You can complete your entire literature review in your jimjams at home and it’ll still be better than one painstakingly compiled in the library with physical books and journals. Follow these steps to writing an amazing literature review using Google Scholar:
1. Make a list of keywords.
Good keywords make for good literature reviews. Go back to your research question and shake every possible keyword you can out of it. These will be the search terms you give to Google Scholar, but also the keywords you mention in your paper so your literature review can be replicated (which it probably won’t, see: replication crisis, but still – you have to prepare for the possibility because science).
2. Tell Google Scholar what university you’re studying at.
Want to get your teeth into that juicy, juicy knowledge? Only if you’re forking over exorbitant amounts of money to your university (because neoliberalism). So make sure to tell Google Scholar that you’re a student by clicking on the menu button on the top-left corner, clicking on Settings, clicking on Library links, typing in the name of your university (and clicking the relevant box), and then pressing Save: this process should take about five clicks. Now return to the Google Scholar page and enter your carefully chosen keywords.
3. Download, download, download.
The holy grail when you’re starting a literature review is to find someone that’s already done the hard work for you: they’re called meta-reviews, systematic reviews or meta-analyses. Look for the most recent meta-review relevant to your subject and read that first. Regardless of whether you find a meta-review or not, you want to spend a lot of time downloading everything you can find using your keywords (and decide what you won’t include as part of your review: e.g., research that is too old, research that hasn’t been peer-reviewed, papers that aren’t in English).
Now create a folder called literature review and go to town. Some databases give you an option when you download a paper to download relevant texts- e.g., users that downloaded this paper, also downloaded this paper – do it. Make it rain knowledge. By the third or fourth search page on Google Scholar, the papers will become less relevant so you can stop wasting your time. When this happens look at the most recent papers relevant to your subject (click on the left-hand column and pick papers released in the last couple of years) and see what the latest research gossip is. Download these too. Also, keep track of the databases you’re downloading from – JSTOR, PubMed, PsycINFO, etc – and make sure to write these down when you specify where you searched to conduct your literature review: writing that you only used Google Scholar doesn’t have the nicest ring to it.
4. Sort through the papers.
After your downloading spree there are two roads to choose from: First is the relatively more low-tech way. This means that you open up a spreadsheet and go through each paper one by one. Copy/paste any interesting sections (and remember to add the page number), and after several papers you’ll start to find some common themes. These themes will be your horizontal columns with each new paper on its own vertical column. And more high-tech ways? Using specialised software for literature management like Docear (which is free).
Remember though: a literature review, however you go about it, is not an IKEA catalogue. The point is not to have a list that reads: this guy says this, and this one says that, and then this one concurs with that one blablabla. You have to find the common themes that are present in the literature, and only after having done so, discuss what the research says. Bonus points if the different findings contradict each other – if everyone already agreed on a given topic you probably wouldn’t be wasting time researching it. If you finish this stage and your spreadsheet is looking pretty sparse go back to step three and search some more.
5. Write it all up.
Thanks to the themes you’ve discovered, all that’s left to do is copy/pasting each one and writing it all up. Don’t be repetitive: follow points #4 and #5 in the article here. Highlight where there is a consensus between researchers, where they conflict, but most of all, where the gaps in the literature exist. This is the golden nugget every literature review is supposed to find: what the gaps in the literature currently are, and hence what the possible next steps are to improving the knowledge of this particular topic.
So good luck. Now, stop procrastinating and start searching!