sources. The following tips will help you get started:

1.  Determine your TWO most important PICOC terms. In many cases, they will be your INTERVENTION and OUTCOME.

2.  Find alternative and related terms. A quick search reveals that 'agile working' is also known as 'flexible working'. You'll want to include that term in your deeper search so as not to exclude any potential resources.

3.  Also, keep in mind that a broader underlying principle usually exists. In other words, you would want to search for articles on broader topics, such working conditions and lowering development costs. 

Before you write, Search!

The first step in creating a literature review is, of course, finding the literature to review.  A good literature review should be as comprehensive as necessary to identify all of the major works and debates on your research subject.  Here are some tips for going beyond basic keyword searching in order to find as many sources as you can.

  • Subject-specific Databases - search in databases specific to your discipline of study to find more sources in your field. For example, EconLit specializes in economics, and will have more coverage of the economic literature than an interdisciplinary, all-purpose database such as Academic Search Complete.  You should also search in more than one database/catalog since no one search tool covers everything.
  • Subject Headings - also called descriptors, these terms are assigned to items to describe their content, or what they are about. Subject headings often facilitate more precise searching as they eliminate the need to search multiple phrases and synonyms for the same concept.  Look for subject headings on items in the library catalog and in databases of journal articles.  Many databases also provide a thesaurus, or index, of the subject headings used.
  • Author Search - many researchers will write about the same topic for their entire career. Searching by an author's name may garner additional relevant information.
  • Bibliography Mining - use the list of works cited from a relevant source to locate additional related sources. Search the library catalog to see if we have the item. (See list below to try it out.) This is a way to look for relevant sources published prior to the one in hand. 
  • Cited Reference Searching- search for items that have cited a relevant source. This is a way to look for relevant sources publised since the item in hand was published. (See right column for citation databases.)
  • Beyond Tulane - if you find a citation for a source Tulane doesn't own, use Interlibrary Loan (ILL)  to get it. Articles and chapters can usually be scanned and sent electronically, but books must be mailed and typically arrive in 1-2 weeks, so plan ahead. 

Article Databases

Use these links to identify a database that's relevant to your research question. 

Bibliography Mining

One way to find relevant articles is to raid the bibliography or works cited section. The three references below are cited in Rob Litchfield's article "Brainstorming Reconsidered: A goal-based view." 

How do you get to the full-text of the items? You may need to use the library's homepage for this.

Amabile, T. M. 1996. Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Wesview Press.

Dennis, A. R. & Williams, M. L.  2003. Electronic brainstorming: Theory, research, and future directions. In P. B. Paulus & Nijstad, B. A. (Eds.), Group creativity: Innovation through collaboration: 160-178. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dugosh, K. L., & Paulus, P. B. 2005. Cognitive and social comparison processes in brainstorming. Journal of Experimantal Social Psychology, 41: 313-320.

Cited Reference Searching

So you have an article in your hands, and you've already raided the bibliography for citations.  But these are all older sources the author used.  How do you know who cited this article?  Try one of the following search tools to find "future" sources that cite the article you already have. Or use this article as an example. 

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