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Preparing for your dissertation/project: Doing a literature review

Preparing for your dissertation/project

What is a literature review?

What is a literature review? The diagram below explains what it is, and what purpose it serves in your dissertation.
A diagram explaining what a literature review is
Below, we explain the steps involved in researching for a literature review. 

Defining your topic

Before you begin searching, it is important to define your topic. 

What are the key concepts in your research question?

What are some synonyms - alternative words or phrases - that you might use?

Might you need to broaden, or narrow, your search? Do you need to be more specific, or do you need to search more broadly?

Here is an example of how you can define your topic:

A diagram explaining how to break down a Research Question into topics

Deciding where to search

Before deciding where to search for material for your literature review, you first need to decide what type of material you need to find. 

Books? Book chapters? Journal articles? Conference proceedings? Government reports? Business reports? Something else?

You can find more guidance on different types of material in the "Can you use this in your coursework?" section.

Once you know what type of material you are looking for, you can decide where best to starting searching. You can find further help on deciding where to search for different types of information in the "Researching for your coursework" section.

In addition to the Library Catalogue, Encore, and library databases, you may now wish to expand your searches to some other places too.

Open Access databases

There is a strong movement towards making scholarly research freely available online to the general public. The following websites may help you to locate some of this material:

Google Scholar: do be aware that this site contains links to paid-for content within databases as well as Open Access material. If you're using Google Scholar, it's a good idea to enable the link to London Met's library systems by going to Settings and then Library Links - this will allow you to see quickly and easily what you can actually access. Here's a video that shows you how to personalise Google Scholar and how it affects your search results


JURN: searches across Open Access journals and repositories to find freely-accessible scholarly material.

Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ): search across many Open Access, peer-reviewed journals to find academic articles.

London Met Repository: the University's own digital archive of research produced by staff and researchers here.   

Using other libraries

The SCONUL Access scheme allows you to access other participating university libraries on a reference basis. You can find out more on our webpages. You can usually access the library catalogues of other institutions through their own webpages. Jisc's Library Hub Discover is a site where you can search across the collections of many other university libraries in one place. 

You might also want to consider visiting the British Library or other specialist libraries in your subject area. Their websites will explain their own access and membership policies. 

London Metropolitan University Special Collections

The University's own Special Collections, located in the Wash Houses at the Aldgate campus, contain a wealth of materials within a number of different archives and collections spanning multiple subject areas. Have a look at their webpages to find out more about what is held there, and how to access it. 


Carrying out your searches

It is important to remember that searching is a strategy, and to allow plenty of time to plan, carry out, review and modify your searches. 

A diagram explaining the strategy of searching for journal articles



Once you have defined your topic , you can begin to plan your searches. Some students like to map out a visual representation of their various search terms and how they might combine them. Others prefer to use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, or even Post-Its on their bedroom wall. What works for you?

In the "Advanced searching and tools" section, you can find some guidance on how to make your searches effective by combining search terms, and using a few other tips and tricks when searching in databases. 

Keep a good record of where you have searched, and which terms you have used, so that you're not repeating yourself.

It's important to manage what you find, as you find it. Be effective in your note-taking and make sure you note exactly where you found each piece of material. It's a good idea to implement some kind of coding system in your notes, perhaps by using different colours of felt-tip or highlighter pen, to group themes or ideas. How will you organise what you find? Some students like to create an annotated bibliography as they go along, noting down the main ideas that they have found in each item. Others use a reference management system such as Zotero or Mendeley. Again, it's a case of finding out what works for you.

As you find material, you will need to be evaluating it for its usefulness and for what it adds to your literature review:

  • Read the abstract (summary) of a journal article before reading the whole thing, to decide whether it will be relevant

  • Spoil the ending; read the findings and discussions sections of an article first, to see if it is relevant to your topic, before reading the rest of the article

It's then time to review what you have found. Where are the gaps in your literature review so far - what are you missing, and why? How can you modify your searches to try to find this material? 


Writing up your literature review

There are a number of books in the libraries which offer guidance on writing your literature review - do a search in the Library Catalogue for "literature review" and have a look. 

Don't forget your referencing; it's important to get this right, to ensure that you are not accidentally plagiarising any of the sources that you are using, and in order to show that you are able to find academic material, and to engage with scholarly arguments. Make sure you know which referencing scheme you are expected to use. There is plenty of help with referencing available on the Library webpages

Maintaining your current awareness

One of the purposes of writing a literature review is to demonstrate your knowledge of the research already published in your area of interest. New material is being published all the time, so it is important to maintain your current awareness in your subject area as you work on your literature review.

There a number of ways to stay up-to-date:

  • Make use of database alerts - many of the online databases will allow you to save your searches and set up alerts so that you receive an email when a new article which uses your search terms arrives in the database
  • Use social media to follow experts in your field - they may share links to new research that they have been working on.
  • Identify relevant journals and return to them to browse new issues, either in print in the Library, or online.

Even with these services and websites, you should still be returning to your searching periodically, to ensure that you have caught the most up-to-date research for your literature review.