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How To Do Secondary Research or a Literature Review: Introduction

Step-by-step guide to forming keywords and searching for articles for a literature review.

What is Secondary Research?

Secondary research, also known as a literature review, preliminary research, historical research, background research, desk research, or library research, is research that analyzes or describes prior research. Rather than generating and analyzing new data, secondary research analyzes existing research results to establish the boundaries of knowledge on a topic, to identify trends or new practices, to test mathematical models or train machine learning systems, or to verify facts and figures. Secondary research is also used to justify the need for primary research as well as to justify and support other activities. For example, secondary research may be used to support a proposal to modernize a manufacturing plant, to justify the use of newly a developed treatment for cancer, to strengthen a business proposal, or to validate points made in a speech.

Why Is Secondary Research Important?

Because secondary research is used for so many purposes in so many settings, all professionals will be required to perform it at some point in their careers. For managers and entrepreneurs, regardless of the industry or profession, secondary research is a regular part of worklife, although parts of the research, such as finding the supporting documents, are often delegated to juniors in the organization. For all these reasons, it is essential to learn how to conduct secondary research, even if you are unlikely to ever conduct primary research.

Secondary research is also essential if your main goal is primary research. Research funding is obtained only by using secondary research to show the need for the primary research you want to conduct. In fact, primary research depends on secondary research to prove that it is indeed new and original research and not just a rehash or replication of somebody else’s work.

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What Is a Literature Review?

A literature review ("lit review" for short) is a specific type of secondary research used mainly in academic or scholarly settings. It consists of a compilation of the relevant scholarly materials (not popular materials such as news articles or general websites) on your subject, which you then read, synthesize, and cite as needed within your assignment, paper, thesis, or dissertation. See the chart below for the types of sources that are typically included in a lit review. For a systematic literature review, widely used in the sciences or engineering, see additional tips on the Systematic Literature Review tab.

Include in literature review Exclude from literature review
  • academic, peer-reviewed articles
    • These will comprise the majority of your lit review, and possibly all of it
  • academic books, such as textbooks (sometimes)
  • conference proceedings (sometimes)
  • past dissertations (sometimes)
  • Wikipedia and other encyclopedias
  • news articles
  • magazine articles
  • most books
    • non-fiction books written for a general audience are not appropriate either; for example, books by Erik Larson are non-fiction but written with a popular "spin."

This guide provides step-by-step instructions detailing one strategy for completing a literature review. Librarians can also help you with the lit review process. Contact your subject librarian to make a research appointment.

*If any suggestions on this guide conflict with specific assignment instructions, follow your instructor's (or adviser's) instructions.

Examples of lit reviews

Below are some examples of lit reviews from journal articles.

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