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Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Guide

Lit Review Process

Walking stairs one step at a time

STEP 1:  Choose a Topic.

Informally, explore a topic you find fascinating or troubling, that you enjoy, or that you are passionate about.

Is there enough published material on your topic generally to allow you to perform a meaningful review? Two or three items would make a weak review.

REALITY CHECK:  You can't review the literature on a topic that hasn't been researched to some extent. If you can't find articles or books on your topic with basic searching, maybe nothing has been written about that topic yet. Consider lengthening your time frame. Contact a librarian to help with search terms and places to search. 

ADVICE:  Do some informal exploring before emotionally attaching to a topic.

STEP 2: Predict the Location of Information on the topic.

Ask yourself where information on your topic might be located.

         Newspapers?     Government websites?     Books?     Magazines?     Scholarly Journals?

If your topic is Nursing Education Theory, don't look in an Agriculture database. 

Is your topic cross-disciplinary?  

Autism interventions can be found in Education databases, Medical databases, Child Development databases, Psychology databases, and maybe even Family Sciences databases. If the interventions include equipment, then Science databases, Engineering databases, and even Business database might be necessary.

STEP 3: Choose your Search Tools.

Use a variety of tools to get comprehensive results. 

Search Engines such as    Google     Bing     Yahoo     DuckDuckGo     Google Scholar   

Library databases          Library catalogs          Bibliographies         Archives      Institutional Repositories, etc.

One single information search tool will NOT find everything you will need for an adequate literature review.

Use a variety of tools: library catalogs, library databases, internet search engines, etc.

STEP 4:  Identify appropriate information formats.

*Book Chapters  *  Research Articles  *  Videos  *  Newspaper articles  *  Blog posts  *  Audio Recordings  *  Conference papers  *   EHRs 

Keep in mind that some topics have a TIME component. Information on topics that are historical may not be found online.

You may have to search print resources by hand. Physically browse Library shelves. Locate and search archives.

Information on topics that are extremely current may only be available online: news websites, blog posts, twitter, etc.

STEP 5: Choose search TERMS carefully.

The BEST search begins with a search for the RICHT SEARCH WORDS. If you identify the RIGHT WORDS, the literature will fall into your lap. When choosing serach terms, be comprehensive. Think of as many words as you can.

Use Natural (plain) language search terms -- common words, everyday words

Use Controlled Vocabulary -- formal or technical terminology (MeSH, Library of Congress Subject Headings, Database Subject Headings)


  • Informal, general term -- Pain Reliever
  • Formal terminology -- Tylenol
  • Technical terminology -- Acetaminophen

THINK SYNONYMS, lots of synonyms.

Examples:  Brain Cancer  *  Brain Neoplasms  *  Brain Tumor  *  Brain Malignancy  *  Intracranial Neoplasm  *  Cerebral Ventricle Neoplasm  *  Infratentorial Neoplasm  *  Cerebellar Neoplasm  *  Neurocytoma  *  Pinealoma  *  Supratentorial Neoplasm  *  Glioblastoma Multiforma, etc.

STEP 6: Devise a Search Strategy

Make a Plan    *    Follow Your Plan    *    Document Your Work

  • Explore and choose a topic.
  • List your search tools. (databases, search engines, etc.)
  • List your search terms. (common words, formal terminology, technical terminology, synonyms)
  • Choose your filters. (age range, date range, sex, language, peer reviewed only, etc.)
  • Choose your information formats. (RCTs only, quantitative methods, etc.)
  • Craft the search strategy using Boolean Operators (AND, OR)
  • Document lists, choices, and strategy.
  • Implement the search strategy in each search tool.
  • Document results.
  • Evaluate results
  • Modify search strategy if necessary. Document.
  • Refine results. Document.
  • Screen Title/Abstracts of search results according to review objectives/research question.

STEP 7: Analyze Results.

Read each result carefully and critically.

Create a matrix or spreadsheet to document strengths, weaknesses, important data, etc., of each results/article/study.

Note your personal observations (positive & negative).

STEP 8: Write

Keep the following in mind when writing:

  • Early in the review, state why the topic being reviewed is important.
  • Distinguish between experimental research findings and other types of information.
  • Indicate why certain studies or certain resources are important.
  • Mention / address other literature reviews on your topic, if they exist.
  • Analyze the matrix or spreadsheet to prevent missing or forgetting something.
    • Note points of agreement between writers.
    • Note points of disagreement and analyze why.
    • Note gaps and weaknesses in individual arguments
    • Note gaps and weaknesses in the body of literature as a whole.
  • Conclude your review with your own personal assessment based on what the literature shows. Refer directly to the literature and the matrix/spreadsheet to bolster your argument.

STEP 9: Cite all Sources.

Avoid Plagiarism. Follow Copyright Laws. 

Follow one citation style.

Use citation software (Mendeley, RefWorks, EndNote, etc.)