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Philosophy: Researching a Topic

This guide explains how to start researching your topic.

Where to start

Encyclopedia and bibliographies give a useful starting point to find background information on your topic. The most useful ones for philosophy are:

Finding Journal Articles

If you're looking for a specific article or paper, the easiest way to track it down is by using Philpapers. This is a directory of online philosophy articles and books by academic publishers. If the article is available online through the University's subscriptions you'll be able to get it by clicking on the title.

You could also try iDiscover. Select the 'Articles and online resources' radio button, then type a few words from the article's title into the search box. If the article is available online (and many of them are) then you should be able to get to it directly by clicking 'Full text available'. If it isn't online, then iDiscover will tell you where copies of the print journal can be found.

You can see the whole list of journals the university subscribes to via the iDiscover Journal Search. Other useful ways to search for journal articles include Google Scholar, Project Muse and JStor (this only covers some journals).

When you find a useful article, check its list of references to find more information on that topic.

If you're looking for articles on a given topic be careful with your search terms, and try synonyms if you're not getting the results you hoped for. You can:

  • Add a few keywords to the search box on iDiscover. You will need to be logged in first.

Alternatively you can search a database which just covers philosophy articles:

  • PhilPapers  
    A directory of online philosophy articles and books by academic publishers. It has some useful bibliographies by topic which make a useful starting point.
There are also some general databases which cover arts and humanities journals including philosophy. These include:
  • Web of Science Covers over 1,700 arts and humanities journals
  • Scopus Covers around 2,000 arts and humanities journals

There is also:

  • Google Scholar is a search engine for academic resources like journal articles, peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports.

    When you use a campus-networked PC, Google Scholar will automatically link to the University of Cambridge library catalogue and display articles where we have full-text access.When off campus, you will need to select Cambridge in the Settings option (under Library Links).

However, with Google Scholar it can be very difficult to ensure that you don't find far too much irrelevant material.


Searching for information

Step 1: Write out the topic of your research as a sentence

This might be the whole topic of your research or just one area or argument.

Step 2: Identify the important words

Identify the keywords and phrases from your sentence or question.

Step 3: Identify alternative terms

Think of possible synonyms, variant spellings and related terms for each of your key concepts. Consider whether there are useful broader and narrower terms relating to your topic. Encyclopedia and dictionaries can be helpful to identify useful terms.

Step 4: Think about ways you could limit your search

You might find too many references on your topic, so think about ways that you could limit your search. Most databases will allow you to limit your search in these ways:

  • Date - do you only want items published after a certain date?
  • Language - do you only want references in English?
  • Type of publication - do you only want references to journal articles, books, or theses.
Step 5: Think about where you are most likely to find relevant articles

More information on Philosophy eresources is available here.

You can use certain search commands that will improve the effectiveness of your search in most databases. Check the database help screens for more information.

Phrase searching

Use quotation (speech) marks to search for phrases where word need to appear next to each other (e.g. specific terminology, title of books and names). "Raven paradox"

Truncation and wildcards

Use a truncation symbol (*) to search for variant spellings and word endings  e.g. ethic* finds ‘ethic’, ‘ethics’, ‘ethical’...etc.

Use a wildcard symbol (?) to replace any single letter within or at the end of a word to search for variant spellings of words or plurals. e.g. Globali?ation’ finds British or American spelling

Search operators

Use search operators (also called Boolean operators) to combine your search terms. Type the operators in capitals.

AND (or +) combines search terms so that each search result contains all of the terms.

  • For example, ethics AND animals finds results that contain both terms. This makes your search narrower. Some databases automatically connect keywords with AND (not e.g. PhilPapers which you need to use a plus(+) to make sure words are included).

OR combines search terms so that each search result contains at least one of the terms. (Philpapers uses | instead)

  • For example, ethics OR morals finds results that contain either term. This makes your search broader.

NOT (or -) excludes a term, but if you're not careful you can also exclude useful items.

Combining search terms

Words representing the same concept should be bracketed and linked with OR. Groups of bracketed terms can then be linked with AND e.g. (ethics OR morals) AND animals

Once you've found some useful articles and assessed these, you may have to search again using different terms or a different database.

If the results are not on target you can:

  • Check the spelling of your search terms
  • Drop any unnecessary or misleading terms
  • Think of other relevant search terms that you may have forgotten
  • If you've found a few relevant articles, have a look at the keywords that the author has applied to it and the subject heading that it has been given.
  • Carefully(!) use NOT to exclude any irrelevant articles.
  • Look at other filters to refine the list of results.

Extended essays and dissertations

Examples of good extended essays and dissertations are available to consult in the library. Please ask for them at the library issue desk.

Some examples of dissertations which were awarded Firsts are available here.


For any material you consult it is a good idea to record what you find, and where and when you found it. This will make it easier to acknowledge your sources correctly and retrace your steps if you need to.

For more guidance see the Referencing guide.


For information about how to avoid plagiarism see The University's Referencing and Plagiarism webpages

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