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ACAP Pathfinder: Literature Review

Learn about the process of searching, choosing, recording and evaluating information for writing a literature review.

Where to Search

Whenever possible, source literature for your review from multiple sources. If you are writing a review with a limited word count and a fast-approaching due date, it may be okay to limit your search strategy to a few of the major library databases.  However, more in-depth papers should draw from a wide variety of sources, ensuring that a thorough search of the literature has been conducted. 

The Choosing Resources page on the Information Skills guide will provide you with more information about where to access information sources.  You can also follow these links:

Developing a Search Strategy

Employ a systematic approach to your search by formulating a number of advanced searches and deploying each from multiple sources. One strategy is to copy and paste the same search into numerous sources, which have been opened in multiple tabs across the top of your internet browser. Take a look at the Advanced Searching tabs below and for an even more in-depth look, follow the relevant links at the bottom of this page. 

Note that the first search you run probably won't be the final one. You will have several iterations along the way to finding a set of final tested search strings. As you pick up new key terms and phrases by reading through the material you find, often a new set of criteria will emerge with which to search the literature. Also, do not forget to employ citation chaining strategies once you have found relevant sources. 

Record each search as you go using the template, which is located on the following page titled, Recording the Search. This template will help you write this section of the literature review and help you keep track of your search sets as they develop.

It is also important to stay organised. There are various methods of saving and organising your searches and the literature you find. They are listed on the Reference Management page in this guide

Advanced Searching

The search boxes provide options to construct a more focused search and adjust it more easily.

Use one box for each of the main topic areas you are looking for. In the example below, the search topics are grief and relationships and interventions. Use three boxes, one for each topic and include synonyms for each topic in that box. To include more topics, most databases allow for the addition of search boxes.

Between each search box, choose the appropriate Boolean operator to connect search terms.

In the search below, the AND operator is selected in the drop-down menus and OR operators are typed in the search boxes between synonyms. Refine the search string further by adding wildcards, truncation and phrases. For example, truncate bereavement and counselling and therapy by adding an asterisk to the word as displayed below. 

Use the ‘Select a field’ drop down menus to tell the database where to look for search terms.

Adjust these fields if the search results are too limited. Also try mixing and matching across the search boxes as some fields will work better with different keywords. Below is a brief definition of some of the common fields:

  • Select a Field or Any Field - Will look through all sections of item records for keywords. This will deliver a larger, more comprehensive set of results.
  • All Text - Will look through the entire full-text of the items. This will deliver the largest set of results but they may not always be the most relevant.
  • Author - Use when you want to search for a particular author or theorist. Begin by just using the author's surname.
  • Title - Will just search through the titles of the items in the database. This will bring back a much smaller and relevant set of results.
  • Subject terms - Will look through the subject tags attached to each record. Again, this will retrieve a smaller more relevant list of results.
  • Abstract - When looking for journal articles, limiting to an abstract search will often result in a more relevant, yet comprehensive search. The abstract is the summary found at the beginning of a research article.


After selecting the search button and retrieving a results list, a Refine Results menu will appear usually down the left or right hand side of the page. This menu has built in facets with which to easily refine the results and deliver a more relevant list. A few ways of limiting the search include:

  • Full-text: Ticking the full-text option filters a search to resources subscribed to by the library and so, you will have immediate access. However, you may choose to expand the number of results by unticking this option (you may then need to look for non-subscription items elsewhere or request via the interlibrary loan service). 
  • Peer Review: If unsure about how to access only scholarly material, limit the results to just peer reviewed studies.
  • Date: To look at recent research and publications, limit by date from the Publication Date field.
  • Facets: Make use of the limiting facets produced by the database. These are based on the metadata from a results list. Subject or Thesaurus terms are often a good place to start in order to make results a little more relevant but there is often a variety of other options to choose from such as methodology, gender, age, geography, publication type and so on.

Relevant Links