- Explain how information is created and how it evolves over time
- Select appropriate sources for your inquiry
- Describe the strengths and limitations of each type of source
Because a literature review is a summary and analysis of the relevant publications on a topic, we first have to understand what is meant by “the literature.” In this case, “the literature” is a collection of all of the relevant written sources on a topic.
Disciplines of knowledge
When drawing boundaries around an idea, topic, or subject area, it is helpful to think about how and where the information for the field is produced. For this, you need to identify the disciplines of knowledge production in a subject area.
Information does not exist in the environment like some kind of raw material, rather it is produced by individuals working within a particular field of knowledge who use specific methods for generating new information. Disciplines consume, produce, and disseminate knowledge. Looking through a university’s course catalog gives clues to disciplinary structure. Fields such as political science, biology, history, and mathematics are unique disciplines, as is social work. Each has its own logic for how and where new knowledge is introduced and made accessible.
You will need to become comfortable with identifying the disciplines that might contribute information to any search. When you do this, you will also learn how to decode the way people talk about a topic within certain disciplines. This will be useful when you begin a review of the literature in your area of study.
For example, think about the disciplines that might contribute information to a topic such as the role of sports in society. Try to anticipate the type of perspective each discipline might have on the topic. Consider the following types of questions as you examine what different disciplines might contribute:
- What is important about the topic to the people in that discipline?
- What is most likely to be the focus of their study about the topic?
- What perspective would they be likely to have on the topic?
In this example, we identify two disciplines that have something to say about the role of sports in society: the human service professions of nursing and social work. What would each of these disciplines raise as key questions or issues related to that topic? A nursing researcher might study how sports affect individuals’ health and well-being, how to assess and treat sports injuries, or the physical conditioning required for athletics. A social work researcher might study how schools privilege or punish student athletes, how athletics impact social relationships and hierarchies, or the differences between boys’ and girls’ participation in organized sports. In this example, we see that a single topic can be approached from many different perspectives depending on how the disciplinary boundaries are drawn and how the topic is framed. Nevertheless, it is useful for a social worker to be aware of the nursing literature, as they could better appreciate the physical toll that sports take on athletes’ bodies and how that may interact with other issues. An interdisciplinary perspective is usually a more comprehensive perspective.
Types of sources
“The literature” consists of the published works that document a scholarly conversation on a specific topic within and between disciplines. In “the literature,” you will find documents that explain the background of your topic. You will also find controversies and unresolved questions that can inspire your own project. By now in your social work academic career, you’ve probably heard that you need to get “peer-reviewed journal articles.” But what are those exactly? How do they differ from news articles or encyclopedias? This section of the text will help you to differentiate the different types of literature.
First, let’s discuss periodicals. Periodicals include journals, trade publications, magazines, and newspapers. While they may appear similar, particularly online, each of these periodicals has unique features designed for a specific purpose. Magazine and newspaper articles are usually written by journalists. They are intended to be short and understandable for the average adult, they contain color images and advertisements, and they are designed as commodities to be sold to an audience. Magazines may contain primary or secondary literature depending on the article in question. The New Social Worker is an excellent magazine for social workers. An article that is a primary source would gather information as an event happened, like an interview with a victim of a local fire, or relate original research done by the journalists, like the Guardian newspaper’s The Counted webpage which tracks how many people were killed by police officers in the United States. 
You may be wondering if magazines are acceptable sources of information in a research methods course. If you were in my class, I would advise against using magazines as sources. There are some exceptions like the Guardian page mentioned above or breaking news about a policy or community, but I advise against using magazines and newspapers because most of the information they publish is secondary literature. Secondary sources interpret, discuss, and summarize primary sources. Often, news articles will summarize a study done in an academic journal. Your job in this course is to read the original source of the information, in this case, the academic journal article itself. Journalists are not scientists. If you have seen articles about how chocolate cures cancer or how drinking whiskey can extend your life, you should understand how journalists can exaggerate or misinterpret results. Careful scholars will critically examine the primary source, rather than relying on someone else’s summary. Many newspapers and magazines also contain opinion articles, which are even less reputable, as the author will choose facts to support their viewpoint and exclude facts that contract their viewpoint. Nevertheless, newspaper and magazine articles are excellent places to start your journey into the literature, as they do not require specialized knowledge to understand and may inspire deeper inquiry.
Unlike magazines and newspapers, trade publications may take some specialized knowledge to understand. Trade publications or trade journals are periodicals directed to members of a specific profession. They often have information about industry trends and practical information for people working in the field. Trade publications are somewhat more reputable than newspapers or magazines because the authors are specialists on their field. NASW News is a good example of a trade publication in social work, published by the National Association of Social Workers. Its intended audience is social work practitioners who want to know about important practice issues. They report news and trends in a field but not scholarly research. They may also provide product or service reviews, job listings, and advertisements.
So, can you use trade publications in a formal research proposal? In my class, I would advise against it, as a main shortcoming of trade publications is their lack of peer review. Peer review refers to a formal process in which other esteemed researchers and experts ensure your work meets the standards and expectations of the professional field. While trade publications do contain a staff of editors, the level of review is not as stringent as academic journal articles. On the other hand, if you are doing a study about practitioners, then trade publications may be quite relevant sources for your proposal. As illustrated below, peer review is the part of the publication cycle that acts as the gate-keeper to ensure that only top-quality articles are published. While peer review is far from perfect, the process provides for stricter scrutiny of scientific publications.
In summary, newspapers and other popular press publications are useful for getting general topic ideas. Trade publications are useful for practical application in a profession and may also be a good source of keywords for future searching. Scholarly journals are the conversation of the scholars who are doing research in a specific discipline and publishing their research findings.
Types of journal articles
As you’ve probably heard by now, academic journal articles are regarded as the most reputable sources of information, particularly in research methods courses. Journal articles are written by scholars with the intended audience of other scholars (like you!) interested in the subject matter. The articles are often long and contain extensive references for the arguments made by the author. The journals themselves are often dedicated to a single topic, like violence or child welfare, and include articles that seek to advance the body of knowledge about their chosen topic.
Most journals are peer-reviewed or refereed, which means a panel of scholars reviews articles to decide if they should be accepted into a specific publication. Scholarly journals provide articles of interest to experts or researchers in a discipline. An editorial board of respected scholars (peers) reviews all articles submitted to a journal. Editors and volunteer reviewers decide if the article provides a noteworthy contribution to the field and if it should be published. For this reason, journal articles are the main source of information for researchers and for literature reviews. You can tell whether a journal is peer reviewed by going to its website. Usually, under the “About Us” section, the website will list the editorial board or otherwise note its procedures for peer review. If a journal does not provide such information, you may have found a “predatory journal.” These journals will publish any article—no matter how bad it is—as long as the author pays them. Not all journals are created equal!
A kind of peer review also occurs after publication. Scientists regularly read articles and use them to inform their research. A seminal article is “a classic work of research literature that is more than 5 years old and is marked by its uniqueness and contribution to professional knowledge” (Houser, 2018, p. 112).  Basically, it is a really important article. Seminal articles are cited a lot in the literature. You can see how many authors have cited an article using Google Scholar’s citation count feature when you search for the article. Generally speaking, articles that have been cited more often are considered more reputable. There is nothing wrong with citing an article with a low citation count, but it is an indication that not many other scholars have found the source to be useful or important.
Journal articles fall into a few different categories. Empirical articles apply theory to a behavior and reports the results of a quantitative or qualitative data analysis conducted by the author. Just because an article includes quantitative or qualitative results does not mean it is an empirical journal article. Since most articles contain a literature review with empirical findings, you need to make sure the findings reported in the study are from the author’s own analysis. Fortunately, empirical articles follow a similar structure—introduction, method, results, and discussion sections appear in that order. While the exact headings may differ slightly from publication to publication and other sections like conclusions, implications, or limitations may appear, this general structure applies to nearly all empirical journal articles.
Theoretical articles, by contrast, do not follow a set structure. They follow whatever format the author finds most useful to organize their information. Theoretical articles discuss a theory, conceptual model, or framework for understanding a problem. They may delve into philosophy or values, as well. Theoretical articles help you understand how to think about a topic and may help you make sense of the results of empirical studies. Practical articles describe “how things are done” (Wallace & Wray, 2016, p. 20).  They are usually shorter than other types of articles and are intended to inform practitioners of a discipline on current issues. They may also provide a reflection on a “hot topic” in the practice domain, a complex client situation, or an issue that may affect the profession as a whole.
No one type of article is better than the other, as each serves a different purpose. Seminal articles relevant to your topic area are important to read because of their influence on the field. Theoretical articles will help you understand the social theory behind your topic. Empirical articles should test those theories quantitatively or create those theories qualitatively, a process we will discuss in greater detail later in this book. Practical articles will help you understand a practitioner’s perspective, though these are less useful when writing a literature review, as they only present a single person’s opinions on a topic.
Other sources of information
As mentioned earlier, newspaper and magazine articles are good places to start your search, though they should not be the end of your search. Another source that students commonly flock to is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a marvel of human knowledge, as anyone can contribute to the digital encyclopedia. The entries for each Wikipedia article are overseen by skilled and specialized editors who volunteer their time and knowledge to making sure their articles are correct and up to date. Wikipedia is an example of a tertiary source. We reviewed primary and secondary sources in the previous section. Tertiary sources synthesize or distill primary and secondary sources. Examples of tertiary sources include encyclopedias, directories, dictionaries, and textbooks like this one. Tertiary sources are an excellent place to start, but are not a good place to end your search. A student might consult Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia of Social Work (available at http://socialwork.oxfordre.com/) to get a general idea of the topic.
As we’ve discussed, secondary and tertiary sources are great places to begin gathering background information on a topic, but as your study of the topic progresses towards your research project, you will have to begin using primary sources. Academic journal articles are one of the primary sources that we will discuss the most in this textbook, as they are an excellent source to use in formal research papers. However, it is important to understand how other types of sources can be utilized as well.
Books contain important scholarly information. They are particularly helpful for theoretical, philosophical, and historical inquiry. For example, in my research on self-determination for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I needed to define and explore the concept of self-determination. I learned how to define it from the philosophical literature on self-determination and the advocacy literature contained in books. You can use books to learn definitions and key concepts, to identify keywords, and to find additional resources for further information. They will also help you to understand the scope of the topic, its underlying foundations, and how the topic has developed over time.
You may notice that some books contain chapters that resemble academic journal articles. These are called edited volumes, and they contain articles that may not have made it into academic journals or seminal articles that are republished in the book. Edited volumes are considered less reputable than journal articles, as they do not have as strong of a peer review process. However, papers in social science journals will often include references to books and edited volumes.
In addition to peer-reviewed academic journal articles and books, conferences are another great source of information. At conferences such as the Council on Social Work Education’s Annual Program Meeting or your state’s NASW conference, researchers present papers on their most recent research and obtain feedback from the audience. The papers presented at conferences are sometimes published in a volume called a conference proceeding, which highlights current discussions in a discipline and can lead you to scholars who are interested in specific research areas. If you are looking to use a conference proceeding as a source for your research paper, it is important to note that several factors can make them particularly difficult to find. Papers that are delivered at professional conferences are not always fully published in print or electronic form. The abstract of a paper may be available; however the full paper may only be available to the author(s). If you have any difficulty accessing a conference proceeding or paper, ask a librarian for assistance.
Another source of information is the gray literature, which is research and information released by non-commercial publishers, such as government agencies, policy organizations, and think-tanks. If you have already taken a policy class, perhaps you’ve come across the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (https://www.cbpp.org/). CBPP is a think tank, or a group of scholars, that conducts research and performs advocacy on social issues. Similarly, students often find the Centers for Disease Control website helpful for understanding the prevalence of social problems like mental illness and child abuse.
It is important to note that there are potential limitations to using gray literature as a source, such as the potential for biased information. Typically, think tanks and policy organizations have a specific viewpoint that they support. For example, there are conservative, liberal, and libertarian think tanks and policy organizations may be funded by private businesses to push a given message to the public. On the other hand, government agencies are generally more objective, though they may be less critical in their opinions of government programs than other sources. The main shortcoming of gray literature is the lack of peer review that is found in academic journal articles, though many gray literature sources are of good quality.
Additional sources of gray literature include dissertations and theses. These two sources are rich, and they often contain extensive reference lists that you can scan for further resources, however they are considered gray literature because they are not peer reviewed. The accuracy and validity of the paper itself may depend on the school that awarded the doctoral or master’s degree to the author. Having completed a dissertation myself, I know that they take a long time to write and a long time to read through. If you come across a dissertation that is relevant, it is a good idea to read the literature review and plumb the sources the author uses in your literature search. However, the data analysis from these sources is considered less reputable as it has not passed through peer review yet. Consider searching for journal articles by the author to see if any of the results passed peer review. You will also be thankful that journal articles are much shorter than dissertations and theses!
The final source of information we must talk about is webpages. My graduate research focused on substance abuse and drugs, and I was fond of reading Drug War Rant (http://www.drugwarrant.com/), a blog about drug policy. It provided me with breaking news about drug policy and editorial opinion about the drug war. I would never cite the blog in a research proposal, but it was an excellent source of information that warranted further investigation. Webpages will also help you locate professional organizations and human service agencies that address your research topic. The website of an organization may include social media feeds, reports, publications, or “news” sections that can clue you into important topics to study. Because anyone can begin their own webpage, they are usually not considered scholarly sources to use in formal writing, but they are still useful when you are first learning about a topic. Additionally, many advocacy webpages will provide references for the facts they cite, providing you with the primary source of the information.
As you think about each source, remember:
All information sources are not created equal. Sources can vary greatly in terms of how carefully they are researched, written, edited, and reviewed for accuracy. Common sense will help you identify obviously questionable sources, such as tabloids that feature tales of alien abductions, or personal websites with glaring typos. Sometimes, however, a source’s reliability—or lack of it—is not so obvious…You will consider criteria such as the type of source, its intended purpose and audience, the author’s (or authors’) qualifications, the publication’s reputation, any indications of bias or hidden agendas, how current the source is, and the overall quality of the writing, thinking, and design. (Writing for Success, 2015, p. 448). 
While each of these sources is an important part of how we learn about a topic, your research should focus on finding academic journal articles about your topic. These are the primary sources of the research world. While it may be acceptable and necessary to use other primary sources—like books, government reports, or an investigative article by a newspaper or magazine—academic journal articles are preferred. Finding these journal articles is the topic of the next section.
- Social work involves reading research from a variety of disciplines.
- While secondary and tertiary sources are okay to start with, primary sources provide the most accurate and authoritative information about a topic.
- Peer-reviewed journal articles are considered the best source of information for literature reviews, though other sources are often used.
- Peer review is the process by which other scholars evaluate the merits of an article before publication.
- Social work research requires critical evaluation of each source in a literature review
Empirical articles– apply theory to a behavior and report the results of a quantitative or qualitative data analysis conducted by the author
Gray literature– research and information released by non-commercial publishers, such as government agencies, policy organizations, and think-tanks
Peer review– a formal process in which other esteemed researchers and experts ensure your work meets the standards and expectations of the professional field
Practical articles– describe “how things are done” in practice (Wallace & Wray, 2016, p. 20)
Primary source– published results of original research studies
Secondary source– interpret, discuss, summarize original sources
Seminal articles– classic work noted for its contribution to the field and its high citation count
Tertiary source– synthesizes or distills primary and secondary sources, such as Wikipedia
Theoretical articles– articles that discuss a theory, conceptual model or framework for understanding a problem
- The Guardian (n.d.). The counted: People killed by police in the US. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database ↵
- Houser, J., (2018). Nursing research reading, using, and creating evidence (4th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett. ↵
- Wallace, M., & Wray, A. (2016). Critical reading and writing for postgraduates (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ↵
- Writing for Success (2015). Strategies for gathering reliable information. http://open.lib.umn.edu/writingforsuccess/chapter/11-4-strategies-for-gathering-reliable-information/ ↵