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Conducting a Literature Review

This guide will help you understand what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done.

Finding Sources for a Literature Review: Introduction

There are multiple ways to find sources for your literature review, or any type of research project. Depending on your level of experience with the topic, the types of sources required by your assignment or research, or the resources you have available at the time, you may want to pursue one or more of the below methods of searching. (Tip: When in doubt, ask your professor what they recommend!)

Not all sources are created equal, and not all methods of searching are right for every purpose! Take care to think carefully about where you are in the research process, and determine which of these would be the best suited for your needs. If you need help with this step, professors, tutors, and librarians at ACPHS are always happy to help. 

Basic Information Gathering & Keyword Mining: Course notes, textbooks, Wikipedia

With a large research project, particularly one you don't have a great deal of foundational knowledge about, sometimes it can be daunting to even figure out where to start.

A good place to begin is with your course materials; if there is a specific class associated with the assignment, then you might have some useful information already available in course notes and textbooks associated with the class. Your textbook(s) might have a chapter or even more on the topic you're studying, and notes from your teacher might be a good place to find useful keywords and background information.

It's important to note that while you might be able to use these resources in many research assignments, they are not good sources for a literature review, because they do not reflect significant scholarly research in the area of study. The benefit to using these resources is gaining background information that can help you broaden or narrow your topic and/or find useful keywords that will assist you in hunting down the appropriate literature for your review. These can help you in the pre-research stage, the preliminary information gathering that will allow you to find the sources you can actually use more effectively. 

For this task, in addition to your class materials, you have another unlikely ally: the crowdsourced online encyclopedia, Wikipedia

In many ways, this is correct: Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at any time, and while information added to a Wikipedia article will usually be cited and mistakes are often removed quite promptly, the fact that this website can have hundreds of anonymous contributors means that it is not appropriate for use in an academic context such as a research assignment. Wikipedia articles can be vandalized as a joke or heavily biased based on who wrote the information, so it is always important when reading an article on Wikipedia that you remain skeptical, double-check the sources cited, and remain aware that you are not looking at information high enough for use in a scholarly or academic report.

For an illustration of the ways Wikipedia is not a great place to find high-quality academic information, take a look at the article "15 Biggest Wikipedia Blunders," a collection of mistakes, hoaxes, or even libel that have caused significant confusion. These blunders were possible because of Wikipedia's anonymous editing process. As you can see from one of Wikipedia's own articles on the subject, some hoaxes or mistakes can persist for years before being discovered.

Despite its weaknesses, Wikipedia can be an excellent source for non-academic research, such as answering your own personal questions and curiosities; just because it does not meet the standard required for professional or academic research doesn't mean it's insufficient for casual or personal research. (In fact, some evidence suggests it reaches a similar level of accuracy as the Encyclopedia Britannica. The primary reason it cannot be used in your research is not so much because of fear of inaccuracies -- though that is a risk -- as it's impossible to verify the author(s) and their credentials.)

In addition to your own casual research, there are three major ways Wikipedia can be useful in the preliminary research process:

1. References

Because Wikipedia requires its authors to cite their claims, at the bottom of each article is a list of the sources used. If you need to know which books, articles, or other types of literature are the most important or commonly-cited in the field, Wikipedia's list of References is a good place to begin.

For example, looking at the reference list for the Estrildidae:

Of these seven sources, the articles by Frank Gill, C. H. Oliveros, and Urban Olsson (numbers 4-6) show particular promise due to their recent publication and their association with professional organizations and/or scholarly journals. Clicking on each of these, they are all free to access the entirety of, which is fortunate; if they were not open-access, however, it would still be worth saving these citations to check on in the ACPHS library, to see if you could access them through the college.

2. Background Information

While the information you discover on Wikipedia would not be sufficient for an academic assignment, it can be perfectly useful for getting a broad overview of the topic, seeing what the most common subtopics or recent developments are, and familiarizing yourself with key terms, major players, and general information.

When you first select a topic, it can often be helpful to skim through the Wikipedia page in order to develop a foundational knowledge of the topic, which you can use to direct your search for more reliable or relevant literature.

3. Keywords & Search Terms

Similarly to #2, this method of using Wikipedia collects a handful of important words, names, or even dates that you can use to narrow down your research or literature search. Returning to the Wikipedia page for Estrildidae:

As you can see, the yellow highlighted terms are just a few potentially valuable keywords for learning more about these birds. If I were to go to the ACPHS library website and search the Discovery platform, in addition to searching for estrildidae on its own, if I wanted to know more about the discovery of these birds I could search for "Charles Lucien Bonaparte"; if I wanted to know more about specifically the locations of these birds I could search "estrildidae AND Australia OR New Guinea," for example; if I wanted to know about the specific species, family, class, or other scientific classification, I could use the other highlighted terms to do so.

When it comes to looking for keyword, the blue text often points to related terms that might be valuable in searching, while the headings in the Table of Contents can suggest subtopics that could help narrow down your research.

So remember, while Wikipedia cannot serve as a source in and of itself because it does not meet academic standards, it can be an excellent place to begin the research process, by providing potential sources and information you can use to develop your research question and find literature that will be most relevant to your needs.

Find Books & Articles on Your Topic

Many different databases contain articles, reports and other documents concerned with racism in health and healthcare. Depending on the focus and context of your interest, check out these useful library databases below.

The purpose of interlibrary loan (ILL) is to provide the ACPHS community with needed material that is unavailable in our library.  To take advantage of this service you will need to register for an ILLiad account.   ILLiad is an online system that allows you to initiate and track your requests to borrow books and receive articles from other libraries.

How do I register for an ILLiad account?
Visit the Libraries' Homepage. Click the Services tab, choose Interlibrary Loan, and click on Log in to ILLiad. Use your ACPHS network username and password (the one used for Canvas) to logon and start placing requests.

Searching the Web

The ACPHS library should always be your first stop in the research process, and likely will be your last; it contains the greatest number of accessible, scholarly resources that you'll likely find. However, this doesn't mean that Google cannot be used to find valuable sources.

In general, web browsers like Google, Bing, and Yahoo pull results by popularity as opposed to relevance or accuracy. This means that the first results you see on one of these searches will include the sites most people have clicked on, regardless of the quality of the site's information. In addition, some companies pay for their web pages to show up at the top of the search results, adding an additional layer of potential bias or conflicts of interest:

Google (or any other search engine) is best used for the following types of resources:

  1. General background information and common knowledge
  2. News stories
  3. Firsthand accounts that reflect public opinion (such as editorials, blog posts, social media, etc.)
  4. Government-, corporate-, or organization-owned web pages

While these types of sources are not likely to be included in a literature review, other research projects may benefit from these categories of resources.

The most important thing to remember when using Google or another search engine is that the results will not necessarily be current, accurate, unbiased, or relevant. It will be more challenging to evaluate these sources than ones pulled from the ACPHS library, because the library selects specifically for materials useful in academic study.

When looking for sources for a literature review, there is another way to use Google in particular for appropriate resources: Google Scholar.

This search engine works similarly to Google, but exclusively weeds out non-academic resources. It is similar to using the ACPHS Discovery, in that a search using Google Scholar will also provide studies and reports that might be useful for your literature review. Here is an example of a Google Scholar results page:

As you can see, there are some filters on the left-hand side of the screen, though Google Scholar does not allow for the same level of refinement as Discovery does. You can see the articles and their sources, authors, and publication year, as well as how many scholars have cited them since publication. (This last tool can be a helpful way to find even more current research, or perhaps even a literature review you could use in your own.)

The one significant downside of Google Scholar is that you do not automatically have access to the resources found in the search results. With Discovery, every resource is either available directly through the ACPHS library or through an interlibrary loan request, but Google Scholar will pull up results regardless of whether you have free access or not. If you find an article that you like which the ACPHS library does not have access to, you can always submit an ILL request, but if it is not within our library network, we may not be able to provide it to you.

Overall, Google Scholar is an excellent collection of resources that, as with all online searching options, has both positives and negatives. Determining which type of search method to use depends on your assignment, topic, and other research needs.