Two students and a lecturer work at a computer

Before you start - Identifying literature

All educational research requires a thorough review of appropriate literature, by way of contextualising and justifying the intended study. Before you can begin conducting and writing your literature review, you need to ensure that you have systematically identified and sourced a sufficient range of relevant literature; and in doing so, maintain a sufficiently tight control over the boundaries of your search. You also need to ensure that you develop an efficient system for managing, retrieving and referencing the literature that you do use.

Savin-Baden & Howell Major (2013) provide a number of suggestions for how to proceed through each stage of the initial literature search, as summarised in the table below:

StageOptions include
 Identifying search paths
  • Databases
  • Citation searching - combing through bibliographies of relevant articles
  • Hand searching - reviewing tables of contents in key relevant journals
  • Raiding - review archives of listservs and other relevant mailing lists
  • Expert polling - asking tutors and colleagues for suggestions
  • Popular polling - reviewing popular sources such as magazines and newspapers to determine whether they have cited relevant sources
  • Random firing - random trial of search terms in a search engine to determine whether any additional 'hits' are returned
 Limiting search parameters
  • Type of paper (e.g. empirical research paper, essay, opinion paper) – and being clear on the rationale for selection
  • Publication outlet (e.g. peer reviewed journal, magazine or 'grey literature' – i.e. unpublished material like conference papers and dissertations)
  • Date of publication (e.g. to only include more recent or relevant work)
 Developing search strings
  • Pose a short, general research question – and then brainstorm topics that are related to the general topic
  • Use a thesaurus to match 'descriptors' from the database programme – and then enter these as “key terms” rather than descriptors, to allow broadening of the search
  • Use connectors (and/or/ not) or parentheses to extend or limit a search
 Managing the studies
  • Bibliographic management programmes e.g. RefWorks, EndNote
  • Hand management e.g. box file or on hard drive/removable disk
Summary of the table's contents


Savin-Baden, M. & Howell Major, C. (2013), Chapter 8 – “Literature Review”. In Savin-Baden, M. & Howell Major, C., Qualitative Research.  The essential guide to theory and practice. Abingdon: Routledge (pp. 112-129).