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What is a Literature Review?

Are you doing a class assignment? Writing your thesis or dissertation? Working on a research team? The likelihood is, you will need to conduct a thorough literature review for any of these projects; a good literature review in the first step in almost all research endeavours. How comprehensive and systematic your search needs to be is determined by the type of project you are completing.


The purpose of a literature review is for you to collect evidence on a given topic and give context to your research project. A good literature review will help you to better understand your chosen research topic and help you to develop your own unique perspective on a problem.


If you think of your research as a story, you need to know where you are now, and what happened in the past, so that you can move the story forward  (and have it make sense!) with your own research.   


Working on a Systematic or Scoping Review or a Meta-Analysis? Check out the library guides listed below for help getting started with these projects: 


Struggling with writing your literature review? Take a look at the next part of this guide, "Steps to Complete a Literature Review". You can also check out one of these writing guides for help: 

What is "The Literature"

What does it really mean to "search the literature"? Where should you be searching and what are you looking for? 

Most often, "searching the literature" refers to looking for scholarly materials that can help you to answer your research questions and give you more information about your research topic. Scholarly materials can include: 

1. Peer-reviewed research articles from reputable journals. These can be found in various databases, like CINAHL, Medline, PubMed, etc. You can also use Google Scholar to find some articles to help you get started. If you are using Google Scholar, make sure to set up your account to connect with the U of A Library Catalog and instantly retrieve many articles in full text! 

2. Books are also scholarly sources of information. Sometimes books are overlooked in favour of searching for journal articles, but books can be great sources of reliable information and can be great for finding out some background on your chosen research topic BEFORE you try searching for journal articles. Find print and e-book using the U of A Library search box on the library homepage. 

3. You may also need to look for source and evidence OUTSIDE of the mainstream publishing sphere, this is referred to as "Grey Literature". Examples of this type of evidence includes: 

  • Theses and Dissertations
  • Conference Proceedings 
  • Government or organization reports and statistics 
  • Clinical Trial Registeries 

You can find these sources using specialized databases (available through the library) or through good ol' Google.