How do I do a literature search?

A literature search is a systematic, thorough search of a range of literature (for example books, peer-reviewed articles, etc.) on your topic. Commonly you will be asked to undertake literature searches as part of your Level 3 and postgraduate study.

It is important before undertaking any research to fully understand the shape of the literature in the area. Literature searching can be broken down into a series of iterative steps. You may want to revisit some of these several times throughout your search.

Planning your search

What to search for: Keywords and phrases

Start the process by clarifying the research question you would like answered. Your next step is to use your research question to help you identify keywords. The language and terminology of your subject area will help you to identify the most effective words for your search.

You can also identify keywords by looking for background information on key areas within your topic online as this will give you ideas for synonyms and other words commonly used.

The activity on Choosing good keywords will provide further guidance. 

Where to search: Library Search, Databases and Google Scholar

Now that you have your keywords you need to decide where to search. Library Search is a good starting point, particularly for unfamiliar topics, to provide background information and lead to further sources. 

No two databases include exactly the same content. It is therefore advisable to search several databases to make sure you do not miss a key paper on your topic. If you are unsure where to search, the Selected resources for your study page will help you find the most relevant databases. 

You may also like to use Google Scholar, which will search a wider set of resources, including items not available through the OU Library. Google Scholar offers more guidance on how to access eresources. It also has instructions on how to add the "Find it at OU" button to Google Scholar search results.

Search techniques

Once you have your keywords you will need to combine them. You can use the help sheet on Advanced search techniques as guidance. You may also find the following activities useful:

Further reading:

Byrne, D. (2017). Developing a researchable questionProject Planner. Sage Research Methods. DOI:10.4135/9781526408525. 

Byrne, D. (2017). Reviewing the literatureProject Planner. Sage Research Methods. DOI:10.4135/9781526408518. 

Evaluating information

It is important to evaluate the literature you find for quality and relevance. The PROMPT criteria will help with this. You can consult the Evaluating the quality of information (requires login) activity for further guidance.

Organising information

When conducting a literature search recording the information you find in an organised manner is essential. Literature searches require you to read and keep track of many more articles than you would read for an assignment. You may want to try using a bibliographic management tool to help organise the references you have found. The library page on Bibliographic management will help you understand the different tools available.

The Library's Organising information activity will help you understand why it is important to organise information. It will also explain what referencing means and why it is so important.