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Literature Review Challenge

Welcome to Day 1 of the Literature Review Challenge (Graduate Student Focus)!

Today we will look at what comprises a literature review, as well as approaches to ramping up our literature search skills. 

In a nutshell, a literature review brings together a range of relevant works on a topic, and is intended to:

  • explore compelling questions, problems, concepts, or issues that you would like to address;
  • discover relationships between ideas;
  • provide an opportunity to critique and synthesize various strands of the conversation(s) taking place around your topic(s);
  • connect your ideas to existing literature on your topic(s);
  • identify research gaps, areas for further consideration, and/or disagreements in the literature.

Although a literature review tells a story, the research process that goes into that storytelling is nonlinear. There are likely many lines of study/angles/perspectives on your topic(s). In this vein, a literature review is iterative and ongoing. Look at a few examples, plus additional insights into the recursive nature of literature searching, here:

Some Places to Find Literature

  • URSUSFogler's shared library catalog (along with other UMaine campuses and area libraries), points to things like e/books, serials, government information, maps, films, dissertations, and theses. Keep in mind:
    • URSUS is a definitive source for items we have access to, both in Fogler and in the other UMaine and area libraries that participate in URSUS;
    • you can limit your search to University of Maine if you want to only see materials you have immediate access to;
    • you cannot search for articles in URSUS (you can search for journals and databases, but not article titles themselves).
  • Fogler's Subject Databases (click on the dropdown arrow to find databases in your subject area) point to things like full text and abstracts of journal articles, news articles, and magazine articles, as well as descriptions of books, dissertations, and theses related to specific fields of study. Keep in mind:
    • full text is not always included, but the Article Linker button should help if we have access elsewhere in the library's electronic collections;
    • these databases won't link to e/books in our collections so if you find an interesting book, check URSUS (linked above) to see if we have a copy!
  • Google Scholar includes things like journal articles, e/books, government information, white papers, patents, dissertations, and theses. Keep in mind:
    • you'll likely want to set up Library Links in Google Scholar so that you get full-text access to journal articles available through our subscriptions (and avoid paywalls);
    • there is a wide berth of material and it's not only interdisciplinary, but results come from many different sources, like publishers, institutional repositories, government agencies, and sometimes news sources;
    • it's not always scholarly despite its name (as mentioned above, sometimes popular news articles show up in results).

Your Challenge

Try one or two of the following advanced search strategies in a database related to your work, in order to find relevant literature in your field.

Then, try one or two of the following advanced search strategies in a different database. Note what works or doesn't, and any questions you have.

1. To get started, review these key search strategies that represent ways to expand or contract your results to get a better, more tailored picture of what may be out there on your topic.

  • Expand/contract results: AND/OR/NOT

    Example: blueberries AND bees NOT lowbush would return results about blueberries and bees that excludes lowbush blueberries, if that's not a blueberry type of interest to your work.

    Another example: blueberries AND (bees OR bee OR pollinators) AND (Maine OR "New England") NOT lowbush will return results that include blueberries, at least one of the bee word options (this expands our search on this concept because it allows for more variations in how we describe bees), at least one of the geographic word options (adding a geographic area helps to focus our search to specific locations of interest), and omits the word lowbush (further tailoring our results and getting rid of noise).
  • Expand results using truncation: * or ! or ?

    Example: blueberr* AND (bees OR bee OR pollinat*) AND  (Maine OR "New England") NOT lowbush returns results that include multiple endings on blueberr (like blueberry, blueberries) and pollinat (like pollinate, pollination, pollinator, pollinators). This will provide a larger number of results on this topic (because most databases are pretty literal and will default to returning the exact terms you searched). Note: some databases use * while others use ! as truncation tools, so check your database's help menu to confirm.

    Another example: ballots AND withdr?w returns results with variable characters in the ? space, like withdrew or withdraw. Note: some databases use the asterisk (*) rather than a question mark (?), so check your database's help menu to confirm.
  • Enhance relevance of your search results with proximity searching: N# or W# or NEAR or PRE or ~ or AROUND (depends on the database)

    When you're overwhelmed by your results or seeing a lot of irrelevant hits, this strategy can help return more meaningful results.

    For example, in EBSCO databases (e.g., America: History & Life, Art Full Text, CINAHL, Communication & Mass Media Complete, Environment Complete, LGBTQ+ Source, PsycINFO) tax N5 reform finds results that have a maximum of five words between the beginning and ending terms, like tax reform as well as tax policy that is up for reform, regardless of the order in which they appear. If either of these words is further than 5 words apart in a source (possibly rendering that source meaningless), those results will not appear. You can choose the number after N that makes sense to you.

    Another example in EBSCO databases: oil W3 (disaster OR clean-up OR contamination) would return phrases like oil disaster and oil and water clean-up and oil caused contamination but would not return clean-up of oil. W3 finds the words you search if they are within three words of one another, and the W# search operator returns terms in the order in which you entered them. You can choose the number after W that makes sense to you.

    NOTE: some databases use NEAR or ~ or AROUND, not N, and PRE, not W, and others don't have any proximity search options, so check your database's help menu to confirm what advanced search techniques they recognize. To get you started, ProQuest and EBSCO databases, JSTOR, and Web of Science are some of the databases that use proximity searching. However, URSUS does not, and while Google Scholar supposedly includes a proximity search with their AROUND # feature, results are inconsistent.

2. Next, select two of the database options from the Some Places to Find Literature (plus caveats!) section above (i.e., OneSearch, or a database or two relevant to your subject area, or URSUS, or Google Scholar via Fogler), open those two databases, go to the Help menus if they have them (usually at the top right of the screen), and identify those databases' advanced search techniques. For OneSearch users, run a search and then click on the three horizontal lines at the top right of the page for a dropdown menu that includes a link to Help.

3. Then, use one (or more!) of those advanced search strategies in a couple of different databases. For example, see how your search results change when you use AND, OR, and NOT, and try a proximity search strategy if you're in one of our subject databases or in OneSearch! Determine how you might further focus your search if you're overwhelmed by your results, or expand your search if you're not getting enough results. Consider whether the two databases you chose provided sufficient results, or if there are other approaches to researching your topic(s) that might work even better.

And, of course, reach out with any questions!

Optional Bonus Challenges

Google Hack Your Research Topic! Spend some time playing around with some of the Google hacks below to see what you can find on your research topic.


There are many ways to strategically search Google, in order to conduct more complex searches and focus your results. In the above example:

  • intitle: refers to any terms you want to ensure are in the title of the web page itself (in this case, that would be "climate change"). This often produces a more relevant set of results.
  • quotation marks around "climate change" hold those words together so that Google searches for that exact phrase (rather than a search that returns the word climate or the word change).
  • ~coast tells the search that you want terms related to the word right after the tilde (~); for coast, this might include terms like coastal, coastline, waterfront, shoreline, and seaside.
  • minus sign in front of Alaska tells the search to exclude Alaska-related terms from your results; if there are places, topics, or issues that aren't relevant to your particular topic, you can exclude them this way, so that you have a more focused, relevant set of search results.
  • tells Google that you only want results from government websites; you can also use, or other relevant domains (for instance, if you're interested in organizations that care about or work in your area of interest). You can also search within specific sites, such as or
  • The date limiter can be found in the Tools section of your Google search (the Tools section is linked directly below and to the right of the search bar after you run a search).

BONUS Access Challenge 1: Install the URSUS Libraries Proxy Bookmarklet! Whereas Google Scholar via Fogler is great for finding a range of full text content on the open web, it is not adept at getting you to everything you might have access to via Fogler Library, like eBook chapters in our large eBook collection, online conference proceedings, and even articles that Google Scholar can't find but Fogler Library can (that's right, Google has its limitations!). However, the Proxy Bookmarklet allows you to quickly and easily access subscription journal articles and other electronic resources you find when doing research outside of the University's website. For example, if you are doing your research via Google, and you find a link to a resource that is only available for a fee, the bookmarklet will reload the page through the University's proxy server and provide you with full text access to the resource if we subscribe to it.

Install the Bookmarklet - it's a cinch! Go to the Proxy Bookmarklet page - it's a quick, two-step drag and drop!

How to use the URSUS Libraries Bookmarklet

  1. After you have installed the bookmarklet, navigate to a webpage that is restricted (see, for instance, the book chapter, "The adaptation range of wild crop species to fluctuations in climate change"). 
  2. Click on the Proxy Bookmarklet in your browser's toolbar. You will be redirected through the proxy server where you may be asked to enter your UMaine credentials. After logging in, you will be returned to your original web site with full text, authenticated access. This works for any electronic resources that Fogler Library subscribes to.

BONUS Access Challenge 2: Create (or Reactivate) Your Interlibrary Loan Account! It's likely that Fogler Library doesn't have a copy of everything you'll ever need for your research and creative projects. However, we'll go to great lengths to get you what you need, from other libraries across the country and throughout the world. And, Interlibrary Loan is free! Go to the link above and click on 'For the First Time User' to set up your account, so that you can request books, articles, chapters, microfilm, videos, and other material we don't own. Already have an account but forgot your password? Go to the link above and click on 'Forgot Your Password' to reactivate your account.

A Bit More on Literature Reviews, Plus Examples

You may do any or all of the following as you prepare literature reviews for projects, publications, conference papers, and presentations.

A. You will likely conduct an initial literature review to:

  • explore and better understand the existing research on your topic;
  • develop your own perspective on an issue or problem;
  • and begin to synthesize what you know about your topic.

You may have an initial thesis or hypothesis that, once you become more informed on your topic, you revise (sometimes multiple times).

B. As you further refine your research question(s) or interests, a more focused literature review will help you zero in on the concepts that are important to your particular area of inquiry.

C. As you conduct your experiment, ethnography, analysis, or field experience, other questions may arise, and further literature searching may become important. 

D. Once you've completed your experiment, ethnography, analysis, or field experience, you will want to situate your findings in the literature. This may be come, in part, from literature you already have on hand. However, you may also encounter issues or themes during the course of your study that you want to further understand or expand upon through additional literature searching.

As you think about ways to weave literature into your work (and depending on the expectations in your field), consider these three examples of how literature reviews show up in different types of publications. You will find descriptions and links to three types of literature-rich papers below, and snapshots of the papers themselves in the carousel at the bottom of the page.

1. Understanding Information Spreading in Social Media during Hurricane Sandy The type of literature review we're most likely familiar with is the one that serves as a section of a piece of writing, usually near the beginning (e.g., in a paper, article, or book chapter). Although often called "Literature Review," this section is sometimes called "Introduction" or "Background." This type of literature review sets the stage for the research, critique, or analysis to come, and gives the reader a sense of the most important scholarship on a particular topic (and with context!). 

2. Providing Health Consumers with Emergency Information A literature review can also comprise an entire paper. For example, a review article can help define or describe the scope of a particular issue or phenomenon to date. In this article, the authors examine a range of research focused on the effectiveness of social media use during public crises. These types of articles can be rich resources, not only to get a general understanding of where things stand with a particular issue, but also for identifying additional relevant literature on one's topic(s).

3. Does Compassion Go Viral? While not called a ‘literature review’ per se, we often see cited literature return to a paper/article/book chapter in the Discussion section (scroll to the Discussion section of this article as an example). Authors will often situate their findings within other, relevant scholarship by suggesting how their own research builds on, adds to, or echoes existing literature. You may also see authors address ways in which their findings diverge from or disagree with previous scholarship - this has the potential to spur new lines of thinking (and research questions!) around a topic, as well as novel approaches to addressing that topic.

For more information...

Congratulations on completing Day 1 of the Literature Review Challenge!  There are myriad additional strategies to explore, including but not limited to:

  • ways to use subject terms to focus your searches;
  • citation chasing to get to additional relevant literature;
  • tricks for using advanced filters to optimize your results;
  • tools to expand your awareness of your field with resources like MaineCat and WorldCat.

If any of this piques your interest, or if you'd simply like an expert sounding board, we have subject librarians ready to brainstorm with you regarding your research and creative interests. Please reach out - we'd love to connect with you!

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