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Literature Searching Explained


1. What is a literature search?

2. Decide the topic of your search

3. Identify the main concepts in your question

4. Choose a database

What is a literature search?

A literature search is a considered and organised search to find key literature on a topic. To complete a thorough literature search you should:

  • define what you are searching for
  • decide where to search
  • develop a search strategy
  • refine your search strategy
  • save your search for future use.

For background reading or an introduction to a subject, you can do a shorter and more basic Library search.

Use this guide to work your way through the all the stages of the literature searching process.

You should form a search question before you begin. Reframing your research project into a defined and searchable question will make your literature search more specific and your results more relevant.


Decide the topic of your search

You should start by deciding the topic of your search. This means identifying the broad topic, refining it to establish which particular aspect of the topic interests you, and reframing that topic as a question.

For example:

Broad topic: active learning and engagement in higher education

Main focus topic: international students and online learning

Topic stated as a question: "What is the role of active learning in improving the engagement of international students during online learning?"

Identify the main concepts in your question

Once you have a searchable question, highlight the major concepts. For example: "What is the role of active learning in improving the engagement of international students during online learning?"

You should then find keywords and phrases to express the different concepts. For example, the concept “active learning” covers a wide range of key terms, including student-based learning, problem solving and paired discussion.

It may be useful to create a concept map. First identify the major concepts within your question and then organise your appropriate key terms.

If you are researching a medicine or health related topic then you might want to use a PICO search model. PICO helps you identify the Patient, Intervention, Comparison and Outcome concepts within your research question.

Patient: Who is the treatment being delivered to? What is happening to the patient?

Intervention: What treatment is being delivered? What is happening to the patient?

Comparison: How much better is the procedure than another? What are the alternatives?

Outcome: How is the effect measured? What can be achieved?

List synonyms for each concept. You may wish to include variant spellings or endings (plural, singular terms). Exclude parts of the PICO that do not relate to your search question. For example, you may not be drawing any comparisons in your research.

Choose a database

Subject-specific databases are the most effective way to search for journal articles on a topic. However, you can also search the Library for common information sources, such as government documents, grey literature, patents and statistics.

Find the most appropriate databases for your subject

Databases help you to find a broad range of evidence, including peer-reviewed academic articles from all over the world, from many different publishers, and over a long time period.

Databases such as Scopus and Web of Science hold expansive records of research literature, including conference proceedings, letters and grey literature.

Many databases have links to full-text articles where the Library has a subscription.

Other information sources

Go to your subject-specific page to see the most appropriate information sources listed for your subject area. You may need to explore more than one subject page if your topic is multi-disciplinary.

You may find it useful to make a list of which information sources you want to search to find information for your research; a search activity template (DOCX) can help you do this.


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