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Conducting a Literature Review: How To Find "The Literature"

Finding The Literature

Research literature is vast. In the English language alone, over 2.5 million articles are published in peer reviewed journals each year. Sifting through the books and journals to find the most relevant research is challenging, but some of the resources on this page can help you.

To start, write down your research question and think about all the ways it could be described. (A thesaurus - online or in a database, can be helpful!) Think about the approach you are taking -- are you looking at it through the lens of Social Work? Is it also related to other fields, for example, Public Health, Education, Ethnic Studies? What research methods will you use -- how will you research the problem, or evaluate the intervention or policy to address it?

Research Question Key words  Disciplines Methods 

What are the most effective health related interventions with homeless persons living in rural areas?

Homeless, homelessness


Health, wellness, medical care

Public health

Social Work


Administrative record analysis

Literature reviews

Systematic reviews

Subject Databases Can Help Find Articles

Powerful features vary by database, but many include the ability to:

  • Combine search terms using AND and OR
  • Search for exact phrases by using quotation marks " "
  • Use controlled vocabulary (Thesaurus)
  • Find material organized within a discipline -- law or policy, for example.
  • Search by "fields" such as author, journal name, title
  • Restrict by the age of  the subject (infants vs. very old)
  • Limit by research method (including literature reviews!)
Tips on searching two of the most powerful databases: PsycInfo and PubMed

Snowballing aka Citation Slogging

If an article is relevant to your topic, you want to look at the research it cited (backward citation). But it can also be very helpful to see who has cited it (forward citation). There are several different ways to do this, and the results will overlap --  no single method is comprehensive.

Google Scholar provides forward citations for some articles. It has a broader range of documents included (not just peer reviewed journals, but reports, pre-prints, etc.) and doesn't eliminate self citation or de-duplicate the results.

ISI Web of Science contains the Social Science Citation Index which allows you to do a "Cited Reference" search. This shows other articles (from a prestigious list of peer reviewed journals) which have cited the target article, and it also shows the references for the the original article... both forward and backward citation.

Screenshot below on how to get to the Cited Reference Search from the Social Science Citation Index.

Cited References From Within a Database

Using the Cited Reference Search

Oxford Bibliographies -- Great Starting Point for Social Welfare!

Oxford Bibliographies Online: Social Work --  leading social work scholars identify the most important and significant sources in their areas, and UC-elinks gets you to the cited articles and books. 

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