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Graduate Nursing

What is a Literature Review?

"A literature review is a critical summary of all the published works on a particular topic" (Fonseca, 2013). A literature review provides background for your paper by quickly bringing the reader up-to-date on relevant findings, controversies, and dilemmas. It is the author's chance to "set the scene" and demonstrate why their topic is of interest to academia. In your literature review, you will describe "where your project comes from and how it fits in with existing knowledge" (Lloyd, 2017-2018). Further, you will provide "an argument for why your project makes a valuable contribution" (Lloyd, 2017-2018).


Fonseca, M. (2013, November 4) 5 tips to write a great literature review.

Lloyd, C.(2017-2018). Literature reviews for sociology senior theses. [PowerPoint Slides].

Step One: Define Your Research Question

What are you trying to determine for your literature review? What specifically do you want to learn more about? Choose a topic that you are genuinely interested in. Next, conduct a broad search on it. Determine what trending and popular research is available, then narrow your topic down. You can refine it by one or more of the following:

  • Age
  • Population
  • Geographic location
  • Time period
  • Discipline/field of study, etc.

Research terms will help define your question.

  • A broad question might be something like: What is the homeless population like?
  • A narrow and specific question may include: What social and political factors have affected the growth of the middle-aged homeless population in Toronto within the past five years?

Once you have determined an appropriate research question/topic, move on to planning your approach.


Dermody, K., Literature Reviews. (2020, January 23). Retrieved from

Step Two: Plan Your Approach 

After you have landed a research question, ask yourself "Which specific terms will I use, and where am I going to begin?" Determine what kind of literature you want to look at, whether it be journal articles, books, electronic resources, newspapers, or even other literature reviews on similar topics.


Dermody, K., Literature Reviews. (2020, January 23). Retrieved from

Boolean Search Terms ImageStep Three: Use Key Words to Search the Literature

Your keywords are the main concepts or ideas of your paper. 
For example, the keywords for a paper on “youth employment in Canada” would be:

  • Youth
  • Employment
  • Canada

Use synonyms: Often there are multiple ways to express the same concept. Make sure to use synonyms in your research. For instance, "employment" can be researched as:

  • Job
  • Work
  • Career

Lastly, use “AND” and “OR.” By bridging your truncated keywords and synonyms with the capitalized search words “AND” and “OR” (known as Boolean operators), you can search for multiple concepts effectively. For more information, visit the "electronic resources" tab of this research guide. There is a box on Boolean operators. 


Dermody, K., Literature Reviews. (2020, January 23). Retrieved from

Step Four: Analyze Material

When searching for material, it is important to analyze your sources for credibility, accuracy, currency, and authenticity. Ask these questions when analyzing a source:

  • What is the purpose of the work?
  • How current is it?
  • Who is the author? 
  • What are the author's biases?
  • Is this work peer reviewed? 
  • How accurate is this information? What facts/empirical evidence support it?
  • What time frame are you looking at for your literature review, and does the work fall within that range?


Dermody, K., Literature Reviews. (2020, January 23). Retrieved from

Step Five: Manage Your Results 

After analyzing your research and determining what sources you want to use, it's important to keep track of what you have looked through. Keep a list of the following:

  • What searches you have completed.
  • Which ones were successful and unsuccessful.
  • What databases you used.
  • What sources you want to use for your literature review.
  • What else you may want to search for next.

You can do this using software such as Zotero, Mendeley, and EndNote.

Congratulations! You are making progress towards an exceptional literature review.


Dermody, K., Literature Reviews. (2020, January 23). Retrieved from

Literature Review vs. Annotated Bibliography 
Both a literature review (A.K.A. literature synthesis) and an annotated bibliography summarize the existing body of knowledge on a given topic.

What is the difference between a literature review and an annotated bibliography? 
Unlike literature reviews, annotated bibliographies summarize entire research articles. An annotated bibliography looks like this:

Annotated Bibliography

•    Summarizes each article separately.

o    First, students discuss article one, then two, etc. 
o    Topic: Blood Donation

  • Paragraph 1: Bonnie and Clyde (2019) wrote "this" on blood donation.
  • Paragraph 2: Rose and Jack (1997) wrote "this" on blood donation.
  • Paragraph 3: Mary-Kate and Ashley (2001) wrote "this" on blood donation.
  • Result: Multiple summaries of individual research articles (Lloyd, 2017-2018).

Literature Review

•    Describes the existing body of knowledge by integrating and synthesizing the literature to create something new.

   Topic: Blood Donation

  • Paragraph 1: Information/research findings on red blood cells pulled from multiple sources.
  • Paragraph 2: Information/research findings on platelets pulled from multiple sources.
  • Paragraph 3: Information/research findings on white blood cells pulled from multiple sources.
  • Paragraph 4: Information/research findings on the drawbacks of donating blood from multiple sources (Lloyd, 2017-2018).
  • Result: The author points out "themes, concepts, gaps and disagreements" between articles (Hofer, Hanick & Townsend, 2019, p. 216). Students use these to describe the existing body of knowledge on their topic one concept at a time. 


Hofer, A. R., Hanick S. L., & Townsend, L. (2019). Designing activities for conceptual teaching. Transforming information literacy instruction: Threshold concepts in theory and practice. (p. 209-224). Libraries Unlimited.

Lloyd, C.(2017-2018). Literature reviews for sociology senior theses. [PowerPoint Slides].