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Literature Review

Course Number: SK PhD Workshop Series

Subject: Social Work

Table of Contents

1. Literature Review  2. Methods for Secondary Research  3. Searching  4. Research Question  5. Worksheet


Part of the comprehensive examination involves reviewing literature around your proposed dissertation research. This guide will help you with that process.

OBJECTIVE: Draft a working plan for reviewing the literature.


1. Literature Review

The Conversation

From preliminary searching and topic development to deep reading and composition, reviewing the literature means engaging in conversation.

From the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), scholarship as conversation involves:

  • citing the work of others
  • contributing in different domains (e.g. local online community, guided discussion, peer-reviewed publication, creative output)
  • identifying barriers to entering the conversation via different venues
  • critically evaluating others' contributions
  • identifying the contribution that different works (articles, books, etc.) make to disciplinary knowledge
  • summarizing changes in perspectives over time


What is Literature Review?

THE PRODUCT: A literature review is a survey of research about a particular topic.

  • It's specific - focuses on a well-defined topic.
  • It's selective - includes a curated selection of research.
  • It's a synthesis - brings together discussions from across the research.
  • It's a starting point - identifies where your research fits into the picture.
  • It shows accountability - demonstrates how you're tuning-in to others' work and voices responsibly.

Social Work dissertations are available through the Library's institutional repository (note that some will be under embargo).

When you finish your dissertation, it will be made available through this repository (and discoverable through Omni and Google) so that others can build on your contributions to the conversation!


2. Methods for Secondary Research

What is Reviewing the Literature?

THE PROCESS: Reviewing literature is a type of secondary research. There are different ways to review literature. Your methods need to fit your goals for the project at hand.

  • Secondary research = how you identify and work with existing research. 
  • Methods for secondary research = the strategies, processes, techniques, or tools you use to identify and work with existing research, including how you develop, document, and report.

How do you think your searching might change between these 2 scenarios?

  1. You need to find 5 peer-reviewed articles on a topic.
  2. You need to identify the 5 most recent peer-reviewed articles on a topic.


Frameworks for Reviewing the Literature

There are different ways to approach literature review. The process is so often presented as a neutral or step-by-step activity, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

Relational literature review is one example of an alternative approach to methods for reviewing literature that places a framework in the foreground.

Relational Literature Review

"Decolonizing the Literature Review: A Relational Approach" (Bishop & Tynan, 2022)


The abstract is highlighted: "As two (ab)Original women, we consider how a relational approach to the literature review can reflect our broader Indigenous and decolonizing research methodologies. In our research training, we have been exposed to dominant literature review models that advocate for researchers to “identify the gaps” and “occupy a territory,” a process (and vernacular) that feels at odds with Indigenous, relational, and decolonizing principles. We intend to apply the teachings we have learned from Indigenous scholars to the literature review process by proposing a reframing of the literature review, to one that is relational."


Your Goals for Reviewing the Literature

Image Description

Goals for reviewing the literature become more specific as you go. 1. Define your topic. What is the scope of your project? 2. Develop your understanding of the literature. Can you map out a comprehensive body of literature? 3. Identify where you fit in the conversation. How are you contributing to knowledge in your field? Throughout all 3 stages, you'll be finding relevant studies.


Reporting Methods for Secondary Research

Research papers and dissertations don't tend to report methods for reviewing literature. Other types of studies do report these methods, though.


Reading as Process and Method


3. Searching


a. Article Databases

There is a list of databases relevant to Social Work. Choose databases to search based on the descriptions.

  • Limit results to peer-reviewed.
  • Sort by most recent publications first.
  • Discover key articles.
  • Recognize key scholars.
  • Avoid missing important results.
  • Cut out irrelevant results.

Question! What 3 databases might I choose for a topic about child-parent relationship therapy?

b. Major Concepts and Keywords

What are the major concepts in your topic? What are some synonyms or alternate terms you can use? 

  • Consider the terms typically used in research literature.
  • Google "synonyms for ..."
  • If you have an on-topic article, see what terms get used in the title/abstract.
Major Concept Keywords

youth, adolescents, adolescence, teenagers, teens, young people, young person

c. Field Searching

  • Use the drop-down beside a search box to find terms in specific areas of results. Codes beside each field tell the database where to search for a term.

Example: ti("adverse childhood experiences") in PsycINFO (all results will have the term in titles).

d. Limits

  • You can limit results to peer-reviewed or scholarly.
  • A date limit is also sometimes useful.

e. Preliminary Searching

  • Preliminary searching in a relevant database can help you refine your topic and tune-in to conversations in your field.
    • Look at titles and abstracts - what questions are researchers asking?

Example: cancer* AND "music therapy" in CINAHL.



a. Search Tactics

Try using some of the following database search tactics to get better results.

What is the tactic? What does the tactic do? Examples
Boolean AND

Use AND to ensure that all terms appear in every search result.

depression AND home care

Boolean OR

Use OR to ensure that at least one term appears in every search result.

transgender OR LGBTQ OR GLBT

Phrase searching Use quotation marks to find more than one term in a row.

housing first

Truncation Use an asterisk* at the end of a term to include multiple endings.


trauma, traumatic, traumatically, traumatize, traumatized, traumatizing

Wildcard Use a question mark ? within a term to search for variations of a single character.


decolonize, decolonise

Question! I did a search for cancer AND music therapy in CINAHL.

  1. What happens to the # of results if I search for cancer AND "music therapy"?
  2. What happens to the # of results if I search for cancer* AND "music therapy"?

b. Subjects

  • These are controlled terms from a database thesaurus that are assigned to articles.
  • Different databases have different thesauri, which affects the subjects you use.
  • Note: you'll usually see a link to the "Subjects Headings" or thesaurus in a database's menu.

Example: MESH.EXACT("Health Services for Transgender Persons") in MEDLINE

Example: (MH "Transgender Persons+") in CINAHL

What is the CINAHL subject for teenager?

Major Concept Keywords CINAHL Subject

youth, adolescents, adolescence, teenagers, teens, young people, young person



4. Research Question

  • A well-defined research question gives direction to your searching.
  • Frameworks can give guidance about what to include.
  • Do any of the elements from the frameworks below work for your topic?


Question Frameworks

PICO (for clinical topics) 

Patient, population, or problem - Who is my question about?

Intervention - What is the intervention?

Comparison - Is there a comparison intervention?

Outcome - What is the outcome?

PEO (for qualitative topics)

Population - Who is my question about?

Exposure - What issue am I interested in?

Outcomes - What do I want to examine?

CLIP (for health policy topics)

Client - Who is the service aimed at?

Location - Where is the service sited?

Improvement - What do you want to find out?

Professional - Who is involved in providing the service?


Developing a Research Question: For Graduate Students


5. Worksheet

Page Owner: Meredith Fischer

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Last Updated: October 10, 2023 12:30pm