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Study Skills

Research skills

Online course for Cambridge researchers about publishing, managing data, finding and disseminating research.

Searching the literature

Welcome to this module about how to find what you need when searching academic literature

In this section we will look at the steps that make up an effective literature searching strategy:

  • Planning your search - working out what you want to look for and where you might find it
  • Carrying our your search - using different resources to find materials on your research topic
  • Evaluating your search and results - deciding if you have found what you need and how they are relevant to your research
  • Managing your results - using tools and alerts manage what you have now and what interesting new research might be coming out
  • Keeping up to date - using tools to keep up to date with new literature as it is produced and published

Academic information can take many forms such as textbooks, journal articles, datasets, software and much more. In this module we will be focusing on searching for journal articles through different services, including the many academic databases that are available to members of the University of Cambridge.

As every discipline will have slightly different ways of sharing and talking about research, we will be covering the fundamental skills around searching the literature. For more subject-specialist help, seek out the relevant library team via our Libraries Directory listings.

To complete this section, you will need:


  • Approximately 60 minutes.
  • Access to the internet. All the resources used here are available freely.
  • Some equipment for jotting down your thoughts, a pen and paper will do, or your phone or another electronic device.

Planning your search

As tempting as it is to start searching, it is important to take some time to plan out your search first, as spending a few minutes making a plan at the start will help you find all the relevant information as efficiently as possibly. There are a range of different techniques you can use for finding the information you need. Considering the techniques you will use and where you will use them can be described as developing or creating a "Search Strategy". Watch this video from the Engineering Library to learn how to create a great search strategy.  

Activity - Building your search strategy

Now you have had a chance to think about planning a search strategy, you could think about developing a search strategy for your own research question using our Search Strategy tool. This tool aims to provide prompts for you to build your search strategy to help plan your literature searching. At the end of the activity you will be given the option to email your search strategy to yourself so you have a copy to work from as you progress with your research.

Carrying out your search

Now you have a plan for searching, you can start putting your keywords into a database to see what you find. Remember, what you want to find will influence where you look for it. There are many databases available that cover many different disciplines at once, and others that focus down onto one specific area so consider using several resources together to get really good coverage of your topic.

One good interdisciplinary databases is Scopus. In this video by the Lee Library (Wolfson College), you’ll see the principles we've discussed so far applied in practice. Please note that many databases change how they look from time so if Scopus has changed since you watched this video, the essentials will be the same. 

Searching the grey literature

Sometimes you will be working on research that needs you to find what can sometimes be referred to as 'grey literature'. In a nutshell, this kind of literature is anything that has not been produced by a commercial publisher. It can include almost anything including working papers, reports published by government departments, theses and much more. Find these sorts of resources through academic databases is almost impossible as they are often not indexed there. However, many of us have a tool at our fingertips that we use daily to find information - Google!

Google is a very effective search tool, even though it still only indexes a very small proportion of the overall internet. There are techniques to get Google searching to work for you rather than you fighting against its algorithms. Find out more in video from the Biological Sciences Libraries Team!

Knowledge check - what have you remembered so far?

We've covered a lot so you can undertake a quick knowledge check. Answer the questions to see how much you've remembered. If you're not sure about a question, you can revisit the earlier sections to refresh your knowledge

Evaluating your search

Now you've been searching for a little while, it might be worthwhile going back to your original search strategy plan to see if it needs tweaking. What sort of results have you been getting?

You might want to consider the following questions as part of this review:

  • Are the results different to what you expected?  Why might this be?
  • Do you need to refine the search including additional keywords or using post-search filters like dates or topic?  
  • Are you getting too few results and do you need to broaden the search? 
  • Is the database suitable for this search, or would there be a more appropriate alternative?  

If you are struggling to answer any of these questions, it might be a good time to seek out a subject specialist. As a reminder, you can find a comprehensive listing of the various libraries dotted around the University of Cambridge with many knowledgeable people working within them who will be able to help.

Critically evaluating your results

Even if your search is as good as you can get it right now, and you're definitely using the best resource for your topic, have you taken some time to review the quality of your results? The concept of quality is incredibly subjective, especially depending on your research area. While some people may consider peer review to be a good indicator of rigorous research, others may be more sceptical of it as an overall process.

Consider using a critical evaluation framework to assess what research results you're finding and you can start answering questions around the relevance and quality of a particular piece of work according to your own individual criteria. There are many frameworks out there and the Biological Sciences Libraries Team have a short video looking at one of these called PROMPT from the Open University.

Managing your results

Once you have a set of results that you want to save and keep so you can use them with your research moving forward, managing those resources is a critical next step to ensure that you have them easily to hand and do not lose them at any point during your work. We would strongly recommend that you consider investing in a reference manager to do a lot of this work for you. In essence, a reference manager will help you save results as you work with options for cloud storage of articles, exporting as formatted references for bibliographies and much more!

There are a wide range of reference manager tools out there, with several being free to use, so while we may recommend a few do explore the options yourself to get something that works for you. For an overview of some of the main tools, please visit our Good Academic Practice guide for more information.

Keeping up to date

So far we have considered situations where you are researching a topic at a particular point in time, yet as a researcher you will also need to keep informed about new developments in your field. How can you make sure you capture important new research in the limited time you have available? 

With alerts and other such things, there are many options available, some of which we cover in our next video.

Further Resources

We have covered a lot of different things in this module, many of which can be expanded upon and gone into in a lot of depth with a subject expert so here are some resources for you to explore further.

For a complete list of all of the academic databases and resources that the University of Cambridge subscribes to, visit our A-Z Database guide

Visit our dedicated guide on carrying out a systematic review for specialist advice from the Medical Library team

For a comprehensive list of subject libraries across the University of Cambridge, visit our Libraries Directory to find someone to help you with your literature searching needs

There are many training opportunities for researchers across the University of Cambridge, with many sessions advertised on the University Training Booking System. Check it out to see if there is a literature searching session in your research area happening soon. If you can't find one that is relevant to you, ask a subject librarian if they have anything available.

Did you know?

You can self-report that you have completed this module to have it added to your training record. Simply visit the booking page and register.

How did you find this Research Skills module

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Image Credits: Photo by Daniel Lerman on Unsplash

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