The Literature Review: The Foundation of Any Successful Research Project

by Ursula Saqui, Ph.D.

This post is the first of a two-part series on the overall process of doing a literature review.  Part two covers where to find your resources.

Would you build your house without a foundation?  Of course not!  However, many people skip the first step of any empirical-based project–conducting a literature review.  Like the foundation of your house, the literature review is the foundation of your project.

Having a strong literature review gives structure to your research method and informs your statistical analysis.  If your literature review is weak or non-existent, you will see cracks in your research method and gaps in your statistical analysis.   You will be left with unanswered questions, which will make your project less effective and cost more.

When I come in on projects to solve research-related problems, one of my first questions is always “What does the literature say?” Many times problems that come up in the research method or statistical analysis can be traced back to an incomplete literature review.

Just do it.

By reviewing the literature before you start any project, you will save yourself time, effort, and money.  You may typically think of a literature review as something that is only required of graduate students completing a thesis or dissertation. However, business owners, market researchers, and others can all benefit from seeing what has already been done.

Having been a graduate student, then spending several years in academia, and now working in business for myself, I have seen the benefits from every angle. Although we all like to think our ideas are entirely original, they are not, and our success is going to come from knowing and improving on what already exists.

Just start it.

First, figure out what the purpose is in doing the literature review.  Ask yourself what you want to know when you are done reviewing the literature.

Are you trying to get a general sense of the topic?  Or do you need a comprehensive understanding of the topic plus in-depth knowledge of all the technical terms? Are you trying to learn how variables are typically measured in a particular industry? Or do you need to create a conceptual model to inform your statistical analysis?

Then, using the appropriate resources, type in words describing your main topic and go from there.  If you feel you haven’t found as many resources as you need but are stuck in your searching, be creative.

For example, if you are doing a literature review on education but all the keywords you can think of are education, training, and teaching, use the Visual Thesaurus to generate new keywords.  Or ask someone else what she thinks of when she hears the word “education.”

Another way is to see what words were used to index the articles you have already found.  These words may be found in the abstract, citation, or at the beginning or end of the article.  It is easy to get a mind block even after only a few hours of looking at laundry lists of articles.

Use the appropriate resources.

If you are doing an academic paper, do an academic literature review and avoid referencing popular mainstream publications. If you are doing market research, industry publications will likely be more helpful than academic journals.  If you would like to get a general overview of the topic, popular mainstream publications may be appropriate. In the next post, I’ll talk about where to find your resources.

Know when to stop.

I remember doing my master’s thesis and feeling overwhelmed at the thought of having to find every single article on my topic until I realized that would be impossible with the time, energy, and resources I had.

To know when you should stop, you must first determine what the purpose is of your literature review (see “Just Start It” above). Evaluate whether or not you have identified the articles that provided the foundation for your topic or took your topic in a new direction.

Foundational articles are the articles that are referenced in almost every other subsequent article because the authors were the first to start talking about the topic.  Innovative articles may be the subject of a special journal issue or the focus of published back-and-forth commentary between well-known experts in a field.

Once you have evaluated your articles and determined that the original purpose of the literature review has been fulfilled, you are likely done!

About the Author: With expertise in human behavior and research, Ursula Saqui, Ph.D. gives clarity and direction to her clients’ projects, which inevitably lead to better results and strategies. She is the founder of Saqui Research.

Part two.


The Pathway: Steps for Staying Out of the Weeds in Any Data Analysis
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Reader Interactions


  1. Ursula Saqui, Ph.D. says


    If you are not finding any thing specific to purchasing, you may need to broaden your search and start with unethical behaviors in business. You may be able to then take some of the research in that area and apply it to purchasing. Or you may need to search under a concept such as “supply chain management,” as much purchasing occurs within a supply chain.

    In doing a quick search, I found this article that deals with purchasing and may also have some helpful articles listed in the references.

    Precursors of Unethical Behavior in Global Supplier Management.
    By Carter, Craig R.
    Publication: Journal of Supply Chain Management
    Date: Saturday, January 1 2000

    Good luck! Feel free to contact me directly if I can be helpful:

  2. susan says

    im doing research on unethical behaviors found in the purchasing departments. but i dont seen to be getting much literature review. can you help.

  3. Ursula Saqui, Ph.D. says

    Great question Debra! I see people in organizations buy into research initiatives when the process and outcomes connect with what they value. For example, if the nurses value improved patient care and better scheduling procedures, will the research initiative address these areas? If so, you are more likely to get buy in. If not, it will be very difficult to engage them in this initiative. As the nurses are stakeholders in this organizational initiative, you are right to be concerned about engaging them.

  4. Debra Stavarski says

    What experiences do you have getting staff nurses at the bedside to buy into this? We are still at the infancy stage of developing a research and evidence-based culture, most are busy staff nurses with little time. debra

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