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Top Tips for doing your literature review!

Many undergraduates and qualified nurses who have returned to study do a literature review as the final part of their degree. Helen Aveyard’s advice will ease the process and make it more enjoyable

Many undergraduate students and qualified nurses who have returned to study embark on a literature review as the final dissertation component of their degree. If this applies to you then there are various things that you can do and people you can see to make this process easier, more rewarding and even enjoyable!

The following tips will guide you through the literature review process:

Choose a topic that interests you. This might sound obvious but it does make all the difference in keeping your interest and motivation.From this topic, identify a specific question that you can answer from the literature. The key is to find a question that is not too broad.

Discuss this topic with everyone who will listen to you! This way you will mull over and refine your question until you feel you have a useful question that you can answer.

Work out what literature you need to answer your question. Not everything relating to your question will be relevant and some information will be more relevant than others… be selective.

Most questions need to be answered using primary research. In general terms, if your question involves measuring or evaluating care or an intervention then you will probably need to use quantitative research. If your question is more explorative, then qualitative research is likely to be most relevant. However this is not absolute. Remember that identifying which literature you need is one of the most important aspects of doing your literature review and it is useful to discuss in detail your approach with your supervisor. Think carefully about the type of literature that is likely to be most useful to you. Once you know what you are looking for, you can start to think about how to search for it!

Go and see your subject librarian. Most academic libraries offer drop in sessions for dissertation students. These will enable you to work out how to search for literature on your topic.

Identify key words and search terms. Think laterally about this and don’t forget to use words that are less common or have become outdated. This is because relevant articles might have been indexed using these words and you will miss them if you do not include them in your list of key words.

Now consider which databases you will search through. Go to your academic library website and read through the descriptions of each database and what each holds and select those databases that seem most relevant to your topic.

You are now ready to start searching. Remember to familiarise yourself with the basic functions of the database you are using, remembering that each database is slightly different from another. Take advantage of the Boolean operators (AND/OR/NOT) which allow you to narrow or broaden a search. It is always a good idea to supplement electronic searching with additional searching strategies, for example hand searching relevant journals or reference lists. This is because some key articles might be missed through electronic searching due to the way the paper is indexed.

Look at the abstracts of the articles you come across. It is usually possible to identify from the abstract whether the paper is useful for your review.

Start getting hold of the articles that seem relevant. Sometimes you will need an inter-library loan to do this. At this stage you need to be ruthless. If the article is not relevant to your review, then do not include it. However anything that might be relevant must be looked at.

Collect together all the articles that address your research question. At undergraduate level, if you have around 10 articles, then this is ideal. Significantly more will mean that you are not able to refer to the articles in sufficient detail and too few will not give you enough data to write your review.

Be pragmatic! If needs be, refine your review question to fit the articles that you have. If you have too many articles, try limiting the focus of your question somehow. Can you restrict the focus to the UK only? or a particular nursing speciality?

The next step is to consider the quality of the articles you have. You might have a paper that is directly relevant to your research question but if the quality of the paper is poor it may not help you as much as you think. It is generally a good idea to use a critical appraisal tool that is specific to the research design of your given paper. This might mean that you need to use a few different critical appraisal tools if your literature review question requires you to access a wide range of literature. Discuss this with your supervisor. Using the critical appraisal tool, consider the strengths and limitations of the literature you have identified and consider how much impact each paper has in addressing your research question.

Bring all the papers together and provide an answer for your research question. It is often useful to make a chart of key themes that arise in the papers, the authors of the papers, when they were written and their strengths and weaknesses. You can then see at a glance which other papers identify similar (or different) themes.

As you do this, you will begin to see patterns emerging in the literature and will be able to form an answer to your question. Remember that your answer may well be incomplete. It is quite permissible to say ‘there is some evidence that…’ rather than to provide a definitive answer. What is not permissible is to make out that you have a clear answer when in fact the literature does not support this. In this case, honesty really is the best policy.

Above all remember to answer the question!

Finally remember to put your literature review on your CV and be prepared to discuss at interview. It is a strong selling point when you apply for your first job or a new job.

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