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Chapter 5: The Literature Review

5.3 Acceptable sources for literature reviews

Following are a few acceptable sources for literature reviews, listed in order from what will be considered most acceptable to less acceptable sources for your literature review assignments:

Peer reviewed journal articles (papers)

A peer reviewed journal article is a paper that has been submitted to a scholarly journal, accepted, and published. Peer review journal papers go through a rigorous, blind review process of peer review. What this means is that two to three experts in the area of research featured in the paper have reviewed and accepted the paper for publication. The names of the author(s) who are seeking to publish the research have been removed (blind review), so as to minimize any bias towards the authors of the research (albeit, sometimes a savvy reviewer can discern who has done the research based upon previous publications, etc.). This blind review process can be long (often 12 to 18 months) and may involve many back and forth edits on the behalf of the researchers, as they work to address the edits and concerns of the peers who reviewed their paper. Often, reviewers will reject the paper for a variety of reasons, such as unclear or questionable methods, lack of contribution to the field, etc. Because peer reviewed journal articles have gone through a rigorous process of review, they are considered to be the premier source for research. Peer reviewed journal articles should serve as the foundation for your literature review.

The following link will provide more information on peer reviewed journal articles. Make sure you watch the little video on the upper left-hand side of your screen, in addition to reading the material at the following website:    http://guides.lib.jjay.cuny.edu/c.php?g=288333&p=1922599

Edited academic books

An edited academic book is a collection of scholarly scientific papers written by different authors. The works are original papers, not published elsewhere (“Edited volume,” 2018). The papers within the text also go through a process of review; however, the review is often not a blind review because the authors have been invited to contribute to the book. Consequently, edited academic books are fine to use for your literature review, but you also want to ensure that your literature review contains mostly peer reviewed journal papers.

Articles in professional journals

Articles from professional journals should be used with caution for your literature review. This is because articles in trade journals are not usually peer reviewed, even though they may appear to be. A good way to find out is to read the “About Us” section of the professional journal, which should state whether or not the papers are peer reviewed. You can also find out by Googling the name of the journal and adding “peer reviewed” to the search.

Statistical data from governmental websites

Governmental websites can be excellent sources for statistical data, e.g, Statistics Canada collects and publishes data related to the economy, society, and the environment (see https://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/start ).

Website material from professional associations

Material from other websites can also serve as a source for statistics that you may need for your literature review. Since you want to justify the value of the research that interests you, you might make use of a professional association’s website to learn how many members they have, for example. You might want to demonstrate, as part of the introduction to your literature review, why more research on the topic of PTSD in police officers is important. You could use peer reviewed journal articles to determine the prevalence of PTSD in police officers in Canada in the last ten years, and then use the Ontario Police Officers´ Association website to determine the approximate number of police officers employed in the Province of Ontario over the last ten years. This might help you estimate how many police officers could be suffering with PTSD in Ontario. That number could potentially help to justify a research grant down the road. But again, this type of website- based material should be used with caution and sparingly.

Research Methods for the Social Sciences: An Introduction by Valerie Sheppard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Literature Review Basics

The Literature

The Literature refers to the collection of scholarly writings on a topic. This includes peer-reviewed articles, books, dissertations and conference papers.

Primary Sources

The term primary source is used broadly to embody all sources that are original. P rimary sources provide first-hand information that is closest to the object of study. Primary sources vary by discipline.

Galvan, J. L. (2013). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences . Glendale, CA: Pyrczak.

Persaud, N. (2010). Primary data source. In N. Salkind (Ed.), Encyclopedia of research design. (pp. 1095-1098). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is a source that provides non-original or secondhand data or information. 

Secondary Source. (2005). In W. Paul Vogt (Ed.), Dictionary of Statistics & Methodology. (3 rd ed., p. 291). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Weidenborner, S., & Caruso, D. (1997). Writing research papers: A guide to the process . New York: St. Martin's Press.

More Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

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How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes .

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, frequently asked questions, introduction.

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

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Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).


The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.


If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:


A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

McCombes, S. (2023, January 02). How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates. Scribbr. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/literature-review/

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Literature review sources

Sources for literature review can be divided into three categories as illustrated in table below. In your dissertation you will need to use all three categories of literature review sources:

Sources for literature review and examples

Generally, your literature review should integrate a wide range of sources such as:

Your secondary data sources may comprise certain amount of grey literature as well. The term grey literature refers to type of literature produced by government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, which is not controlled by commercial publishers. It is called ‘grey’ because the status of the information in grey literature is not certain. In other words, any publication that has not been peer reviewed for publication is grey literature.

The necessity to use grey literature arises when there is no enough peer reviewed publications are available for the subject of your study.

Literature review sources

John Dudovskiy

give sources of literature review

Primary and secondary sources

The literature review: primary and secondary sources.

On this page

Can something be both a primary and secondary source?

Primary vs secondary sources: the differences explained.

Whether or not a source can be considered both primary and  secondary, depends on the context. In some instances, material may act as a secondary source for one research area, and as a primary source for another. For example, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince , published in 1513, is an important secondary source for any study of the various Renaissance princes in the Medici family; but the same book is also a primary source for the political thought that was characteristic of the sixteenth century because it reflects the attitudes of a person living in the 1500s.

Source: Craver, 1999, as cited in University of South Australia Library. (2021, Oct 6).  Can something be a primary and secondary source?.  University of South Australia Library. https://guides.library.unisa.edu.au/historycultural/sourcetypes

Research for your literature review can be categorised as either primary or secondary in nature. The simplest definition of primary sources is either original information (such as survey data) or a first person account of an event (such as an interview transcript). Whereas secondary sources are any publshed or unpublished works that describe, summarise, analyse, evaluate, interpret or review primary source materials. Secondary sources can incorporate primary sources to support their arguments.

Ideally, good research should use a combination of both primary and secondary sources. For example, if a researcher were to investigate the introduction of a law and the impacts it had on a community, he/she might look at the transcripts of the parliamentary debates as well as the parliamentary commentary and news reporting surrounding the laws at the time. 

Examples of primary and secondary sources

Finding primary sources

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Chapter 2: What is a Literature Review?

Learning objectives.

At the conclusion of this chapter, you will be able to:

2.1 Overview of information

Because a literature review is a summary and analysis of the relevant publications on a topic, we first have to understand what is meant by ‘the literature’.  In this case, ‘the literature’ is a collection of all of the relevant written sources on a topic.  It will include both theoretical and empirical works.  Both types provide scope and depth to a literature review.

give sources of literature review

2.1.1 Disciplines of knowledge

When drawing boundaries around an idea, topic, or subject area, it helps to think about how and where the information for the field is produced. For this, you need to identify the disciplines of knowledge production in a subject area.

Information does not exist in the environment like some kind of raw material. It is produced by individuals working within a particular field of knowledge who use specific methods for generating new information. Disciplines are knowledge-producing and -disseminating systems which consume, produce and disseminate knowledge. Looking through a  course catalog of a post-secondary educational institution gives clues to the structure of a discipline structure. Fields such as political science, biology, history and mathematics are unique disciplines, as are education and nursing, with their own logic for how and where new knowledge is introduced and made accessible.

You will need to become comfortable with identifying the disciplines that might contribute information to any search strategy. When you do this, you will also learn how to decode the way how people talk about a topic within a discipline. This will be useful to you when you begin a  review of the literature in your area of study.

For example, think about the disciplines that might contribute information to a the topic such as  the role of sports in society. Try to anticipate the type of perspective each discipline might have on the topic. Consider the following types of questions as you examine what different disciplines might contribute:

In this example, we identify two disciplines that have something to say about the role of sports in society: allied health and education. What would each of these disciplines raise as key questions or issues related to that topic? Nursing Education

We see that a single topic can be approached from many different perspectives depending on how the disciplinary boundaries are drawn and how the topic is framed. This step of the research process requires you to make some decisions early on to focus the topic on a manageable and appropriate scope for the rest of the strategy. ( Hansen & Paul, 2015 ).

‘The literature’ consists of the published works that document a scholarly conversation in a field of study. You will find, in ‘the literature,’ documents that explain the background of your topic so the reader knows where you found loose ends in the established research of the field and what led you to your own project.  Although your own literature review will focus on primary, peer-reviewed resources, it will begin by first grounding yourself in background subject information generally found in secondary and tertiary sources such as books and encyclopedias.  Once you have that essential overview, you delve into the seminal literature of the field. As a result, while your literature review may consist of research articles tightly focused on your topic with secondary and tertiary sources used more sparingly, all three types of information (primary, secondary, tertiary) are critical to your research.

2.1.2 Definitions

‘The literature’ is published in books, journal articles, conference proceedings, theses and dissertations.  It can also be found in newspapers, encyclopedias, textbooks, as well as websites and reports written by government agencies and professional organizations. While these formats may contain what we define as ‘the literature’, not all of it will be appropriate for inclusion in your own literature review.

These sources are found through different tools that we will discuss later in this section. Although a discovery tool, such as a database or catalog, may link you to the ‘the literature’ not every tool is appropriate to every literature review.  No single source will have all of the information resources you should consult.  A comprehensive literature review should include searches in the following:

2.2 Information Cycle

To get a better idea of how the literature in a discipline develops, it’s useful to see how the information publication lifecycle works.  These distinct stages show how information is created, reviewed, and distributed over time.

Tutorial on "The Publication Cycle and Scientific Research" Click on image to follow full tutorial. Link: https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/3/3.093/f06/tutorials/pub-cycle-with-quiz.swf

The following chart can be used to guide you in searching literature existing at various stages of the scholarly communication process (freely accessible sources are linked, subscription or subscribed sources are listed but not linked):

Figure 2.2 shows a continuous circle containing six bubbles that illustrate how an idea for a research study proceeds through evaluation for quality by peers to publication. After publication, the study is disseminated in print or electronic form and accessed through libraries, vendors, and the web. Preservation and reuse make up the remaining bubbles.

2.3 Information Types

To continue our discussion of information sources, there are two ways published information in the field can be categorized:

2.3.1 Popular, Trade, or Scholarly publications types of periodicals.

Journals, trade publications, and magazines are all periodicals, and articles from these publications they can all look similar article by article when you are searching in the databases. It is good to review the differences and think about when to use information from each type of periodical. Magazines

A magazine is a collection of articles and images about diverse topics of popular interest and current events.

Features of magazines:

give sources of literature review

Popular magazines like Psychology Today , Sports Illustrated , and Rolling Stone can be good sources for articles on recent events or pop-culture topics, while Harpers , Scientific American , and The New Republic will offer more in-depth articles on a wider range of subjects. These articles are geared towards readers who, although not experts, are knowledgeable about the issues presented. Trade Publications

Trade publications or trade journals are periodicals directed to members of a specific profession. They often have information about industry trends and practical information for people working in the field.

Features of trade publications:

Trade publications are geared towards professionals in a discipline. They report news and trends in a field, but not original research. They may provide product or service reviews, job listings, and advertisements. Scholarly, Academic, and Scientific Publications

Scholarly, academic, and scientific publications are a collections of articles written by scholars in an academic or professional field. Most journals are peer-reviewed or refereed, which means a panel of scholars reviews articles to decide if they should be accepted into a specific publication. Journal articles are the main source of information for researchers and for literature reviews.

Features of journals:

Scholarly journals provider articles of interest to experts or researchers in a discipline. An editorial board of respected scholars (peers) reviews all articles submitted to a journal. They decide if the article provides a noteworthy contribution to the field and should be published. There are typically few  little or no advertisements. Articles published in scholarly journals will include a list of references. A word about open access journals

Increasingly, scholars are publishing findings and original research in open access journals .   Open access journals are scholarly and peer-reviewed and open access publishers provide unrestricted access and unrestricted use.  Open access is a means of disseminating scholarly research that breaks from the traditional subscription model of academic publishing. It is free of charge to readers and because it is online, it is available at anytime, anywhere in the world, to anyone with access to the internet.  The Directory of Open Access Journals ( DOAJ ) indexes and provides access to high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarly articles.

In summary, newspapers and other popular press publications are useful for getting general topic ideas. Trade publications are useful for practical application in a profession and may also be a good source of keywords for future searching. Scholarly journals are the conversation of the scholars who are doing research in a specific discipline and publishing their research findings. Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Primary sources of information are those types of information that come first. Some examples of primary sources are:

There are different types of primary sources for different disciplines.  In the discipline of history, for example, a diary or transcript of a speech is a primary source.  In education and nursing, primary sources will generally be original research, including data sets.

Secondary sources are written about primary sources to interpret or analyze them. They are a step or more removed from the primary event or item. Some examples of secondary sources are:

Tertiary sources are further removed from the original material and are a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources. Some examples are:

A comparison of information sources across disciplines:

2.4 Information Sources

In this section, we discuss how to find not only information, but the sources of information in your discipline or topic area.  As we see in the graphic and chart above, the information you need for your literature review will be located in multiple places.  How and where research and publication occurs drives how and where the information is located, which in turn determines how you will discover and retrieve it.  When we talk about information sources for a literature review in education or nursing, we generally mean these five areas: the internet, reference material and other books, empirical or evidence-based articles in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, conference proceedings and papers, dissertations and theses, and grey literature.

The World Wide Web can be an excellent place to satisfy some initial research needs.

2.4.2 Books and Reference Sources

Reference materials and books are available in both print and electronic formats. They provide gateway knowledge to a subject area and are useful at the beginning of the research process to:

2.4.3 Scholarly Articles in Journals

Another major category of information sources is scholarly information produced by subject experts working in academic institutions, research centers and scholarly organizations. Scholars and researchers generate information that advances our knowledge and understanding of the world. The research they do creates new opportunities for inventions, practical applications, and new approaches to solving problems or understanding issues.

Academics, researchers and students at universities make their contributions to scholarly knowledge available in many forms:

Scholars and researchers introduce their discoveries to the world in a formal system of information dissemination that has developed over centuries. Because scholarly research undergoes a process of “peer review” before being published (meaning that other experts review the work and pass judgment about whether it is worthy of publication), the information you find from scholarly sources meets preset standards for accuracy, credibility and validity in that field.

Likewise, scholarly journal articles are generally considered to be among the most reliable sources of information because they have gone through a peer-review process.

2.4.5 Conference Papers & Proceedings

Conferences are a major source of  emerging research where researchers present papers on their current research and obtain feedback from the audience.  The papers presented in the conference are then usually published in a volume called a conference proceeding.  Conference proceedings highlight current discussion in a discipline and can lead you to scholars who are interested in specific research areas.

A word about conference papers: several factors contribute to making these documents difficult to find.  It may be months before a paper is published as a journal article, or it may never be published.  Publishers and professional associations are inconsistent in how they publish proceedings.  For example, the papers from an annual conference may be published as individual, stand-alone titles, which may be indexed in a library catalog, or the conference proceedings may be treated more like a periodical or serial and, therefore, indexed in a journal database.

It is not unusual that papers delivered at professional conferences are not published in print or electronic form, although an abstract may be available.  In these cases, the full paper may only be available from the author or authors.

The most important thing to remember is that if you have any difficulty finding a conference proceeding or paper, ask a librarian for assistance.

2.4.6 Dissertations and Theses

Dissertations and theses can be rich sources of information and have extensive reference lists to scan for resources. They are considered gray literature, so are not “peer reviewed”. The accuracy and validity of the paper itself may depend on the school that awarded the doctoral or master’s  degree to the author.

2.5 Conclusion

In thinking about ‘the literature’ of your discipline, you are beginning the first step in writing your own literature review.  By understanding what the literature in your field is, as well as how and when it is generated, you begin to know what is available and where to look for it.

We briefly discussed seven types of (sometimes overlapping) information:

By conceptualizing or scoping how and where the literature of your discipline or topic area is generated, you have started on your way to writing your own literature review.

Figure 2.3 illustrates what skills are needed to find what is available on a topic. Students should be able to understand, know, and recognize different types of information, the publication process, issues of accessibility, and what services are available to help them. In this way, students are able to identify different types of information, available search tools, different information formats, and use new tools as they become available.

Finally, remember:

“All information sources are not created equal. Sources can vary greatly in terms of how carefully they are researched, written, edited, and reviewed for accuracy. Common sense will help you identify obviously questionable sources, such as tabloids that feature tales of alien abductions, or personal websites with glaring typos. Sometimes, however, a source’s reliability—or lack of it—is not so obvious…You will consider criteria such as the type of source, its intended purpose and audience, the author’s (or authors’) qualifications, the publication’s reputation, any indications of bias or hidden agendas, how current the source is, and the overall quality of the writing, thinking, and design.”  ( Writing for Success, 2015, p. 448 ).

We will cover how to evaluate sources in more detail in Chapter 5.

For each of these information needs, indicate what resources would be the best fit to answer your question. There may be more than one source so don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to only one. See Answer Key for the correct response.

Test Yourself

Question 1  match the type of periodical to its content.

Trade publication Scholarly journal Magazine

Question 2: Given what you know about information types and sources, put the following information sources in order from the least accurate and reliable  to the most accurate and reliable. (1 least accurate/4 most accurate)

Question 3: What is information called that is either a diary, a speech, original research, data, artwork, or a religious book.

Question 4: to find the best information in the databases you need to use keywords that are used by the scholars. where do you find out what keywords to try.

Question 5: Which of the following is NOT true about scholarly journals?

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Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students by Linda Frederiksen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Learning, Teaching and Leadership

What kind of sources to include in your literature review

Graduate students who are unfamiliar with what is expected of them in terms of higher-level research writing can easily get overwhelmed when it comes to their literature review. A literature review can form part of a larger project, such as a chapter in a thesis or dissertation, and it can also be a standalone project. Regardless of whether it is part of a project or a standalone work, we (your professors) expect certain kinds of sources.

We learned what kinds of sources to include in literature reviews when we were students, but we are not always so good at articulating what those expectations are. The result can be frustration for both students and professors. In this post, I have curated tips and information that I have been sharing with graduate students over the past several years.

These tips are intended to be a guideline, not a prescription. They are based on my experience and include a healthy dose of my own opinion. For example, I am adamant that students should avoid citing Wikipedia in their research writing . I am also unapologetically opposed to quotation websites where students have been known to cut and paste quotations from great thinkers such as Aristotle or Plato. In my view, quotations for research writing ought to come from original works (or in a pinch, a translation of an ancient text).

Your professors or research supervisors will have their own ideas about what kind of sources to include in your literature review, so be sure to consult with them. Here’s what I tell my students:

Most respected sources

Books, peer-reviewed scholarly or scientific journals from reputable publishers. Avoid predatory journals.  At least 80% of the total number of sources in your literature review should be sources from this category.

Sources that are OK to use in moderation

Credible edited journals that may not be peer-reviewed, but are highly respected in a professional field; edited conference proceedings; papers from well-respected research institutes or think tanks. Usually, not more than 20% of your sources should come from this category.

Sources that should be used sparingly

Materials from highly reputable news agencies such as the BBC or the Washington Post or highly respected websites, such as the Mayo Clinic. It is not that these sources are not credible, but that you want your research literature review to be strongly focused on research materials. For that reason, I recommend that not more than 5% of sources come from this category.

Sources to avoid

I mentioned two of the big ones above: Wikipedia and online quotation sites. Also avoid predatory journals and any sites (including popular media) that is less reputable.

Here’s an infographic to help you make wise choices about what kind of material to include in your literature review.

Hierarchy of Sources for Educational Research (1)

If your topic has limited sources available in the research, find and analyze what you can, but avoid “padding” your literature review with non-scholarly sources.

When you are learning how to write a literature review, it can be tricky to figure out what kinds of sources to include. Remember, you want to focus on producing a review that is evidence-informed and research-based. The quantity of sources you consult may be important, but quality is definitely important.

Talk with your supervisor about their expectations and get guidance as you go along. The more you work with scholarly or scientific sources, the better you will get at writing literature reviews.

Here’s a longer essay I wrote on this topic if you are interested in reading more:

Eaton, S. E. (2018). Educational Research Literature Reviews: Understanding the Hierarchy of Sources. Calgary: University of Calgary. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1880/106406

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the Werklund School of Education or the University of Calgary.

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Literature Reviews: Types of Literature

Types of Literature

Different types of publications have different characteristics.

Primary Literature Primary sources means original studies, based on direct observation, use of statistical records, interviews, or experimental methods, of actual practices or the actual impact of practices or policies. They are authored by researchers, contains original research data, and are usually published in a peer-reviewed journal. Primary literature may also include conference papers, pre-prints, or preliminary reports. Also called empirical research .

Secondary Literature Secondary literature consists of interpretations and evaluations that are derived from or refer to the primary source literature. Examples include review articles (such as meta-analysis and systematic reviews) and reference works. Professionals within each discipline take the primary literature and synthesize, generalize, and integrate new research.

Tertiary Literature Tertiary literature consists of a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and guidebooks or handbooks. The purpose of tertiary literature is to provide an overview of key research findings and an introduction to principles and practices within the discipline.

Adapted from the Information Services Department of the Library of the Health Sciences-Chicago , University of Illinois at Chicago.

Types of Scientific Publications

These examples and descriptions of publication types will give you an idea of how to use various works and why you would want to write a particular kind of paper.

Scholarly (aka empirical) article -- example

Empirical studies use data derived from observation or experiment. Original research papers (also called primary research articles) that describe empirical studies and their results are published in academic journals.  Articles that report empirical research contain different sections which relate to the steps of the scientific method.

      Abstract - The abstract provides a very brief summary of the research.

     Introduction - The introduction sets the research in a context, which provides a review of related research and develops the hypotheses for the research.

     Method - The method section describes how the research was conducted.

     Results - The results section describes the outcomes of the study.

     Discussion - The discussion section contains the interpretations and implications of the study.

     References - A references section lists the articles, books, and other material cited in the report.

Review article -- example

A review article summarizes a particular field of study and places the recent research in context. It provides an overview and is an excellent introduction to a subject area. The references used in a review article are helpful as they lead to more in-depth research.

Many databases have limits or filters to search for review articles. You can also search by keywords like review article, survey, overview, summary, etc.

Conference proceedings, abstracts and reports -- example

Conference proceedings, abstracts and reports are not usually peer-reviewed.  A conference article is similar to a scholarly article insofar as it is academic. Conference articles are published much more quickly than scholarly articles. You can find conference papers in many of the same places as scholarly articles.

How Do You Identify Empirical Articles?

To identify an article based on empirical research, look for the following characteristics:

     The article is published in a peer-reviewed journal .

     The article includes charts, graphs, or statistical analysis .

     The article is substantial in size , likely to be more than 5 pages long.

     The article contains the following parts (the exact terms may vary): abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, references .


Grad Coach

How To Find A-Grade Literature For Review

Sourcing, evaluating and organising (the smart way).

By: David Phair (PhD) and Peter Quella (PhD) | January 2022

As we’ve discussed previously on our blog and YouTube channel, the first step of the literature review process is to source high-quality , relevant resources for your review, and to catalogue these pieces of literature in a systematic way so that you can digest and synthesise all the content efficiently.

In this article, we’ll look discuss 6 important things to keep in mind for the initial stage of your literature review so that you can source high-quality, relevant resources, quickly and efficiently. Let’s get started!

Overview: Literature Review Sourcing

1. Have a clear literature search strategy

As with any task in the research process, you need to have a clear plan of action before you get started, or you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and energy. So, before you begin your literature review , it’s useful to develop a simple search strategy . Broadly speaking, a good literature search strategy should include the following steps:

Step one – Clearly identify your golden thread

Your golden thread consists of your research aims , research objectives and research questions . These three components should be tightly aligned to form the focus of your research. If you’re unclear what your research aims and research questions are, you’re not going to have a clear direction when trying to source literature. As a result, you’re going to waste a lot of time reviewing irrelevant resources.

So, make sure that you have clarity regarding your golden thread before you start searching for literature. Of course, your research aims, objectives and questions may evolve or shift as a result of the literature review process (in fact, this is quite common), but you still need to have a clear focus to get things started.

Step two – Develop a keyword/keyphrase list

Once you’ve clearly articulated your golden thread in terms of the research aims, objectives and questions, the next step is to develop a list of keywords or keyphrases, based on these three elements (the golden thread). You’ll also want to include synonyms and alternative spellings (for example, American vs British English) in your list.

For example, if your research aims and research questions involve investigating organisational trust , your keyword list might include:

When it comes to brainstorming keywords, the more the better . Don’t hold back at this stage. You’ll quickly find out which ones are useful, and which aren’t when you start searching. So, it’s best to just go as broad as possible here to ensure you cast a wide net.

Webinar - how to write a literature review

Step three – Identify the relevant databases

Now that you’ve got a comprehensive set of keywords, the next step is to identify which literature databases will be most useful and relevant for your particular study. There are hundreds, if not thousands of databases out there, and they are often subject or discipline-specific . For example, within the medicine space, Medline is a popular one.

To identify relevant databases, it’s best to speak to your research advisor/supervisor, Grad Coach or a librarian at your university library. Oftentimes, a quick chat with a skilled librarian can yield tremendous insight. Don’t be shy to ask – chances are, they’ll be thrilled that you asked!

At this stage, you might be asking, “why not just use Google Scholar?”. Of course, an academic search engine like Google Scholar will be useful in terms of getting started and finding a broad range of resources, but it won’t always present every possible resource  or the best quality resources. It also has limited filtering options compared to some of the specialist databases, so you shouldn’t rely purely on Google Scholar.

Step four – Use Boolean operators to refine your search

Once you’ve identified your keywords and databases, it’s time to start searching for literature – hooray! However, you’ll quickly find that there is a seemingly endless number of journal articles to sift through, and you have limited time to work through the literature. So, you’ll need to get smart about how you use these databases – enter Boolean operators.

Boolean operators are special characters that allow you to refine your search. Common operators include:

These operators are incredibly useful, especially when there are topics that are very similar to yours but are not relevant . For example, if you’re researching something about the growth of apples, you’ll want to exclude all literature related to Apple, the company. Boolean operators allow you to cut out the irrelevant content and improve the signal to noise ratio in your search.

Need a helping hand?

give sources of literature review

2. Use different types of literature correctly

Once you start searching for literature, you’ll quickly notice that there are different “types” of resources that come up. It’s important to understand the different types of literature available to you and how to use each of them appropriately.

Generally speaking, you’ll find three categories of literature:

Primary literature

Secondary literature

Tertiary literature

Primary literature refers to journal articles , typically peer reviewed, which document a study that was undertaken, where data were collected and analysed, and findings were discussed. For example, a journal article that involves the collection and analysis of survey data to identify differences in personality between two groups of people.

Primary literature should, ideally, form the foundation of your literature review – the bread and butter, so to speak. You’ll likely refer to many of the arguments made and findings identified in these types of articles to build your own arguments throughout your literature review. You’ll also rely on these types of articles for theoretical models and frameworks, which may form the foundation of your own proposed framework, depending on the nature of your research.

Lastly, primary literature can be a useful source of measurement scales for quantitative studies. For example, many journal articles will include a copy of the survey measures they used at the end of the article, which will typically be reliable and valid. You can either use these “as is” or as a foundation for your own survey measures .

So, long story short, you’ll need a good stockpile of these types of resources. They are, admittedly, more “dense” and challenging to digest than the other types of literature, but taking the time to work through them will pay off greatly.

Secondary literature refers to journal articles that summarise and integrate the findings from primary literature. For example, you’ll likely find “review of the literature” type journal articles which provide an overview of the current state of the research (at the time of publication, of course).

Secondary literature is very useful for orienting yourself with regards to the current state of knowledge and identifying key researchers , seminal works and so on. In other words, they’re a good tool to make sure you’ve got a broad, comprehensive view of what all is out there. They’re not going to give you the level of detail that primary literature will (and they’ll likely be a bit outdated), but they’ll point you in the right direction.

In practical terms, it’s a good idea to start by reviewing secondary literature-type articles to help you get a bird’s eye view of the landscape and then dive deeper into the primary literature to get a grasp of the specifics and to bring your knowledge up to date with the most current studies.

The final category of literature refers to sources that would be considered less academic and scientifically rigorous in nature, but up to date and highly relevant. For example, sources such as current industry and country reports published by management consulting groups, news articles, blog posts and so on.

While these sources are not as credible and trustworthy as journal articles (especially peer-reviewed ones), they can provide very up to date information , whereas academic research tends to roll out quite slowly. Therefore, they can be very useful for contextualising your research topic and/or demonstrating a current trend. Quite often, you’d cite these types of sources in your introduction chapter rather than your literature review chapter, but you may still have use for them in the latter.

In summary, it’s important to understand the three different types of literature – primary, secondary and tertiary, and use them appropriately in your dissertation, thesis or research project.

It’s important to understand the different types of literature available to you and how to use each of them appropriately in your literature review.

3. Carefully evaluate the quality of your sources

As we’ve alluded to, not all literature is created equally. Not only does literature vary in terms of type (i.e., primary vs secondary), it also varies in terms of overall quality .

Simply put, all sources exist on a quality spectrum . On the high end of the spectrum are peer-reviewed articles published in popular, credible journals. Next are journal articles that are not peer-reviewed, or that are published in lower quality or lesser-known journals. In the middle are sources like textbooks and reports by professional organisations (e.g., management consulting firms). On the low end are sources like newspapers, blog posts and social media posts.

As you can probably see, this loosely reflects the categories we mentioned previously (primary, secondary and tertiary literature), so there is once again a trade-off between quality and recency . Therefore, you need to carefully evaluate the quality of each potential source and let this inform how you use it in your literature review. Importantly, this doesn’t mean that you can’t include a newspaper article or blog post as a source – it just means that you shouldn’t rely too heavily on these types of courses as the core of your argument.

When evaluating journal articles, you can consider their citation count (i.e., the number of other articles that reference them) as a quality indicator. But keep in mind that citation count is a product of many factors , including the popularity of the article, the popularity of the research field and most importantly, time. In other words, it’s natural for newer articles to have lower citation counts. This is useful to keep in mind, as you ideally want to focus on more recent literature (published within the last 3-5 years) in your literature review.

In summary, aim to focus on higher-quality literature , especially when you’re building core arguments in your literature review. You don’t, for example, want to make an argument regarding the importance and novelty of your research (i.e., its justification) based on some blogger’s opinion.

All literature and resources exist on a quality spectrum, ranging from high-quality (typically less recent) to low-quality (oftentimes recent).

4. Use a reference manager and literature catalogue

As you review the literature and build your collection of potential sources, you’ll need a way to stay on top of all the details. To this end, it’s essential that you make use of both a reference manager and a literature catalogue . Let’s take a look at each of these.

The reference manager

Reference management software helps you store the reference information for each of your articles and manages the citation and reference list building task as you write up your actual literature review chapter. In other words, a reference manager ensures that your citations and reference list are correctly formatted in the reference style required by your university – e.g., Harvard, APA, MLA, etc.

Using a reference manager saves you the hassle of trying to manually type out your in-text citations and reference list, which you’re bound to mess up in some way. A simple comma out of place, incorrect italicisation or boldfacing can result in you losing marks, and that’s highly likely when you’re dealing with a large number of references. So, it just makes sense to use a piece of software for this task.

The good news is that there are loads of options , many of which are free . For new researchers, we usually recommend Mendeley or Zotero , both of which are free – plus we’ve created straightforward how-to videos for both of them (see here and here ). So, don’t waste your time trying to manage your references manually – get yourself a reference manager ASAP.

The literature catalogue

The second tool you’ll need is a literature catalogue. This is simply an Excel document that you can easily compile yourself (or download our free one here ), where you list and categorise all your literature. You might doubt whether it’s really necessary to have a separate catalogue when you’ve already logged your reference data in a reference manager, but trust us, you’re going to need it. It’s quite common that throughout the literature review process, you’ll review hundreds of articles , so it’s simply impossible that you’ll remember all the details.

What makes a literature catalogue extremely powerful is that you can store as much information as you want for each piece of literature that you include (whereas a reference manager only includes basic fields). Typically, you would include things like:

These are just some examples – ultimately you need to customise your catalogue to suit your needs. But, as you can see, the more detailed you get, the more useful your catalogue will become when it’s time to synthesise the research and write up your literature. For example, you could quickly filter the catalogue to display all papers that support a certain hypothesis, that argue in a specific direction, or that were written at a certain time.

5. Read widely (and efficiently)

As we’ve discussed in other posts , the purpose of the literature review chapter is to present and synthesise the current state of knowledge in relation to your research aims, objectives and research questions. To do this, you’ll need to read as broadly and comprehensively as possible. You’ll need to demonstrate to your marker that you “know your stuff” and have a strong understanding of the relevant literature.

Ideally, your literature review should include an eclectic mix of research that features multiple perspectives . In other words, you need to avoid getting tunnel vision and running down one narrow stream of literature. Ideally, you want to highlight both the agreements and disagreements in the literature to show that you’ve got a well-balanced view of the situation.

If your topic is particularly novel and there isn’t a lot of literature available, you can focus your efforts on adjacent literature . For example, if you’re researching factors that cultivate organisational trust in Germany, but there’s very little literature on this, you can draw on US and UK-based studies to form your theoretical foundation. Similarly, if you’re investigating an occurrence in an under-researched industry, you can look at other industries for literature.

As you read each journal article, be sure to scan the reference list for further reading (this technique is called “snowballing”). By doing this, you will quickly identify key literature within a topic area and fast-track your literature review process. You can also check which articles have cited any given article using Google Scholar, which will give you a “forward view” in terms of the progress of the literature.

Given that you’ll need to work through a large amount of literature, it’s useful to adopt a “strategic skimming ” approach when you’re initially assessing articles, so that you don’t need to read the entire journal article . In practical terms, this means you can focus on just the title and abstract at first, and if the article seems relevant based on those, you can jump to the findings section and limitations section. These sections will give you a solid indicator as to whether the resource is relevant to your study, which you can then shortlist for full reading.

eclectic mix of research that features multiple perspectives to avoid tunnel vision.

6. Keep your golden thread front of mind

Your golden thread (i.e., your research aims, objectives and research questions) needs to guide every decision you make throughout your dissertation, thesis, or research project. This is especially true in the literature review stage, as the golden thread should act as a litmus test for relevance whenever you’re reviewing potential articles or resources. In other words, if an article doesn’t relate to your golden thread, its probably not worth spending time on.

Keep in mind that your research aims, objectives and research questions may evolve as a result of the literature review process. For example, you may find that after reviewing the literature in more depth, your topic focus is not as novel as you originally thought, or that there’s an adjacent area that is more deserving of investigation. This is perfectly natural, so don’t be surprised if your focus shifts somewhat during the review process. Just remember to update your literature review in this case and be sure to update any previous chapters so that your document has a consistent focus throughout.

Wrapping up

In this article, we covered 6 pointers to help you find and evaluate high-quality resources for your literature review. To recap:

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment . Alternatively, if you’d like hands-on help with your literature review, be sure to check out our 1-on-1 private coaching services here.

give sources of literature review

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.

You Might Also Like:

How To Read Journal Articles Quickly & Efficiently For Your Literature Review

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give sources of literature review

The Literature Review


Primary sources, secondary sources, tertiary sources.

Scholarly, professional literature falls under 3 categories, primary, secondary, and tertiary.  Published works (also known as a publication) may fall into one or more of these categories, depending on the discipline.  See definitions and linked examples of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Differences in Publishing Norms by Broader Discipline  

Scholarly and professional communication norms can be different among various disciplines.  For instance, scholars in political science or law will generally publish their knowledge and research differently than those in chemistry or physics.  To show these distinctions, examples of primary, secondary and tertiary sources are provided for humanities and the sciences and include links.  Social science disciplines like sociology and business tend to use publications from both the sciences and humanities.

If you are in STEM or Nursing, see these examples of primary, secondary and tertiary literature within your disciplines:

give sources of literature review

Image:  Typewriter, by DanielMcCullough , Permission by Unsplash.com license .

A primary source is a document or work where its author had a direct interaction or was involved with what was studied or created.  These sources are recommended when you need to get information or findings that are a direct result or finding from a study, research, or creation.   A primary source can also be an actual creative work or original material.


Science / Health Sciences:

give sources of literature review

Image:   Library stacks.  Permission by Pixabay.com  license .

A secondary source is a document or work where its author had an indirect part in a study or creation; an author is usually writing about or reporting the work or research done by someone else.  Secondary sources can be used for additional or supporting information; they are not the direct product of research or the making of a creative work.

Tertiary Books Encyclopedia Set

Image:  Encyclopedias, by StockSnap, Permission by Pixabay.com  license .

A tertiary source provides agreed-upon facts like measurements, dates, and definitions.  They are usually known as reference works and include the following:

give sources of literature review

Florida Atlantic University Libraries 777 Glades Road Boca Raton, FL 33431 (561) 297-6911


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