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Literature reviews

Information providing guidance on starting a literature review, including resources, techniques and approaches to searching the literature and writing the review.

Identify the main or important aspects

For comprehensive literature searching it is important to be systematic in your approach. This includes developing a plan for your search (including the search terms you will use and the resources you will search), and keeping records of the searches you carry out.

Before you can start the literature search you need to identify the main or important aspects of your topic.

It is often helpful to write out your topic in a few sentences and then identify the important words or terms.

For example, the main aspects or most important words of the following topic have been underlined.

What has been the impact of social media on climate change activism?

This topic has three main aspects:

  1. social media
  2. climate change
  3. activism

Compile a list of keywords

Once you have identified the main aspects of your topic, the next step is to compile a list of synonyms and alternative or related terms for each aspect.  These are the keywords that will be used for database searching. This step will ensure that you do not miss out on relevant articles simply because you have not used the same keywords that the article uses.

A preliminary search of a relevant journal article database can be used to identify the keywords being used by that particular database.

When compiling your list of keywords, also consider the following variations:  

Acronyms / Abbreviations  e.g. DFT, density functional theory

Alternative Spellings  e.g. aluminium, aluminum

Alternative Terms  e.g. vehicle, automotive, automobile, car

Plurals / Alternative Endings  e.g. environment, environmental

Possible keywords for the topic: What has been the impact of social media on climate change activism?

Social media Climate change Activism

social networks





global warming

greenhouse effect

fossil fuels







public opinion

Search techniques

There are a number of different search techniques that can be utilised to improve your search results.

Once you start finding search results, keep a record of the details (ie. date, database searched, search query, result number) to avoid unnecessary backtracking. Consider saving your searches and setting up alerts.


To specify that two or more words must appear as a phrase, use double quotes.

For example, “global warming”

To search for alternative endings of words, use truncation or stem searching. In most databases the truncation operator is an asterisk ( * ).

For example, a search for environment* will retrieve: environment, environments, environmental, environmentalism.

Sometimes there are slight differences in the spelling of a word, English and American spelling being an example. To facilitate searching on alternative spellings, some databases allow wildcard searching. The wildcard operator is often a question mark ( ?) or an asterisk (*).

For example, colo?r will find color or colour.

Note: Truncation and wildcard symbols can vary from database to database - check the help page of each database.

Databases will use the Boolean operators of AND, OR and NOT to define the relationship between your search terms (keywords).

AND » Combine keywords related to different concepts with AND
Finds records that contain BOTH terms.
This narrows your search (decreases the number of results).
For example: "social media" AND "climate change"


OR » Combine keywords related to a single concept with OR
​Finds records that contain ANY of the terms.
This broadens your search (increases the number of results).
For example: "social media" OR "social networks"


NOT » Narrows a search by excluding a search term.
This finds records with the first word but not the second.
Most searches do not require the use of the NOT operator.
Use it with care as relevant articles can be excluded if they briefly mention the second term.
For example: "global warming" NOT "fossil fuels"

Many databases use subject headings to index content. A subject heading is a specific word or phrase used to find and organise articles by topic. Subject headings can be a great way to easily find things related directly to your topic. Subject headings are different from keywords in that they are specific terms assigned to a subject by an organisation, for example a database. These are generally selected from a thesaurus list and describe what the article is about.

A comprehensive search strategy is often best achieved by using a combination of keywords and subject headings where possible.

Advantages of subject searching:

  • Helps locate articles that use synonyms, variant spellings, plurals
  • Search terms do not have to appear in the title or abstract

Note: Subject headings are often unique to a particular database, so you will need to look for appropriate subject headings in each database you intend to use.

Subject headings are not available for every topic, and it is best to only select them if they relate closely to your area of interest.

Many databases provide system based limits, options to further refine your search results.

Adding limits to a search will exclude certain material not relevant to your research question, and therefore reduce the number of results.

Limiting by material type is useful, especially if you only wish to retrieve journal articles, and not other types of material. Select options such as:

  • peer reviewed journals
  • academic journals
  • scholarly journals

Other options to refine your research results include:

  • language
  • publication date
  • article type
  • methodology

The use of limits should be justified by the focus of your research and any constraints.

The search query

In considering the topic What has been the impact of social media on climate change activism? three main aspects were identified, and a list of possible keywords (search terms) compiled.

To construct the search query consider utilising some search techniques such as boolean operators and phrase searching.

The search statement may look like the following:

("social media" OR "social networks") AND ("climate change" OR "global warming") AND activism

This search query has used:

  • double quote marks enclosed around keywords that contain two words so they are searched as a phrase
  • boolean operator OR is used to combine keywords about the same aspect
  • parentheses (ie. brackets) are used to enclose multiple keywords that are combined with OR
  • boolean operator AND is used to combine keywords about different aspects

The search features of a library database make constructing your search query easier, especially if using the advanced search option. Boolean operators can usually be selected from a drop-down menu. This is evident in the example below, showing the search query in a database where the boolean operators of AND are in place. Other filters include:

  • field search, such as within the title, keywords, abstract, or as in the example, anywhere.
  • peer reviewed
  • full text
  • publication date

Note: every database has differing features so utilising the different search strategies and techniques may also differ.

example database interface with search terms

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