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ENSC 499: LRES Capstone

Before You Begin

Questions to Consider

  • What is the scope of your literature review? What does your research question want to answer?
  • How familiar are you with resources in the field?
    • What are the key sources in the field?
    • What are the key theories, concepts, and ideas tied to your topic?
    • What are the major issues and debates about the topic?
    • What are the origins of the topic?
  • What are the main questions and problems that have been covered already?
  • Why is your topic important in your field?
  • Can you identify gaps where further research is needed?

Steps to Take

Step 1. Define your project.

First, you must choose, explore and focus your topic. After some basic background research, you may discover that you need to tweak the scope of your question. If your topic is too broad, refine your research question so that it is specific enough to lead you to the relevant literature. If you are finding too little research, brainstorm related ideas and fields to broaden your search. Choose your methodology or methodologies.

Develop a working list of keywords and refer to it often. This list of keywords will expand and change as you continue your research.

Stumped? Brainstorm with a librarian for useful subject terms to get you started.

Step 2. Do preliminary research.

If you're just starting out in the field, look for books first or journals that are well-known in your area. Try CatSearch for items local to MSU and and other Montana libraries. If you find something at another library that looks promising, request it via Interlibrary Loan. MSU might not have everything you need to be thorough in your research, so be sure to use this great service!

To gather articles, go to the library databases with your list of keywords and related fields. Start with databases in your field, but be sure to look at databases in related fields. Import appropriate articles directly to Zotero, Mendeley, or EndNote. Explore and note the keywords assigned to the best articles, and use those for subsequent searches. Keep notes (electronically or in a notebook) to refer back to throughout the writing process. Read and critically evaluate these sources, making quick notes in your citation manager.

Step 3. Refine your focus and take a deeper dive into the research.

Now that you have a broad idea of the state of the field, identify the most important scholars and works. Use Google Scholar or Web of Science to determine who has cited the most important works. Read critically and identify how your work fits into the scholarly conversation. Evaluate at a deeper level. You're starting to look at significance now, rather than quality.

Step 4. Group and synthesize the literature.

Identify schools of thought and experiment with the organization of your literature review. You don't have to include everything you have found during the course of your literature review your work, but include enough so your reader understands the history of the field (or related fields) and how your work relates to that history. Make sure you are analyzing the scholarship, not simply describing it.

Step 5. Place the literature in context as you write the review. 

Determine where your research question fits within the literature as a whole. Are you going to perform a study that will fill the gaps you've identified in the scholarship so far? If so, make this point clear to your reader. Be ready to rewrite your literature review as you progress through your project (capstone, thesis, dissertation, etc). There may be references you did not include in your first draft that become more important to include as your complete your study.


Reid, M., Taylor, A., Turner, J. & Shahabudin, K. (n.d.). University of Reading Study Advice team & LearnHigher CETL (Reading). Literature reviews.

Rowland, D. R. (n.d.) The Learning Hub, Student Services, The University of Queensland. Reviewing the literature: A short guide for research students.