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Physical Sciences: Literature searching

Literature searching

Image of a person at a desk with a pile of books. The face of the person is obscured by the blue book they are holding up and reading.Searching for literature is an important step in the research process, whether you are scoping out a research topic or conducting a full literature review. The University is home to millions of physical books, journals and special collections as well as millions more online resources. This can seem daunting if you are just starting to find your way around the literature in your topic but this guide will show you six simple steps to find information relevant to your work and point you towards further help from across the University. If you need help with your literature search please reach out to your dedicated Research Support Team and we can talk you through developing your strategy.

Step one

Define your search

Number oneThe first step is to define your search parameters. This will help you to narrow down exactly what it is you are searching for and where you are most likely to find it. What is the topic you need to find literature on? Is this for broader reading around an essay or are you conducting a formal literature review? Are you looking for a particular type of material or material that falls within a certain date range? You may not know the answer to all of these questions at the start of your search and that's OK. You can start with a general search and then narrow down your results.

There are many different types of literature available and each one is suitable for different purposes. Below is a summary of some of the main types of literature you will come across but this is not an exhaustive list and what you need will vary according to your project.

Most students and researchers will be interested in academic and scholarly literature as this is what they will need to read for their work. Scholarly literature has often been through quality control checks known as peer review prior to publication. This helps to ensure that the information shared is accurate and that any conclusions reached are based on sound data.

Other resources familiar to students include textbooks which provide a basic introduction to a topic and are good for refreshing knowledge of core concepts. These can be found by searching the iDiscover catalogue.

The University subscribes to collections of both historical and modern newspapers and magazines. Modern collections include titles such as the New Scientist. and are useful to keep up with the latest trends in research or to gain an overview of developments in a particular sector. Historical newspapers can be used to find out about opinions at a certain time, track the development of a particular approach or compile timelines of key events. Other primary sources are also available and Cambridge has a large Digital Library. with copies of archival materials not found elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest range of materials falls under the heading of 'grey literature'. This is material which is not formally published but still offers a wealth of information. Examples of grey literature include conference papers, theses, government reports, material from professional associations, policy documents and discussion papers. This material is often forgotten about but can be an invaluable source of up to date information, especially in particularly niche areas where there is little market for publication.

Depending on the type of research you're looking at you might find that you need to consult primary sources and documents from the time. This can also be useful if you want to see original documents in context. Cambridge has a large range of archives and digitised primary sources such as diaries and notebooks which are available on the Digital Library.

Step two

Develop your keywords

Number twoOnce you have defined the boundaries of your search you need some tools to help you find the information you need. Keywords are the backbone of the search process and allow you to find relevant materials without cluttering up your search with useless results. They are short words or phrases which you can combine in multiple ways to search for the sources you want.

You might already know some of the terms you want to search for but the tips below will prompt you to think more about this and help you generate useful keywords for your search. You might also want to use a keyword generator tool to help get you started.

Start by summarising your topic in a single sentence:

e.g. What is the effect of temperature on fluid viscosity?

Look at this sentence and pull out the meaningful words and phrases to start building your keywords. You can include both single words and combinations but remember to stick to the key concepts:

e.g. temperature, fluid, viscosity, effects of temperature, effect of temperature on fluids

The next step is to look at variations of the words or phrases you have identified. Adding these to your search will help you to identify sources on relevant topics which use different terminology. Some things to consider:

  • Synonyms – words or phrases that have the same meaning as other words or phrases. For example, ‘impact’ could be used as a synonym for ‘effect’. You might also want to try looking for broader or narrower versions of the term. This can help to either broaden your search or make it more specific.
  • Acronyms – if your key concepts includes acronyms you can search for these in both their abbreviated and full form, eg. NASA and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  • Related terms – a source may not mention the specific search term you want but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be useful. Try looking for terms related to your key concepts, for example when doing a search on ‘fluid’ you could also search for terms like ‘liquid’. Be aware that the definition of terms does sometimes evolve over time so you might need to take this into account when putting together your list. The word ‘tweet’ is a good example of this – it can mean birdsong but could also refer to sharing updates on Twitter.
  • Subject specific terms vs everyday language – are any of your keywords technical, subject specific terms? These are likely to get hits in the formal scholarly literature but if you want to look beyond this then you will need to use the common form of these terms as well. For example, you could search for both ‘viscosity’ and ‘thicknesses’.

Resources you’ve already found useful can be a great source of keywords. If you’re looking at online journal articles take a look at the tags for each article. These are often supplied by the authors themselves and can be a great place to pick up the current terminology. You can also look at the iDiscover record for resources. These feature something called subject headings which are essentially keywords added by publishers and librarians. These are often hyperlinked in iDiscover so can be used to find resources on similar topics.

It’s important to keep a note of any keywords you come up with. This doesn’t have to be anything complex, just a note of what the terms were, where you found them and whether they were useful. You can do this online in a text document or spreadsheet or just keep a note on paper – whatever works for you.

Step three

Build your search strategy

Number threeOnce you have your search terms you can start to use them to build your search strategy. You can do this by combining your keywords in whichever resource you are searching. Below you will find the essential steps to building a search strategy for your project.

Remember that each project will be different and you will need to adapt your strategy as a result.

There are many options open to you through the University Libraries, each covering different types of literature.

  • iDiscover – is the University Libraries online catalogue. It lists the physical collections of the libraries as well as ebooks, ejournals and content from Apollo, our institutional repository. It’s the best place to start when looking for known items or if you want to do a quick search. Although it lists journal articles, coverage isn’t comprehensive so we would recommend using one of the other search tools detailed below for articles.
  • ejournals and ebooks – the University subscribes to more than 1.2 million ebooks and 300,000 online journals. You can identify an ebook in iDiscover by the green text reading ‘online access’. The best way to search for ejournals is to use the ejournals search option in the top menu of any iDiscover page. It is often easier to search for the title of the journal first and then find your article through the journal home page.
  • Databases – the Cambridge Database A-Z offers a complete list of bibliographic databases accessible to current staff and students. Unlike other search tools, databases have a narrower subject specific focus. They contain peer reviewed academic materials although you may also find other content listed.
  • Apollo – is the institutional repository of the University of Cambridge. It contains both recent and historical outputs from members of the University including a dedicated Physical Sciences Collection. The repository contains openly accessible versions of current research papers, reports, theses, data sets and teaching materials and is an invaluable way to read around a topic and find ideas not published elsewhere.

There are also times when you might want to explore resources outside the University.

  • Google Scholar – can be a great tool for finding a range of sources and is particularly good for an initial exploratory search. It’s not comprehensive so works best when used alongside the subject specific databases offered by the University. If you are using google Scholar off-campus you may be asked to log into multiple journal pages. We recommend setting up Library Links or using a plug-in such as Lean Library to allow you easier access to material.
  • Preprint servers – these host versions of academic journal articles which have not yet been submitted for peer review. Authors post preprints on sites such as arXiv to gather feedback. They can be a great place to look for the latest ideas but be aware that these papers have not yet been formally reviewed and you may need to verify any claims.
  • ResearchGate and - these popular social networking sites have been used as a way for researchers to share their outputs but we would encourage caution if using them as a source of information. Anyone can register for an account and the materials uploaded are not subject to any type of quality control and are often in breach of copyright.

Boolean searching is a technique that can be used across different databases and search engines to make your search broader or more specific. It allows you to combine your keywords in a way that tells the search tool exactly what you want to search for using three short operators – AND, OR and NOT.

AND: find resources about two or more topics. The more terms you add with AND, the more specific a search will be.

e.g. Deserts AND Deforestation will bring back results about both topics.

OR: find resources which cover one of several topics, or any combination of them. If you have a search term that has multiple synonyms or uses an acronym, this is the ideal way to search for all of these keywords in one go.

e.g. DNA OR Deoxyribonucleic acid will bring back results that contain one or both of the keywords searched for.

NOT: exclude a particular topic or keyword from your search. If you are finding lots of off-topic results you can use NOT to remove certain terms.

e.g. Tidal AND Power OR Energy NOT Barrier will return results that include tidal, power or energy, but not ones that contain the word barrier.

You can use Boolean searching on both academic databases and public search engines such as Google.

Most databases and search engines are programmed to ignore stop words – common, insignificant words which appear in resources, for example a, the, are, on, in. The exact words that a database leaves out can vary so it’s always best to check the Help pages if unsure. If you need to include common stop words in your search it is a good idea to put your search term in quotation marks so that the database knows to search for it e.g. “the sound of music”.

Each information source you use will be different but there are some clever tricks to help you to find what you need:

  • Adding a question mark (?) to replace a single character means that you can easily search for different spellings. This is especially useful when dealing with a topic with lots of British and American spellings as you don't have to repeat the search several times to change S to Z.
  • If you want to replace more than one character you can use the asterisk (*) symbol. Called truncation, this allows you to search for several variations of a route word, potentially saving you time and capturing more results. For example, searching for child* will return items on child, childs, children, childrens and childhood. Remember that doing this will increase your results and you might find that you get too many.
  • It can be frustrating to search for something like global warming and find lots of results with no relevance. This is because search engines don't realise you are searching for a grouping of words or a phrase unless you tell them. By putting quotation marks ("") around the combination of words you want to search for you will get results where the exact phrase appears.
  • Have you ever been sitting in a lecture and heard a term mentioned but had no idea what it was? Adding Define: before the term in a search engine will bring up a quick definition. Remember to check where the definition is from and always look for another source of the definition if unsure.

If you are unsure where to start searching, take a look at the sources you are currently using or have found useful in the past. Look at the reference list in these items and take note of any materials which sound interesting. Do you see the same materials being mentioned again and again? This is an indication that these might be important sources on the topic which could be useful to your work. You can also look at items which cite the one you are currently reading. This will help you to find materials related to your topic.

Step four

Narrow your results

Number fourEven if you have used tools such as Boolean searching you may find that you are overwhelmed with results from your search. One of the most helpful functions many databases offer is the ability to filter your results to help you find what you are looking for.

Each databases or search engine offers a different set of filters but you can find some of the most common listed below.

Search for material published between certain dates. This is an excellent way to find the most recent work on a topic.

Select which type of material you are looking for e.g. journal articles, book chapters or conference papers. You can use this to remove results which are not relevant to your current work.

See results written in a specific language or languages. This can be useful if you want to track the impact of something in different countries.

If you know the names of some prominent authors in a discipline you can use this option to see only works they have created. Remember that you should explore a range of voices in your research, not just the same few researchers as everyone else. Author filters can also be used to remove common authors from your searches to give you a better idea of the landscape.

You can filter results according to which organisations have been involved with the resource or are related to it. You might find this option useful if you are looking at sources involving the development of an approach or intervention.

Step five

Evaluate your sources

Number fiveWhen you have used your search to find and narrow down your list of sources it's important to evaluate them. Critical reading and evaluation are two of the most important skills you will develop at university and they will last you far beyond your academic career.

Below you will find some areas to consider when evaluating your sources. Remember that this list is not exhaustive and you should always use your skills to evaluate any source you are considering using in your work.

Before you devote time to reading it you need to determine whether the source is actually relevant to your project. Sometimes titles and descriptions of works can be misleading or refer to a different aspect of your topic so it’s important to check relevance before you spend time reading. If the resource is a book or ebook, scan the contents page and introduction to get a better idea of the topics covered. With a journal article, look at the abstract and skim through the headings used in the article itself. If there is a catalogue record for the individual item take a look at the subject headings to make sure the resource is on topic. Finally, scan any references or look for items which have cited this one. If you recognise materials you have read for this project it is a good indication that this resource will be useful.

Although the search techniques outlined in this guide should help to filter out irrelevant resources you still need to make sure that the material you find is suitable for your research. It’s likely that most of the materials you are reading will be scholarly works such as academic books and peer reviewed journal articles but you may also find yourself consulting other, wider sources. Think about the type(s) of information you need for your project and whether the resource provides that. Does it present fact or opinion? Does it cover the topic in enough depth and at the right level?

Think about the author or authors of the resource. Are they recognised names in your field and do they have reliable credentials that you can trust? Did they have any kind of sponsorship or agenda? It’s perfectly appropriate for an author to argue a particular viewpoint but this needs to be balanced with an analysis of opposing views or schools of thought. If they have any particular vested interests such as sponsorship from a commercial company this also needs to be declared. You also need to ask similar questions of the publisher of the resource and check that there is no bias. Research published by a major industrial company may unfairly promote their products rather than give a balanced view.

Check how long ago the resource was published and whether the field has changed since publication. Some areas move incredibly fast meaning that traditional publications can sometimes lag behind. Remember that it can take an academic book months or years to get to publication so if you need current information you may find it better to consult journal articles instead.

Think about the audience of the resource. Consider if it’s written for an academic audience or a wider one and what this might tell you about any angle that it’s taking. Is the resource looking to reinforce a particular opinion that it’s intended audience has and what might this tell you about other biases in the piece? This is often the case with newspaper articles which cater to a specific audience with specific opinions.

Step six

Stay up to date

Number sixWhen conducting a literature search it's important to keep up with the latest developments, especially if you work in a fast changing field. A search only captures a snapshot of the material available at any one point in time and you may find that you need to repeat the search several times. Luckily there are several ways in which you can automate the process of staying up to date with the literature

Most academic databases will offer you the option of saving your search and setting up an alert for new content. You will need to set up a (free) account with the database if you don’t already have one but these alerts can save you a lot of time in the long run, especially if you are carrying out complex searches. See the help pages of each individual database for guidance on how to set up alerts.

The contents page of online journals is a great place to keep up to date with the latest content in your area but it’s impossible to follow them all manually. Journal TOCs is a free online resource which will send you an alert when new issues of the titles you specify are published. For many titles it also tells you whether the content is available via open access or as a preprint. You can find out more and sign up for a free account on the Journal TOC homepage.

Browzine is an online tool which allows you to find and read online academic journal content. You can browse journals by title or subject area or just search for the title(s) you need. You can also browse the contents of titles and set up alerts for items of interest. If you use the mobile app version of Browzine then these alerts will appear on your device. If not you will see them when you log into the tool. You can find out more and start trying it out on the dedicated Cambridge Browzine homepage.

You can use Google in two ways to set alerts for interesting content. To find information from any website you can use the Google Alert tool. This simply asks you to enter your search term(s) and your email address to receive an alert to your inbox any time matching items are published. If you want alerts about information in Google Scholar simply tick the ‘Create alert’ box which is usually found at the bottom of the filter menu on your results page.

Where do I start?

Want to know where to start your search? Try two of our most popular databases: Scopus and Web of Science. Guidance on how to use these can be found below but remember that you can always book a 1:1 appointment with our Research Support Librarian for more help.

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