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Engineering Library: Literature searching and reviewing

Information about the Department of Engineering Library, including information for researchers

Photo of telescope with a sepia backbroundLiterature Searching and Reviewing

A Literature Search is the act of searching databases and the internet effectively to find key literature on your research topic. A Literature Review is the reading and reviewing of a subject in the form of a written piece of work.

Searching for literature is an important part of the research process - whether you are just beginning to scope out a project, or conducting a full literature review for your dissertation.

This module will introduce techniques for planning your searches, places to search for information, and techniques you can use to find the most relevant results.

Why search for academic literature?

Searching for existing literature will help you work out:

  • What other researchers have written about a particular topic
  • What is known and what we don't know - this is important when trying to identify gaps in research
  • How your work relates to previous research
  • How your work is doing something new

Your search is part of your workflow

Study and research are iterative processes, which include searching for literature. This will be guided by your question or topic, which defines where and how you search. As you search and find items, you will interact with them critically, and take notes. These ideas will help you refine your topic further, and help you make decisions about what to do next.

The Engineering Library team offer support and training on literature searching and reviewing, so feel free to contact us if you have any questions. If you want to book a one-to-one supervision for more personalised support, please use our Booking Form.

To see what training is available this year please see our Training Programme


Skills for the Informed Engineer Digital Badges

Completion of the Search Profile activity in this module fulfils the requirement for the Information Seeker badge and counts towards the Informed Engineer badge.

Badges will be awarded at the end of each Term.

Planning Your Search

Before you start searching it is important to spend some time planning your search. This will include:

  • Thinking of a list of key terms to search for
  • Deciding what types of information you need (for example, are you looking for peer-reviewed journal articles or do you need industry data?)
  • Deciding where to search for this information.

Planning your search:

  • Will save you time, as you will have a list of terms to search for
  • Can help you refine your question or topic
  • Makes it easier to replicate searches at a later date

This video below gives an overview of how to generate keywords, strategies for searching databases, and some examples of searching specialist databases. It also gives advice on what to do if you have too many (or too few!) results.



Where to Search


If you are looking for known items, or want to do a quick search to find books, journals and articles (both in print and online) in Cambridge, iDiscover is the best place to start. The video below shows you how to begin searching on iDiscover. The iDiscover Guide provides you with more detailed information on how to make the most of this resource. 

Google Scholar

If you are doing a broad search or conducting multidisciplinary research, Google Scholar is an excellent resource. If you are using Google Scholar off-campus, we recommend setting up Library Links, as demonstrated in the video below:

Standards and Patents

If you need to search for standards and patents, useful information can be found on the Electronic Resources page.

If this is your first time using patent information, a good place to start is the WIPO guide to using patent information.

Finding Business Information

The Cambridge Judge Business School Library and Information Service manage many of these databases for their students and they are not automatically available to all University members. Visit the CJBS Database Guide for more information on the business and financial resources available  The CJBS Library and Information Service can be contacted at

Factiva is best for searching a wide range of international news outlets, by both subject and outlet. But reading the papers generally can be equally important.

The Cambridge Judge Business School Library and Information Service manage all of these databases for their students and they are not automatically available to all University members. The CJBS Library and Information Service can be contacted at

Databases search multiple sources to bring back references and abstracts of articles, books, chapters and so on. You can search the literature using keywords and filters, or look for specific resources using known information such as title and author.

You can see if we have online access to articles by clicking "find full text" on a record. If we don't have it, check the online catalogue (iDiscover) for a physical copy in the Cambridge Library system. If you still come up blank you might recommend the item for purchase or request it via Inter Library Loan.

Literature Searching Techniques

The following useful techniques will help you to make your literature searches more targeted, to maximise relevant results and exclude irrelevant ones. Keeping a list of the techniques you have used, and which ones were useful, will save you time when you come to re-run your searches or search elsewhere.

Try some of these techniques out next time you search, and if you have any questions about them, let us know.

Keywords are the backbone of your search, so plan them before you start searching.

  • Use synonyms to broaden your search.​
  • Consider international spellings (e.g. UK/US differences) and differences in terminology.​
  • Think about acronyms and abbreviations. Try searching both for the acronym and the full term.
  • Use both technical and “common” terms for specific processes, techniques, methods etc.

You will discover more keywords as you search. Keeping a list of them will help you plan future searches and provide you with an evidence base of which keywords were useful for you.

When searching in a database like iDiscover, Scopus, Web of Science etc., you can use the various Advanced Search functions to tailor your search to be more specific. You can also use particular words, called Boolean Operators, in the main search bar to combine and exclude specific search terms to target your searching. These Boolean operators are AND, OR, and NOT


AND: I would like to find resources about two or more topics.​

OR: I would like to find resources which cover one of several topics, or any combination of them.​

NOT: I would like to exclude a particular topic or keyword from my search.​

For example, if your search topic was tidal electricity generation, you may want to search for:

Tidal AND electricity OR power 

This would expand your search to find articles mentioning tidal electricity and tidal power. If you were finding lots of irrelevant results, you can also exclude words from your search. So, if you were getting articles on tidal barriers, you could search for:

Tidal AND electricity OR power NOT barriers

This would keep the initial search for both tidal electricity and tidal power, but exclude articles mentioning tidal barriers. 

Try these out when you next search!

Truncation searching allows you to search for multiple terms with the same “root”.​

​It works by using a wildcard character, usually an asterisk *

​For example, searching for Sustain* will bring you results for Sustain, Sustainability , Sustainable, etc.

Try this out when you next do a search!

Most databases automatically search for each word in a phrase as an individual keyword.​

For instance, a search for magnetic spectroscopy would search for all articles with the word magnetic and all articles with the word spectroscopy, which may not necessarily appear together in the article.

But you may only be interested in articles with the exact phrase rather than just the keywords, because you may be looking at a specific technical term or process.

​To search for only articles with the exact phrase, put it in quotes ​“Magnetic spectroscopy”. This will instruct the database to only search for this exact phrase. 

Try this out when you next do a search!

Activity: Build Your Search Profile

Building your Search Profile before you begin searching helps you to target your searches to be more relevant to the research topic, project title or subject area you are working on. 

On the form below, follow the prompts and at the end of the process you will have a beginning Search Profile which you can use and adapt as you progress.

Completion of the Search Profile activity in this module fulfils the requirement for the Information Seeker and Evaluator badge and counts towards the Informed Engineer badge. Badges will be awarded at the end of each Term.



Session Slides

Literature Searching Resources

A quite concise description of what a is Literature Review from the Royal Literary Fund.

Wolfson College and the CU Language Centre have individually put together comprehensive's guides on to how to do a  Literature Search and on writing a Literature Review.

The Language Centre guide has a lot of interactive elements, printables and an added focus on the best use of language in the writing of your review.

The Research Skills LibGuide covers literature searching among other skills.

For more interactive information the University of Manchester has put together a module on the A-Z of Literature Reviews

The University of London has put together some Advanced Searching techniques to make you a fast and effective searcher.

When you find something that looks like it could be useful for your research you need to assess it, The Ultimate Cheatsheet for Critical Thinking has lots of questions to consider when you are reading it. The Open University has a workbook that focuses on Critical Reading Techniques whilst Brunel University has some short videos on Being Critical, our own University Libraries have a 45-minute course on Critical Reading, all of these are much more in-depth.

For help with Note Making CamGuides has some tips.

Where to look

The Library team have a curated list of useful e-resources for students and researchers in Engineering. 

You can also find Engineering resources on the dedicated Engineering Sciences website.

For a complete list of e-resources, please visit the index compiled by the University's e-resources team.



The easiest way to track down a specific item is by searching iDiscover.

For guidance on how to use iDiscover most effectively, see the iDiscover LibGuide.

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