The first step involves aligning yourself with your topic so that you gain a more comprehensive picture of the area of study. This includes making a list of key terms that will serve as the basis for the next step.
Read a recent publication on your topic. Choose a publication by a reputable author that discusses all (or as many as possible) facets of your topic. This will give you a general overview of your research field. Ask your advisor if any questions arise.
As you read, note the terms that seem most important/relevant to you.
Also identify the most important/relevant terms of your (initial) problem and research question(s).
Make a master list of all these terms. These are your key terms. For example, if you are studying nonverbal communication, the following terms might be on your list:
2. Collect literature
This preparatory work now makes it much easier to search for specific literature and for other sources. This search often begins online. It is very important to use the right key terms, so the first step of this guide involves compiling a list.
Search for these terms both in German and in any other languages in which you have reading skills. It is also helpful to try to use synonyms and different combinations of terms.
There are many different types of databases you may want to search:
Your school’s online catalog or university library. Most academic libraries have a large collection of physical resources, including books, papers, journals, and magazines. However, most have expanded their offerings exponentially by subscribing to scholarly resources, including journals as well as scholarly databases (see below).
Google Scholar. Go to www.scholar.google.de to access Google’s dedicated search engine for scholarly literature. If you can’t access an article you’re interested in for free, try accessing it through your institution’s library instead.
Country-specific databases. Some databases are operated on a national level. For example, the PiCarta database can almost always be accessed through libraries of Dutch institutes. It contains data on all available publications in the Netherlands, including books and magazines that are not available in your own library.
Interdisciplinary databases. Databases such as JSTOR and EBSCO are digital libraries that contain journals, books, and primary literature on a variety of subjects. Most institutional libraries subscribe to several of these.
Discipline-specific databases. Several databases focus on specific disciplines (or groups of related disciplines). An example is the AGRIS database, which covers a wide range of topics related to agriculture and the environment.
When you find a useful source, check the biography of that publication for other relevant sources (this is called the “snowball” research method). Does an author’s name come up again and again? If so, it usually means that this person has done extensive research on the topic.
Looking at his/her website or searching for his/her name directly in an (online) catalog will likely lead to more results.
3. Evaluate and select literature
It is likely that you will discover an overwhelming amount of literature. Since you have a limited amount of time, it is important that you focus on the most relevant sources. We suggest that you evaluate the literature you have found first in terms of its relevance and then in terms of its scientific quality.
A relevant publication is one that fits well with your topic or problem. To determine the relevance of a book or article without reading it in its entirety, start with just the introduction and conclusion. This will often give you enough information to judge whether the publication is relevant to your work.
The quality of a publication is determined by a number of factors. As a general rule, try to use only those articles published in reputable journals. Rankings such as the Journal Quality List will help you find out which journals are qualitative.
Looking at the expertise of contributing authors can also be helpful. Knowledgeable authors are usually affiliated with an academic institution, publish extensively, and are frequently cited by others.
Keep in mind that information from websites, with the exception of websites operated by academic, governmental, or intergovernmental institutions, is often not reliable. It is also important to use the most recent literature when possible; if you do not, you run the risk of basing your work on outdated information.
4. Process literature
Once you have determined the literature you want to focus on, the next step is to process the information you have found out (for example, through a problem analysis or theoretical framework). Of course, it is important to start by studying the selected publications thoroughly. In doing so, ask yourself the following questions:
What is the problem under study, and how does the research tackle it?
What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
What theories and models does the author use?
What are the findings and conclusions of the study?
How does this publication compare to related publications within this field of research?
How can I apply this research to my own?
Analyzing all your sources in this way will give you a clear picture of the research field and how your research fits into it. After that, you will be able to discuss the literature in a critical and well-informed way.
The way you should present the results of your literature review varies by program. You should be provided with the appropriate guidelines from your field. If you are using the literature review to prepare a theoretical framework, for example, the focus would be on defining and analyzing theories and models.
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