How to do an extensive literature review

A colleague of mine was asking how to do an extensive literature review. Barring resources – time mostly as well as sheer effort and motivation to complete your project – this is the process that I go through…

For example I’d like to do research on leading an outsourcing training department. Here’s how I would go about with my search:

 Databases. If you’re connected with a university, you can get online access to key databases. If you’ve not stepped in a school library in awhile or afraid of the dean, you can get online access for a fee. I use the following databases through my university connection: ProQuest, EBSCOhost, Business Source Premier, Emerald, Journals@Ovid, Opposing Views Resource Center, ERIC, CINAHL, and PsychINFO will be my go-to databases for peer reviewed journal articles and dissertations.  PsycBOOKS, Oxford online, Books 24×7 for books. Then there’s various professional association databases, magazines, and newspapers.

Key Words: Determine your search key words. In my example it will be: outsourcing, training, leadership, corporate culture, and leadership styles or characteristics (includes management styles).

Dates and Language: Decide on your search dates and primary language: I will choose 2007-present and English

Table 1 shows a summary of my initial literature search. The yield of 1,327,424 titles is going to be narrowed unless I won’t do anything other than read in the next couple of years. You need to further narrow this search result by adding more search filters like (a) authors – these would be respected theorists, phenomenologists, organizational modelers, and authors whose germinal work provided the foundation that has now become part of the language of the industries you are working from, or (b) you can choose to only look at peer and non-peer reviewed material – journal articles, books, dissertations, trade magazines or periodicals, professional association research, industry research, or (c) combine results key words that had the highest hits. This is how I do this.

 Keyword Search

Peer Reviewed Journal Articles


Doctoral Dissertations

Periodicals and Trade Magazines


Corporate Culture (CC),  Leadership Characteristics (L)

37,929 (CC)

98,789 (L)*

189,325 (CC)

332,102 (L)*

3,921 (CC)

1,422 (L)

298,012 (CC)

423, 221 (L)*

Corporate culture

Outsourcing (O),  Leadership Characteristics (L)

 140, 399 (O)*

391 (L)

39,306 (O)*

252 (L)

8,904 (O)*

 22 (L)

 9,209 (O)*

131 (L)

Leadership Characteristics

Outsourcing (O), Corporate Culture (CC),

228,933 (O)

232,021 (CC) *

52,384 (O)

102,332 (CC) *

12,996 (O)

18,071 (CC) *

23,748 (O) *

10,447 (CC)

Table 1: Initial Keyword Search                                                                    * Highest value for the keyword group

Keywords Combined. From my search keywords I’ve divided these into five groups: outsourcing (includes outsourced training), corporate culture (includes training environment, corporate university cultures, and training department cultures), leadership characteristics (includes management styles. Due to the enormity of the initial resulting titles (Table 1), a further refinement of the search was a natural next step. Keywords with the highest returned results from the initial search were combined among the three-keyword search groups to come up with three main groups (Table 2).

Each keyword and keyword combinations that had the most entries were given priority for consideration. Although with exceptions to this process, resources gathered in the process of elimination employed in the literature review will prove to be worth considering for your research. Of course with further analysis of each material will result  in a narrower list.

Upon identification of the highest number of hits for each keyword within a category, that word is combined with the other original keyword search to determine a more refined search result set. A continuous refinement of all possible permutations of these combinations of keywords resulted in Table 2. When a relevant result appears, it is retrieved for consideration in this document.


Refined Keyword Search Combinations

Peer Reviewed Journal Articles


Doctoral Dissertations

Periodicals and Trade Magazines

Trainer, Assessment, Perception,  Training, Outsourcing, Leadership, Satisfaction, Performance





Table 2: Refined Keyword Search

This process is followed by other keyword combinations that come up as part of the literature investigation to gather the literature most appropriate for usage in this research.

Breath. It isn’t daunting if you go about the research with a specific process of approach in mind. My way of doing this can be laborious to some of up but it works for me.

Post your processes in doing this in the comment below.

4 comments to How to do an extensive literature review

  • Unquestionably believe that which you said. Your favourite justification seemed to be on the net the easiest thing to consider of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed while other folks think about worries that they just don’t recognise about. You controlled to hit the nail upon the top and also outlined out the entire thing with no need side effect , folks can take a signal. Will likely be again to get more. Thanks

  • very good selection. useful for me. Thanks

  • Thanks Ben. I like the Boolean “NOT.” Good idea.

  • Ben

    I love your process! As you say, it seems laborious but it really isn’t when you consider the time it saves in not having to go back over old literature because you have recorded your search terms. Another few ways to filter your reading load is to filter by publication name. I also like to use Boolean operators which can act as great filters. Probably the most useful is “NOT”. This can help you exclude results that contain key words that aren’t useful.

    Thanks for the great post!