Literature Reviews in the Sciences

Lesson 2: Fundamental Research Skills

Reviewing the Literature

After you have reflected on the expected type/form/purpose/audience characteristics of your literature review, your next step is to determine the kinds of sources you will need to develop your literature review, and how to find them. While it is tempting to move ahead in this process without a plan—and indeed, you may have some success with this approach at first—the process will be more efficient with one. A simple plan based on clarifying your source needs and expectations can be a good place to start.

Questions to ask:

  • What genre(s) of source material do I need for my literature review?
  • Are there specific authors or specific sources that regularly contribute to my area of interest?
  • What material do I already have collected which will be a part of my review?
  • What are the foundational/seminal works of my research area?
  • What is the general time frame that my source material should cover?
  • What theoretical framework(s), scientific paradigms, or research methods and analytical techniques encompass your research?
  • What disciplines have contributed to or built off of my research area?
  • What source finding tools do I have access to?

It is also important to review the purpose of your literature review. This can help you recognize when you might be exploring sources that are interesting but not relevant to your current project. A literature review is a daunting project and scope-creep is not helpful!

Searching for sources is an iterative process. Your first search will not be your last.

Finding articles

Scientific, peer-reviewed research articles are probably going to comprise the majority of sources that you will use in your literature review.

At UW-Madison, the Libraries subscribe to many databases that inventory the articles published in scientific and scholarly journals. Some of these databases are multidisciplinary and some focus on the literature of a specific discipline. UW-Madison has electronic subscriptions to most of these journals so that you can smoothly move from title/abstract level information to the full-text. For articles UW-Madison does not have electronic subscriptions to, there are request and delivery services available to fill the gap.

The multidisciplinary databases Web of Science, Scopus, and Google Scholar, are robust databases for finding scientific research articles and can be a good starting point for exploring the general landscape of your topic. Be aware that keyword searches in these databases will retrieve research that falls outside your research area as well. However, you also might discover some interesting articles demonstrating where your research area’s knowledge has disseminated.

Subject-specific databases are very useful tools to use as well. Even if a multidisciplinary database has been useful, it may not adequately cover your research area. Subject-specific databases often have search tools that are specialized to the language and research methodologies of the discipline. Using these tools can help you search with precision. Look for elements such as a thesaurus, and options that limit search results based upon characteristics of the research studies.

A growing number of databases are incorporating an article’s citation information as well. This information can lead you to research articles that reference a specific article, and hopefully address that article’s research in a substantial way. Citation information can also show you a specific article’s reference list, and hopefully lead you to the fundamental research behind a specific article. However, please note that citation information for the same article is frequently inconsistent across databases. Do not be surprised if you find different results in different databases.

There are new tools being developed to help users understand what articles that reference another article (citing articles) are saying about the article being referenced (cited articles). The tool Scite, is one such development. This platform uses a machine-learning algorithm to indicate if a citing article is Supporting or Disputing the content of the article being cited. It also indicates if the citing article is merely Mentioning the article being cited, without commenting substantially on the research. While it is undeniably important for you to read citing articles and make these assessments for yourself, these kinds of tools can be helpful to use with articles that have been cited many times. For instance, the article “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”, published in 1998 and retracted in 2010, continues to be cited by other articles and has accrued over 1000 citations made by other authors. This article and its retraction are significant as this article is believed to have triggered the belief that vaccines cause autism in children.’s algorithm indicates that the vast majority of these citations to “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children” merely mention the existence of the article. Many fewer agree with or dispute the findings in a substantive way.

Individual databases provide in-depth search help. Check the top banner or Help section for specific search information, and information about specialized tools, thesauruses, or search term syntax. Finally, a thorough search for articles to consider for your literature review should include reviewing the content of specific journals that are important in your discipline.

The Library (and librarians) is also an excellent resource if you would like to level-up your database and literature searching skills! See the Libraries' Help page for more information. Please contact to request a literature searching consultation with a science librarian.

Finding dissertations

Dissertators at UW Madison should explore our Dissertations/Theses databases. We subscribe to a number of databases that allow the user to search for these types of publications. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global is a database that offers robust full-text coverage of dissertations.

While a dissertation or thesis may not be the type of publication you will use as a part of your literature review, they can be helpful models for what a literature review looks like as an element of a dissertation or thesis. You can search for dissertations by PhD students who preceded you in your department, or were advised by your advisor. Examine the literature review chapter for content and explore the writing to understand how the sources in the literature review contributed to the larger work.

The Dissertation/Theses databases are found here on the Library’s website under the “Type” tab. Select the option for Dissertations/Theses to see the individual databases available for searching.

Finding books

Books and book chapters may not comprise the majority of your sources in your literature review, but still may have relevant content or provide context for your research area.

UW-Madison students can search the Library Catalog to locate materials owned by UW-Madison.. You can search for books by title, or by subject keyword. (To refresh your memory on best practices for searching the UW Madison Library Catalog, check out the Searching the Library Catalog tutorial.) Books in the UW-Madison Library Catalog are inconsistent with how much detail they provide about the book’s chapters. Your subject keyword search might retrieve a book with relevant chapter information. However, most of the time your subject keyword search will retrieve results based on general subject characteristics of the entire book. If you know about a specific book or book chapter that you would like to consult, you can search the Library Catalog for the physical book, or place a request for the library to get you a digital copy of a chapter (if the parent book is not already available electronically), or you can place an Interlibrary Loan request for the physical book.

UW-Madison Libraries have a large collection of databases with e-book content. The books in these databases will show up if you search in the Library Catalog. However, you can also search the specific database that houses the e-book content to find chapter-level material.

Remember, scholarly books and book chapters are likely to also include reference lists. These lists can always be used by you as ways to discover other related literature to your topic.

The e-book databases are found here on the Library’s website under the “Type” tab. Select the option for E-Book Collections to see the individual databases available for searching.

Finding patents and technical reports

Patents and technical reports are not academic publications. However, they can still be quite useful to your literature review search, especially if you are in an engineering or technology/biotechnology discipline.

Patents all have a References Cited section, which contains all patent documents and non-patent literature cited by both applicant and examiner as prior art. . If you find a patent for an invention that is relevant to your own work, review the supporting literature section. Like the reference list in any other publication, this section could help lead you to literature related to your own work.

Technical reports publish the results of scientific or technical research, often using federal funds. The research is performed and reports are produced by companies, universities and government laboratories. Most technical reports housed on the UW-Madison campus were written under contract to U.S. government agencies. These reports may be useful to you as sources for your review, or as a provider of other sources found in their reference lists.

The Patents databases and the Technical Reports databases are found here on the Library’s website under the “Type” tab. Select the option for Patents / Trademarks to see the various databases with patent information. Select Technical Reports to find the databases with technical report content.

More information about technical reports can be found in the Technical Reports Research Guide. Science & Engineering Librarians can also provide searching assistance. Please contact to request a consultation.

While the librarians cannot do a patent search for you or offer legal advice, librarians can assist you in learning how to search for patents and trademarks. Please contact the Patent & Trademark Resource Center at Steenbock Library for this assistance. The Patents & Trademarks Research Guide and the Introduction to Patents Micro-course are self-paced resources to guide you through the process of searching for and understanding these complex areas.

Finding funded research data

Research grants awarded by U.S. federal government granting agencies can be an interesting way to discover the existence of research articles for your literature review. Databases that provide this information can be searched by subject terms, by principle investigator name, research institution, and other information. Results generally include reference lists of literature germane to or created as a result of the grantee’s research. Generally, this is just a list with no abstract information, though there may be links to databases like PubMed where you can see the abstract and find links to full-text. Other parts of the results that can be useful from a writing perspective are plain-language summaries, or broader impact statements associated with the award. These can provide models of writing as well as provide you with more context about the bigger world of research that your literature review is a part of.

Free, online databases that you can search for U.S. federal grant awards are:

  • RePORT Expenditures and Results RePORTER (NIH, DHHS, other)
  • Current Research Information Service: CRIS (USDA)
  • (NSF, NASA)

Managing Results

A literature review can rapidly become a large, messy project. As you search and accumulate potential sources to incorporate into your literature review, you may need to start thinking about your workflows and personal organization in new ways. In fact, you should think about the spaces you will work in and tools you will be using (your workspace) during this project, as well as your workflows before starting your literature review.

Questions to ask yourself about your workspace:

  • What kind of workspace will I be using?
  • What type of technology (hardware and software) do I have access to?
  • Will I be doing this work in one space or will I require portability?
  • What level of internet access will I need?

Questions to ask yourself about your workflow:

  • Am I a person who needs to work with physical copies of sources, or am I comfortable with online tools?
  • How will I organize my sources to keep track of what will be part of my review and what falls outside my research scope?
  • What techniques will I use to analyze the content of my sources to determine how they fit into my review?
  • How do I usually approach writing a paper? What works for me? Where am I inefficient?

Citation Managers

Citation management software can help you manage and organize the sources you are collecting for your literature review, and help you in the writing process.

Citation management software are programs that have been specially designed to collect and store bibliographic information about books, journal articles, and other items that could potentially be referenced in academic writing. Citation management software also can connect with major word processing programs by inserting in-text citations and generating end-of-paper reference lists and bibliographies and formatting them according to your desired style (or re-formatting automatically, if necessary).

There are many citation management programs in existence. They can differ in terms of functionality, price, platform, and complexity to learn. It is best to explore and learn to use a citation management program early in your process, since there is a learning curve. It is also important to understand what a citation management program can and cannot do, so that you are not surprised at a critical time.

Please see the UW-Madison Libraries Citation Managers resource page for information about specific citation management programs that we support, and to consult with a librarian about your specific citation management questions.

Staying Current

Staying current with the literature is a useful practice for any researcher and can be especially useful for the literature review process. In this context, staying current with the literature means monitoring the publication of new research in your area of interest; monitoring the citation rates of key publications in your literature review materials; and reviewing the contents of journals that publish research in your discipline.

Monitoring the publication of new research in your area of interest

The most efficient way to do this is to save the database search strings you create, and re-run them periodically through a database to see what new material is retrieved. Most databases will allow you to create a user profile in order to save these search strings, and to instruct the database to automatically run the search string on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. The database will then send you an alert (usually by email or RSS feed) if the search string retrieves something new to the database since the search was last run.

This type of service is often called a Search Alert, though this can vary by database. This type of alert will retrieve articles based on keywords and subject matter that you specify.

Monitoring the citation rates of key publications in your literature review materials

Databases that provide article citation information (such as Web of Science) will allow you to set up a specialized alert which will tell you when an article you specify has been cited in other articles. This type of alert can help you locate potentially useful literature for your review by monitoring the dissemination of information from select key publications into other publications.

This type of alert is usually called a Citation Alert. This type of alert will retrieve articles based upon whether or not they cite a specified article in their reference lists.

Reviewing the contents of journals that publish research in your discipline

There are many ways to do this. Often, researchers simply consult the publisher-provided website for a journal of interest and skim the table of contents for new issues of the journal. The journal also may allow the researcher to sign up for an email notification of the contents of a new issue. If the journal has a social media presence, this information might be disseminated through that route. If the UW-Madison Libraries has an online subscription to the journal, you should be able to access the full-text of the articles. If the UW-Madison Libraries does not have an online subscription to the journal, you will still at least be able to see the titles of the articles and place requests for material you need.

You can also set up a search alert in a database that looks for the contents of a specified journal. The database would need to actually index the contents of the journal for this to be effective.

The UW-Madison Libraries offer a tool called BrowZine which can also be used to stay aware of new issues of key journals. You can download a mobile app, or use the web-based program, to create a bookshelf of journals that you would like to monitor. BrowZine will alert you when new issues become available. This tool is linked to the UW-Madison Libraries electronic subscriptions, so you can easily move from title/abstract information to the full text.

While the mechanisms for keeping current can be automated, you will need to create a space in your workflow to follow up with the results of these automated alerts. It is also important to be aware of retractions of and corrections to papers in your literature review. Monitoring the blog RetractionWatch can be a useful practice. Also, if a paper is retracted, that information will eventually be linked to the article’s information in databases.

The above guidelines are for staying current with academic research literature. Staying current with what is generally happening in science is important as well. Your discipline’s professional organization(s) may be strong sources of information about research trends and broader impacts of research. Look to their web and social media presences to stay aware of those conversations.

Broad-based online magazines can also be a good source of emerging research trends and broader impacts of research. Science News,, and ScienceDaily are popular online magazines that cover a wide array of scientific areas. Journals such as Science and those in the Nature family have robust science news reporting via their websites. Finally, major U.S. governmental scientific organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health,or the USDA, often have news updates in their web and social media presences as well.


Templates to document your search strategies:

For more resources to keep current, check out these online guides:

Lesson 2 Reflection

Use the questions in this form to help you reflect and guide your decision-making when developing your research strategies. A copy of your responses will be sent to the email address you provide.

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