literature review tips

A good literature review: how to take the pain out of the process

It is easy to get sidetracked and lose focus when researching a literature review, especially for a larger work such as a thesis. While I am always careful about my boundaries as an editor, here I have shared some ideas from researchers and research candidates.

How do you search efficiently without going off on unrelated tangents?

Quick tips:

  • Use precise keywords when searching for themes and ideas.
  • Boolean operator words (AND, OR, NOT) can also be helpful.

What criteria could search for helpful research?

How much time have we spent going through articles and book chapters that tend to be about very similar information? Is there a more effective way?  Brian Belcher, Katherine Rasmussen, Matthew Kemshaw and Deborah Zornes (2016) give an example of a systematic literature review, in this case into transdisciplinary research quality.

I skipped the introduction and focused just on the research question: What are appropriate principles, criteria, and indicators for defining and assessing research quality in transdisciplinary research? The initial criteria for the title and abstract are very specific.

Topic coverage 

Must refer to research quality* definitions and criteria

(*societal relevance, effectiveness, impact, or related aspects of relevance will be considered aspects of quality) 

Document type 

Documents that:

  • Outline an evaluation framework
  • Provide an overview of knowledge and best practices in research evaluation and make recommendations for quality criteria or evaluation
  • Critiques of existing quality criteria and recommendations for alternative/additional criteria
  • Empirical analyses of research projects/programs that provide recommendations for quality evaluation


Discussion must be relevant to environment, natural resources management, sustainability, livelihoods, or related areas of human–environmental interactions. The discussion need not explicitly reference any of the above subject areas. 

They stated they did not set geographical or temporal limits.

They then conducted a second screening for the abstract and the complete article.

What helps with choosing reliable and credible sources?

Looking at the review process from another perspective, how can you assess the robustness of the research? There is a lot of research on this available. As an example, Leanne Kmet, Robert Lee and Linda Cook (2004) present checklists for evaluating quantitative and qualitative studies. These are Tables 1 and 2 on pages 4 and 5, respectively.

How might you record information thoroughly?

A quick and easy way is to set out differences in research approaches and findings in a table, concept map or spreadsheet. When I did a quick Google search for how to organise a literature review, an overwhelming amount of general information and an equally enormous number of very specific templates came up. Kathleen Clark (2017) gives a rather elaborate recording method for a literature review, which you can adapt. It saves a lot of time if you document the findings and referencing while you are researching, systematically.

You will probably want to back up this spreadsheet (or whatever format you choose to use) regularly in two other places, especially as literature reviews can be so complex!