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Literature Reviews: Choosing a Topic & Setting the Scope

Provides research tips for conducting a literature review.

Choosing Topic & Search Terms

A good way to choose and refine a topic is through searching library catalogs & databases. Selecting search terms can be tricky for beginning researchers in social sciences. Here are some tips to help get started:

  • If your search is generating too few results, check to see if the database has a thesaurus. If it does, search the thesaurus to see if there are suggested terms for your topic.
  • Look for subject terms and author-supplied keywords as you look through abstracts. Try updating your search to the terms & keywords the database provides.
  • Select specific fields in databases to target how the database searches for your chosen terms.
  • Become familiar with Boolean search techniques. Select a range related terms to cast a wide net for your search and break up your search terms into separate boxes. Here is a sample search looking for articles about homeless youth in New York:

Shows search terms in boxes provided by the database

Setting the Scope

Use this grid to help set the scope of your review:

Literature Type

Where to Search

Authors, books, subject headings

  • Classic Library Catalog
  • OneSearch (limit to books)
  • WorldCat FirstSearch

Journals with peer review, periodicals by discipline or subject

  • Subject-specific library databases and indices

Theses and dissertations

  • Dissertations & Theses Global (ProQuest)

Trade magazines, popular magazines, major newspapers

  • Various library databases

  • Searching on the open web

Websites and blogs

  • Searching on the open web

  • Various library databases

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