Skip to Main Content

Literature Searches, Surveys and Reviews: Getting Started

This guide walks transportation professionals and students through the basics of conducting transportation literature searches, surveys and reviews.

Transportation Research Circular Number E-C194

This guide is intended for researchers interested in conducting their own literature searches, surveys or reviews. It is based on Transportation Research Circular Number E-C194: Literature Searches and Literature Reviews for Transportation Research Projects: How to Search, Where to Search, and How to Put it All Together. Current Practices.

Contributing authors: Andrea Avni, Paul Burley, Patrick Casey, John Cherney, Leighton Christiansen, Janet Saunders Daly, Rita Evans, David Jared, Greg Landgraf, Andrew Meier, Jane Minotti, Barbara Post, Birgitta Sandstedt, Roberto Sarmiento, Susan Sillick, Bob Sweet, Michael Wendt, Ken Winter, and Hong Yu.

View the circular in its entirety for a complete and detailed picture of the literature search and literature review processes.

If you would like the library to conduct a literature search for you (a service we offer to VDOT employees only) please go to our Literature Search Request Page.

Six Steps in a Literature Search

Most literature searches begin with an idea, hypothesis or a research "need." The more precisely the need is defined, the easiser the search will be to conduct. Begin by turning the research idea or need into a series of questions:

What is the  goal of the literature search?

  • What questions are you trying to answer? What problems are you trying to solve?
  • Express your hypothesis or need in a few written sentences. This is your search topic and will define the rest of the steps of your literature search. 

How thorough should the literature search be? 

  • Is the goal to find a few key articles on this topic?
  • Do you want to locate only items on the topic that are freely available online or immediately accessible?
  • Is your goal to conduct a comprehensive search for all published items on a topic, regardless of ease of accessibility or cost? 

Are there parameters that might "limit" the types of research materials you can utilize?

  • Date Range: Is historical material applicable, or are you looking for items dating from only the last 5-10 years?
  • Geography: Is international material relevant, or do you want material from a specific geographic region? 
  • Formats: Are both trade magazine articles and "peer-reviewed" literature relevant?
  • Time: Do you have enough time to read comprehensive research reports? Or are journal and conference papers likely to be more useful?
  • Language: Will you be able to utilize references in languages other than English?

A complete literature search can and should incorporate several resources. The Library helps patrons find reliable places to search for information with an A-Z Database List of subscription and freely accessible resources. Resources for a literature search can include Internet search engines, databases, and library catalogs.

Internet Search Engines

  • Include Google search tools and countless others. 
  • Cover many subjects
  • Tend to be freely accessible
  • Retrieve large quantities of results
  • Tend to not be vetted for "quality control"
  • May include some links to full-text literature


Library Catalogs

  • The VDOT Research Library catalog helps you search for books, journals and conference proceedings on transportation topics.
  • VDOT OneSearch searches the library's catalog and subscription and publicly accessible databases simultaneously.
  • WorldCat searches the collections of more than 72,000 library systems worldwide.

After you select and define your topic, it is time to select the best terms to use in your search. To choose search terms, look again at the search topic that was articulated in Step 1.

  • Write down or type a list of words that describe your search topic. 
  • Think of synonyms, variants, plurals, and terms with different word endings (e.g., climate and climatic) for these words.
  • Consider technical, local, and international terminology as well as acronyms and abbreviations that are related to these words.
  • Take spelling variations into account (e.g., behavior and behaviour).
  • Check on the availability of a thesaurus (e.g. TRID's Transportation Research Thesaurus), subject headings, and index terms from the search resource and use those "tools" look up related terms. 

The resulting list will be the initial search term list. The list of search terms is likely to expand or change as your search progresses and you find better terms, or omit some terms as less relevant.

Understanding the relationships between search terms and finding ways to combine them effectively are critical steps in the search process. This is called developing a search strategy. How terms are linked in a search strategy significantly affects the research of a search. In order to create an effective and focused search, it is wise to put some time into developing a search strategy instead of simply adding more potential terms into a single search field. 


Search Tips

Controlled Vocabulary vs Keyword Searching

  • Controlled vocabulary may also be referred to as subject headings, descriptors, thesaurus, or index terms. Advantages to controlled vocabulary include:
    • A list of subject terms may help a user find an appropriate search term for their topic.
    • It can provide a searcher with suggested terms for broader, narrower, or related topics.
    • Using a controlled vocabulary helps you avoid the need to think of every possible synonym or alternate spelling of a search term.
  • Keyword searching: any search terms chosen by the searcher
    • Unlike controlled vocabulary searches, keyword searching can include slang, jargon or "regional" terminology" 
    • Useful for new and emerging terms that have not been in use long enough to be added to a controlled vocabulary.

Exact Phrase Searching

  • Most databases and search engines, including Google, support exact phrase searching using quotation marks to retrieve results in the exact order that phrases are typed. This is handy for common turns of phrase or popularized terms.


  • Truncation broadens a search by including all word endings or variant spellings or forms of a word. The common symbol for truncation is an asterisk (*) but this may differ in some databases and search engines, which sometimes use symbols like: (?) or ($)
    • Example 1: All forms of a word: wood*  (Will retrieve wood, woods, wooden, etc.)
    • Example 2: Wildcard truncation within a word: wom*n (Will retrieve works with the term "woman" or "women")
  • Warning: Be careful of the unintended consequences of truncation (especially over-truncation) on a search!
    • Example 3: If you are searching for "culverts" in TRID but enter the term "cul*" you'll get results on culverts, but also irrelevant results on: cul-de-sacs, cultural resources, safety culture, and much more.

Using And, Or, Not (Also known as "Boolean Operators")  

  • AND: Narrows search results
    Retrieve more focused search results by using the word “And” between terms or phrases. Combining terms with “And” generally retrieves fewer (and more focused) search results than combining terms with the word  "Or.” 
  • OR: Expands search results
    Broaden a search by using the word "Or" between terms. This strategy is useful in a search where you are aware of similar terms for a concept, such as "active transport" and "sustainable transport" 
  • NOT: Narrows results by "excluding" terms
    Exclude certain items using word "Not"  
    • Example: Pedestrian NOT bridge will return items that contain only the word pedestrian, excluding those that also have the word bridge in them.

A literature search is usually not complete after the first set of results has been retrieved. These first results should be reviewed in order to determine if more searching is necessary, and whether the search strategy needs modification. Review the initial results of the search by skimming titles, abstracts, and keywords or subject areas. Then organize the citations into three broad categories:

  • Definitely related to your topic.
  • Possibly related to your topic.
  • Not related to your topic. 

The search results that are in the “definitely related” category can be the basis for further searches. Use these relevant results to identify keywords, index terms, or subject headings that have been assigned to those items.

  • Run the search again, using the most relevant keywords, index terms and subjects headings.
  • Note any recurring author names that appear in the "definitely related" category and conduct an author name search to identify other relevant research by top authors who may have published on the topic.
  • Review the "Works Cited" or "References" section of any books, articles and papers that seem highly relevant. If the work was highly relevant, odds are greater that it will cite additional relevant works published on or before its date of publication.

Too many results in the “not related” category? Not enough results in the definitely related category? If the initial results are not what you expected or if no relevant results were found, refine your search strategies. Questions to ask yourself include the following:

  • Have an overwhelming number of results been retrieved? If so, consider simplifying the search to include fewer terms.
    • If the topic is very new or very narrow, it is possible there just hasn't been much published on it yet. While researchers may be exploring the topic, their research might be "in progress" or their findings under editorial review pending publication. If you suspect this is the case, consider:
      • Expanding the focus of your topic. 
      • Looking more closely at the “possibly related” category of results. You may find articles that are tangentially related to your topic.
      • Consulting sources other than those that focus on "published" works.
        Example: TRB's Research In Progress (RiP) database can help you find out about research that is "in progress." Unline TRID, which connects you to published documents, RiP connects you to you principal investigators, project managers and project sponsors to get more details about the research that is unfolding.

Looking Beyond Online Resources  

Online databases and catalogs contain a wealth of information. However, not everything is available online, and a thorough literature search should at least consider the following: 

  • Relevant information may be found as a component of a larger document and may not be indexed separately (e.g., a table within an article or a chapter within a book). Do not immediately discount more general material in your search results. 
  • Some documents may exist only in print format. Depending on the breadth of your search, time to locate and review documents should be factored into the search schedule. VDOT employees can take advantage of our Interlibrary Loans and Document Delivery program to request free copies of esoteric and hard-to-find print publications. 

When you start finding useful resources, collect them. For each useful item, record full bibliographic information: title, author, year of publication, journal title, and volume number (if applicable). The bibliographic details are called a “citation” or “reference,” and provide details needed to assess whether a document is worthy of review, and to help locate it. You may also wish to keep notes about the content and relevance of resources and other details, such as what database was used to locate them or libraries where they might be housed. Keeping good records helps you locate relevant resources at a later date.

Bibliographic Management Tools allow users to save, organize, and export citations with a personal database of references.

See: Zotero Guide

Know When to Stop

The world of research is constantly evolving. Scholars are always generating new ideas based on past research, so there will never be a time when the research landscape is "complete." Knowing when to stop is subjective and is often based on time constraints. Some things to consider when deciding when a search is complete are:

  • The law of diminishing returns and Pareto Principle (sometimes called the 80–20 rule) should be considered. In the case of a literature search that means excessive searches in the same locations using the same terms and techniques may not be time well spent, simply because most of the relevant citations have already been found.
  • An initial, focused effort of 3 to 5 hours of proper searching may yield 80% of all relevant citations that can reasonably be located using sound techniques in the proper sources. Spending another 10 to 20 hours on the search may yield a few more marginally useful citations, but possibly only another 5% to 10%. It is not realistic to expect to find 100% of relevant research on a topic, regardless of the amount of time spent. 
  • Finding the same citations over and over in your search results, or new articles presenting concepts or findings similar to what you have already uncovered suggests you are concluding the "searching" phase.
  • There are always research projects in progress, and new articles, conference papers, and technical reports in the publication pipeline, some of which may never be published. It typically does not make sense to delay a literature search to wait for new content to be published. It is usually better to gather what is available at a specific moment in time and move forward.
  • Thankfully, many databases allow users to set up alerts notifying them when new results that match a saved search topic are published. This is a great way to track a topic going forward.

Excerpted from Daly, Meier, Winter & Yu, "Literature Searches How to Search." in Literature Searches and Literature Reviews for Transportation Research Projects: How to Search, Where to Search, and How to Put It All Together: Current Practices 

Literature Reviews: Putting It All Together

The literature review is a critical portion of the research process in any field of inquiry and an important component of the final research report. For the researcher, a literature review helps to clarify the scope of the research project by creating a narrative of what is and is not known in the field and where there are areas of dispute. For the customer of the research and other readers, the review also provides valuable context, establishes the researcher’s expertise and relates the findings of the project to what is already known. 

It is important to remember what a literature review is not.

A bibliography, for example, is merely a list of published works with author, publisher, date, and other bibliographic citation data.  An annotated bibliography includes a summary or "abstract" describing each work, making the list more informative. Those brief descriptions of the research methodology, scope and findings for works can help the researcher determine the relevance and value of the work relative to their research need. 

An annotated bibliography is not a literature review, however, even though it may be a useful resource valued by both the author and the reader. A bibliography can be very helpful in that it reflects the findings of a well-focused search for potentially relevant literature.  

The literature review provides value beyond what a bibliography can do by:

  • Differentiating between relevant and irrelevant research
  • Providing context and structure that helps the reader
  • Establishing authority of research
  • Examining research with a critical eye
  • Synthesizing the overall research landscape

Excerpted from Casey & Landgraf, "Literature Reviews: How to Put It All Together," in Literature Reviews and Literature Reviews for Transportation Research Projects.

As detailed by Cooper’s taxonomy (1), literature reviews may be comprehensive, representative, or concentrated on pivotal works. The research problem statement and the detailed scope of the research project should clearly indicate what is sought from the literature review and promote a common understanding on the part of the agency and investigator before the work begins. Does the agency requesting the research desire a broad review of nearly all applicable literature on the topic to give background and historical perspective? Or is the interest narrower, perhaps focused on a particular time frame or specific subproblem of a larger issue? 

While all literature reviews support research, their specific functions and relation to that research vary. Several methods of classifying literature reviews have been proposed. These classifications inform the research and writing of a literature review.

Under Cooper's taxonomy, literature reviews can be classified based on the following:

  • Focus: While all literature reviews support research, their specific functions and relation to that research vary. Several methods of classifying literature reviews have been proposed. These classifications inform the research and writing of a literature review
  • Goals:  Goals include synthesis, criticism, and identification of central issues. Nearly all reviews synthesize past literature, which encompasses generalizing from multiple specific instances, proposing explanations that can resolve conflicts between contradictions found in the literature, and closing gaps between theories or disciplines by creating a linguistic framework that can be shared. 
  • Perspective: Literature reviews can either present evidence neutrally or advocate for a specific position. Advocating for a specific position is not necessarily an indication of bias; it is possible for an author to fairly review and present conflicting evidence but still reach a conclusion about the correct interpretation and present it. 
  • Coverage: Reviews may be comprehensive (presenting all works relevant to the topic); comprehensive with selected citations (basing conclusions on all works relevant to the topic, but only presenting a selection of the most important works in the review); representative (presenting samples of the relevant material); or concentrated on central or pivotal works. 
  • Organization: Effective literature reviews can be organized chronologically, conceptually or methodologically.
  • Audience: The audience for a literature review—whether specialized researchers, general researchers, practitioners, policymakers, or the general public—will affect the writing style and language used. 


1. Cooper, H. Organizing Knowledge Syntheses: A Taxonomy of Literature Reviews. Knowledge in Society, Vol. 1, 1988, pp. 104–126. 

Excerpted from Casey & Landgraf, "Literature Reviews: How to Put It All Together," in Literature Reviews and Literature Reviews for Transportation Research Projects.

  1. Determine the purpose of the literature review.  All literature reviews perform some basic functions: informing the research by clarifying what is and is not known about a topic, providing context by summarizing the current state of research on the topic, and establishing a researcher’s authority by demonstrating his or her understanding of related existing research. 
    • What is the goal of the review? Who is the audience? What is the focus of the review: research outcomes, research methods, theories, or practices and applications? What is the perspective of the review: a literature review may present information neutrally, or make a case for a specific position.
  2. Determine the scope of the literature review. The scope includes three major facets:
    • ​Defining the specific topic that the literature review will cover and topics that will not be covered.
    • Determining how comprehensive the review will be. It may be appropriate to seek all relevant works, a representative sample or only the significant works on a topic.
    • Defining the time period the review will cover. Literature reviews that seek to synthesize current knowledge often focus on recent research, while reviews that seek to demonstrate how a field has developed over time will naturally incorporate more historical research.
  3. Review the research. While it is not generally necessary to read every piece of marginal literature in depth, thorough note taking that includes bibliographical information is critical to the research process. A University of Colorado–Denver tutorial (1) presents two approaches to note-taking:
    • The “summarize-as-you-go” method, in which the researcher writes complete sentences with citations that can be pasted into the literature review nearly verbatim. These notes should summarize a study’s context, methods, findings, conclusions, and implications.
    • The “note-basic-details” method, in which the researcher captures more basic information about a study’s context, methodology, findings, implications, and suggestions for future research, without trying to generate nearly publication-ready prose. Prevalent themes in individual studies should also be noted so they can be compared and organized when all studies have been reviewed. 
  4. Evaluate the Research.  Levy and Ellis (2) outline a six-step framework for processing the information gathered:
    • Know the material. This step includes understanding the information in each cited work and the methodology used to reach its conclusions instead of simply identifying works that are relevant without describing their conclusions.
    • Comprehend the material. This step involves demonstrating how the information in a source is significant and relevant to the subject of the literature review rather than simply repeating the information within the cited source.
    • Apply the material. In this step, the review author identifies the major concepts of each work cited that relate to the study and organizes the information appropriately so it can support the story told by the literature review.
    • Analyze the material. Analysis involves demonstrating why the information pulled from sources and presented in the literature review is important. The review author should make the value of the information explicit rather than simply presenting it and leaving the reader to draw conclusions.
    • Synthesize the material. A literature review is a narrative, not a collection of facts, and synthesis is what turns it from the latter into the former. The narrative should effectively generalize the material while noting any gaps in knowledge and areas of dispute.
    • Evaluate the material. The review author must distinguish between facts, theories and opinions in the works cited instead of simply presenting all material as if each source has equal supporting evidence and validity. 
  5. Organize the material and write the literature review. Remember that it is a narrative, not simply a listing of resources or an annotated bibliography. Organizing the content in a logical, thematic manner that supports the literature review’s overall goals is the most critical part of this step. Poor organization is one of the most prominently cited shortfalls in literature reviews. According to Washington et al. (3), the literature review should be organized by topic, with connections between papers made as appropriate. Within each topic, cited works should be given prominence according to their importance and relevance rather than being presented equally. There are several valid topic organizations, including:
    • Chronological, which is useful to show how knowledge in a field grows and changes over time. Descriptive, which presents what several authors write about a specific topic, followed by analysis for that topic. This method highlights topical themes that make up the entirety of the subject.
    • Descriptive–analytical, which is a variation of the descriptive organization. In this method, the analysis presents the similarities and differences among the sources for each topic rather than presenting them at the end.
    • Big-to-small-to-big, which begins with the largest and most wide-ranging studies before progressing to smaller ones and then branches out to larger studies. This organizational method highlights how the results of broader studies differ from smaller ones and is particularly useful for empirically oriented reviews.
    • Methodological, which groups studies by the methodologies they use. A brief analysis after each methodology shows what it does and does not cover, while a master analysis at the end compares and summarizes the findings.
    • “Big camps,” which is useful when there are distinct interpretations of a set of data. It can either present various topics and how the different camps’ interpretations are similar and different for each, or present each camp and its interpretations of all relevant themes as a single unit.

According to Cooper (4) and the University of Colorado–Denver tutorial (1), literature reviews may also blend these methods as appropriate. One common organizational method that many sources discourage is presenting literature author by author—that is, presenting the full content of one paper, followed by the full content of the next and so on 


1. Writing a Literature Review, University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, undated.  

2. Levy, Y., and T. Ellis. Towards a Framework of Literature Review Process in Support of Information Systems Research. Proceedings of the 2006 Informing Science and IT Education Joint Conference, 2006.

3. Washington, S., J. Leonard, D. Manning, C. Roberts, B. Williams, A. Bacchus, A. Devanhalli, J. Ogle, and D. Melcher. Scientific Approaches to Transportation Research. NCHRP Report 20-45, Vols. 1 and 2, Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, Washington, D.C., 2001

4. Cooper, H. Organizing Knowledge Syntheses: A Taxonomy of Literature Reviews. Knowledge in Society, Vol. 1, 1988, pp. 104–126. 

Excerpted from Casey & Landgraf, "Literature Reviews: How to Put It All Together," in Literature Reviews and Literature Reviews for Transportation Research Projects.

Contact the Library:

530 Edgemont Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903
Ph: 434-293-1902 | E-mail:
© Copyright 2024, VDOT. All rights reserved.

Visit the Library:

Hours: Mon.-Fri.: 8:30-4:30 | Closed: State holidays
Directions & Maps to the Library
Web Policy | Privacy Statement | VDOT Dashboard