Skip to Main Content

Political Science: Literature Reviews_POLS_classes: Literature Reviews

Literature Review: Definition from Oxford Reference.

"A formal, reflective survey of the most significant and relevant works of published and peer-reviewed academic research on a particular topic, summarizing and discussing their findings and methodologies in order to reflect the current state of knowledge in the field and the key questions raised. Literature reviews do not themselves present any previously unpublished research. They may be published as review articles in academic journals or as an element in a thesis or dissertation: in the case of the latter, they serve to situate the current study within the field."

How to Conduct Your Own Literature Review

  1. Define your topic, and disuss it with your professor for approval before getting started.
  2. Read background material to help define your topic. This may be found in books and in subject encyclopedias devoted to that particular discipline.
  3. Do your literature search (i.e. search for scholarly articles on your topic), as follows:
  • Perform keyword searches for articles in subject specific periodical (article) databases, such as some of the ones listed in this guide. Once you have found an appropriate article, use the subject headings on the article's initial landing page to find additional articles on the same topic. Be sure to capture the complete citation for any article that you use. 
  • Ask your professor if (s)he can recommend an important article that relates to your topic. Then:
  • Use that article's bibliography (list of references) to see which earlier articles your author relied upon and cited.
  • Use Google Scholar, or the cited references search function of various databases (, to see if there are any subsequent articles that have cited your author's article in the interim. In this way you will see how discussion on a given topic has evolved over time, and you can follow the progression of scholarship on a topic.

How to Find an Existing Literature Review

Many (although not all) published literature reviews will announce themselves. Literature reviews may constitute the opening portion of a scholarly article, or an entire article may itself be a review of the literature on a given topic. The article's abstract (summary) might mention the literature review or the review of the literature.

Therefore, one strategy when searching for articles that include literature reviews, is to use search terms (keywords) that relate to your topic, together with the terms literature AND review.

[Keywords describing the topic]
  [literature AND review]

APSA Style Manual (from the American Political Science Association)

Where should I look to find articles which have cited my target article?

Search for the topic: National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

Why is the search below just for national popular vote, and not for the entire phrase national popular vote interstate compact?

In this example, since the topic is fairly narrow, the intention is to generate more results by having fewer search terms. This being a political science database, the assumption is that the words interstate compact are likely to appear in the article, but not necessarily in the article title or abstract (the default fields to be searched). The initial search brought 59 results. After limiting to articles from scholarly peer reviewed journals, 36 articles remained.

"Cited References" and "Times Cited in this Database"

The list of results often contains information on whether an article has a list of references (a hallmark of scholarly articles), and whether since publication, that article has been cited by others. 

Use the list of references to see what articles influenced your author. Use the "times cited," (a.k.a. "cited by") to see how this article had gone on to influence others.

Tracking the Progression of Scholarship


By identifying an important article in a discipline, the reader can trace the (earlier) sources that the author used in his/her scholarship by checking the article's list of references.   In addition, the reader may be able to identify subsequent articles, which have the target article listed within their references.