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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Demystifying the Literature Review

This guide provides an overview of the literature review and its place in a research project, thesis, or dissertation, and demonstrates some strategies and resources for finding the information you need using the U of I Library.

Citation & Subject Searching

There are two basic ways to find information once you start researching your topic:

  • citation searching 
  • subject-specific searching.

Citation searching 

Searching by citations is a useful way to find research directly related to your topic. In citation searching you use a work of scholarly literature to find more literature that was cited by that work or cites that work.  Citation searching can be done two ways: 

  • Citation chasing
    • Looking at the Works Cited page or Bibliography of an article or book that fits within your topic.
    • Looking in the "past" at work an article references.
  • Cited reference searching
    • Using a citation indexing service, like Scopus, Web of Science, or Google Scholar, to find research that cites a specific article or work.
    • Looking in the "future" at works that referenced a specific article. 

Using citations to search for scholarly literature can help you think more broadly about your research topic within the larger discipline, and help you answer the following questions:

  • Who/what are the big names and articles in this area?
  • Who is this research in conversation with?

Subject-specific searching

Searching within your subject area will give you more specific research that speaks to your own research topic. 

  • Use your subject library to find relevant and subject-specific databases.
  • Contact your subject librarian for a one-on-one session.
  • Subject librarian information can be found on LibGuides and on subject library homepages.
  • Find a Library Guide by subject, topic, or library on your research area.
  • Find Annual Reviews in your discipline.

Search Strategies

When you know your topic and want to explore what else has been written, you will search for articles, books, dissertations, and other types of publications in various databases. It is important and useful to know how different search terms work in databases. Here, we will cover keyword and subject searches.


A keyword search involves typing into the search box the terms that you use when you think about your topic.

subject or descriptor search means that you have identified (usually through keyword searching and looking at your results) the specific terminology used in a database to talk about your subject.

Subject and descriptor terms tend to be more formal and also more precise (less ambiguous)


A good example is the term teenagerWe use that term in everyday speech and authors may use it in their articles, but a database is most likely to assign the subject heading of adolescents.

Browse in Print and Online

Browsing is less targeted than searching, but can be good for lucky finds.  Sometimes important concepts come from outside of our fields of study. Be open to new ideas while you research, but don’t get too distracted by another topic!

  • If there are major journals in your field, you can read new issues when they arrive in the Library or when they are posted online. 
  • Occasionally opt to retrieve books from the Stacks or departmental libraries rather than having them sent to your office.  This allows you to look at the shelf for books with similar topics.