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Library Guide Politics & Public administration: Systematic review

subject guide with practical info for making use of the library and all of its facilities

Literature review support

Students and staff of Radboud University can contact the NSM team for help with developing expert search strategies. If you would like to make an appointment for systematic review help, you can fill in the form and email us at

We can partner with you on:

  • finding relevant search terms
  • selecting databases and information sources
  • developing structured searches
  • selecting, saving and citing literature
  • creating alerts for newly published literature

Literature Search Libguide

Literature Support Website

To get started with your review, follow these steps:

Step 1 - Literature review: aim and type

Why do you want to do a review?

  • to develop a research question
  • to present a brief introduction to your subject
  • to present an extensive detailed account of a body of literature

Step 2 - Search question

When you search for literature, you should think about your topic or research question. You can search for literature with a query based on your topic or research question. Depending on your research question and review type you will develop a search strategy.

Step 3 - Publication types & sources

Consider what type of literature (journal articles, books, case studies etc.) you are looking for, as the type of literature determines the database you should use. You will find databases in this library guide in the menu Find Literature, ordered by name and by publication type. Our Databases A-Z lists all available search sources.

Tips for identifying whether a source is relevant:

  • Who provides the database?
  • Which topics are covered by the database? 
  • Which journals or books are searchable via the database? 

  Step 4 - Search terms & techniques

When performing an extensive literature search, don’t restrict your search to the key terms of your research question or topic.

For each key term, also think about:

  • synonyms
  • antonyms
  • jargon
  • abbreviations
  • language variants

To find alternative search terms:

  • Use a thesaurus to identify synonyms.
  • Search for your topic on a search engine, scanning the results for alternative words and phrases.

Every database works differently. The NSM team can help you with setting up searches using the specialized syntax of individual databases.

Step 5 - Search strategies

Block search

You can organize your search terms into thematic groups (blocks), covering the various aspects within your topic. It will help to create an overview of potential search terms. 

  • Formulate a literature search question
  • Identify the key elements
  • Define your blocks (key elements)
  • Collect search terms for each block
  • Set up a search string

The search terms within a block are combined with OR; the blocks are combined with an AND operator.

Backward citation search

If you have found one journal article, you can consult the article's references to find out what sources were used. This will help you to find earlier literature.

Forward citation search

Forward citation search is snowballing forward. Look at sources where the article is cited. This will give you more up-to-date literature on your topic. The Web of Science or Google Scholar search engine, for example, let you do this easily.

Searching relevant journals

If you find many relevant articles in certain journals, it may be useful to search these journals to find other relevant articles. Find out more about journal search.

Author searching

If a lot of your key articles are written by the same author, you could carry out an author search.  You can search by author in almost all databases or search engines. Make sure you search for all name variants.

Step 6 - Recording and evaluation

Record your search activities including search strategy, search terms, search options, search filters and search operators.

Step 7 - Managing and deduplication


Gather, store and organise your records.


Deduplicate records from multiple database searches and other information sources.

Step 8 - Selection


To select references:

  • First - screen title and abstract
  • Second  - review full text

Think about inclusion and exclusion criteria e.g.:

  • time period
  • language range
  • study population
  • nature of the intervention 
  • methodological quality

The PRISMA flow diagram and generator might help you with this selection process.

Software tools for screening references

ASReview - Open source screening softare based on active learning techniques.

abstrackr - Abstract screening for systematic reviews.

Covidence - Software for screening, risk of bias tables and data extraction.

Rayyan - Rapid sifting of citations and sharing decisions. "Working with Rayyan" by J.Staaks.

Retraction check

Check retractions, corrections and expressions of concern of included references e.g. via Retraction Watch Database. Some reference managers (for example EndNote, Zotero) have been integrated with the Retraction Watch database.

Step 9 - Critical Appraisal

Druing the critical appraisal process, you will assess each study's risk of bias based on quality measures.

  • Identify or develop a checklist for evaluating studies
  • Test the checklist (ensure that you are evaluating all aspects you would like to / need to address)


Final step - Citing literature

At the NSM you should credit sources in American Psychological Association (APA) style.

Reference management programs help you with managing references and citing literature in your documents. They offer ways to link and search full text and format your citations in many different citation styles.

Tools and recommended reading