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Radiation Therapy Resource Guide: Literature Reviews

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.

Initial Search for Articles

Sample topic:

The need to consider the proximity of the heart when designing radiation therapy for cancer of the left breast.

Sample searches done in MEDLINE with Full Text.

View Your Results:

Use the Medical Subject Headings [MeSH] to find additional articles similar topics:

Make Adjustments to Your Search

Consider your search results:

Are they too broad? (Too many results that are outside your topic criteria?)

Are they too narrow? (Do you expect to be able to find a larger set of articles?)

The results above are not a bad start, however, considering the prevalence of breast cancer, and the amount of research done on its treatment, one would expect to find more than 415 articles. 

The example below broadens the search by including multiple synonyms.

View Your Results:

Use the MeSH terms to construct additional searches:

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."

Options to Refine your Search

Options to limit (i.e. refine, or narrow) your Medline search are displayed in the left hand margin of the search results list:

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. Typically, the article's abstract (summary) will mention the literature review or the review of the literature.

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

[Keywords describing the topic]
  [literature AND review]

See also...