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Social Work: Literature Review

How Do I Conduct a Literature Review?

A literature view is a critical summary and evaluation of existing theory and research on your topic. You will apply class discussion and readings to a specific research question and examine scholarly literature on the topic. Your review provides an overview of the sources you have studied and demonstrates how your research fits within the field.

Steps in the Literature Review Process

1. Identify a specific and well-defined research question.

Your literature review should outline the background and history of your research question, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of previous studies, and provide a framework and rationale for your individual study. Tell the story of your problem, how it has evolved, how it has been studied, and what is currently known about it

2. Gather background information on your research question.

Search reference books in the field for your topic and identify the key concepts and questions surrounding your research question. In these reference works, you will likely find mention of seminal articles, studies and authors in the history of your topic that you can incorporate into your review, and often there will be accompanying bibliographies.

*Remember, internet searching can help generate ideas, but you will rarely find the scholarly [peer reviewed] research articles primarily required for a literature review.

3. Search library databases for articles and research related to your question.

Search several databases in your field (see the articles tab of this guide) for literature on your topic. You will often find different results in each.

It may be a good idea to search the terms, "bibliography" or "literature review" along with your topic to generate articles that summarize related research. These may then serve as models for your own review. It may also be helpful to search using the terms, "research" or "study" in conjunction with your topic. Hint: Searching using the subject terms used in a database for your topic often return the most relevant results.

* Make sure to use separate search boxes in a database for each term you are searching. NEVER combine your terms all in one box (see example to the right).

4.  Analyze and Interpret the Literature Selected for Your Review

Literature reviews may be organized chronologically, methodologically, or by theme. Consult with your instructor to determine the general structure required for your review. Then summarize and critically examine each source, relating it to your research question, particularly noting any gaps or questions generated by the research. Be selective as to what you include in your summary, including only what is most relevant to your research question.

Be careful to paraphrase in your analysis and use quotes sparingly. The purpose of your review is for you to interpret the literature and related it to your research question, not to strictly summarize or document what other authors have already written. Keep your own voice by making sure to open and close paragraphs with your own ideas.

5.  Mistakes to Avoid

  • Sources do not relate specifically to your research question.
  • Sources consist primarily of secondary, analytical sources, rather than including primary research studies or data.
  • The writer uncritically accepts other research findings and interpretations, rather than evaluating research methodology and analysis.
  • The review uses only literature that validates assumptions, rather than noting any contrary findings.
  • The review does not describe the methods used to identify relevant sources and select the literature included.

How to Write a Literature Review

Reference Books in Social Work

See the Reference Page of this guide for tips on finding online reference books at IWU.

Two good places to start are: Sage Knowledge and Credo Reference.

You can also use the catalog's Advanced Search to find larger print reference sets related to a topic  (Choose LOCATION: Reference)  and then use Worldcat to find them in a library near you.

Searching Article Databases

See the Articles Page of this guide for a full list of the Social Work databases at IWU.


Boolean Searching - Enter more than one search term in different search boxes to narrow your search.

Use the subject terms found in the database you are searching whenever possible.