Skip to Main Content

Literature Searches, Surveys and Reviews: Searches, Surveys and Reviews

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

What's In a Name?

What is the difference between a Literature Search, a Literature Survey and a Literature Review? Often these terms are used interchangeably to mean the same thing or something very similar. Key skills required in performing a search, survey or review include the ability to:

1. Search for, locate, evaluate and "contextualize" relevant resources within the broader context of a technical topic.

2. Differentiate between highly relevant, possibly relevant, and irrelevant resources.

3. Organize the most relevant resources in such a way that the "whole is greater than the sum of its parts."  This curation may require subject expertise. It implies added value through organizing and synthesizing resources based on the needs of the customer or the end user.

4. In some cases, create a fresh new scholarly work that may also be subjected to peer review. This type of work stands alone in that it contextualizes current knowledge, and theoretical and methodological contributions in a field of study.

A few definitions:

Annotated Bibliography: A bibliography is simply a list of citations on a particular topic, organized in a specific way. An "annotated" bibliography is a bibliography where each citation has a brief summary or "abstract" which is a concise description of the work cited. An annotation should provide enough information to help the reader decide whether to read the complete work. In other words, if the reader were exploring the topic, would an item in the larger list be useful and if so, why?
VDOT Research Library staff routinely compile annotated bibliographies.

Literature Search: The recursive process of searching for relevant literature or information on a topic. Conducing a literature search requires a knowledge of the best places to search and skills in constructing searches that lead to relevant resources, which are ultimately compiled into a single set of results. Resources in the set are reviewed for relevance and bibliographic accuracy, and "refined" into a smaller and even more focused set of results. The final results are then organized or categorized in a way that makes them easier for the end user to review. In some cases the results can also be evaluated in terms of publication gaps, patterns, or pockets of potential expertise. Sometimes the results are subject to quantitative analysis, often called "bibliometrics." The goal of such analysis is to quantify potential research impact. 
VDOT Library staff also perform literature searches for patrons.

Literature Survey: Like a Literature Search, a Literature Survey requires searching, which requires solid search skills. However, a survey typically also requires subject expertise, because it involves analyzing, reviewing, summarizing, organizing, and presenting novel conclusions or an original and informed viewpoint about the state of the practice as expressed in the literature located during the search. The results of a good literature survey can contribute to the body of knowledge in a field when published as a scholarly paper in a peer-reviewed journal.  So the Literature Survey is known as a form of scholarly article. It is typically fairly brief, with a modest number of citations and it summaries "the state of the art" in a field rather than relaying original research facts or analysis.
Because library staff do not have subject expertise, we do not perform literature surveys.

Literature Review:
 A Literature Review is also a form of scholarly publication. It requires technical or subject expertise in order to review and summarize previously published studies. An effective literature review is a scan of the field of study, summarizing the current state of understanding on a topic. It involves technically and critically reviewing different but relevant works and drawing conclusions regarding the strengths or weaknesses of those works in the context of the larger field of study. Literature Review typically requires the author to identify and extract key technical and scientific metadata from the research it synthesizes and it typically relates the most important present and (possibly) future directions of work in a field. Such papers can be considerably longer than a Literature Survey.
Because library staff do not have subject expertise, we do not perform literature reviews. 


- Ken Winter, VDOT Research Library

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