Searching the literature
Welcome to this module about how to find what you need in the academic literature.
Have you ever searched for articles on a topic and returned thousands of results... or none? Are you always defaulting to Google Scholar and wondering if there’s a better way of doing things? Are you starting to look into a new topic and feel overwhelmed and unsure where to start? Then this module is for you.
We’ll look at the key principle for searching the literature, summarised in this infographic.
Planning a strategy
It is important to search methodically, rather than jumping from one source to another. Spending a few minutes making a plan at the start will help you find all the relevant information as efficiently as possibly. Watch this video from the Engineering Library to learn how to create a great search strategy.
Running a search
Now that you know how to plan a search strategy, you are ready to start. Keep this guide from the Lee Library at Wolfson College to hand, as it contains reminders of how to articulate a search term and a useful grid to plan a Boolean search. In some databases the syntax may be slightly different, for instance proximity searching might be written with ADJn in one database, or Nn in another.
In this video by the Lee Library, you’ll see the principles we discussed applied in practice.
It’s time to run a search in your own discipline. Try a typical (badly structured) search term, and then a properly constructed term that apply to your research in a database such as Scopus. For instance, I might try
maternal effects in mice
Or I could try
"maternal effects" OR "parental effects" OR "indirect genetic effects"
mice OR mouse OR mus
Then consider the following questions:
In some cases, you will want to formalise your search further by running a systematic review of the literature, either for publication or for coursework. A systematic review uses an explicit method (including inclusion criteria) to identify, synthesise and evaluate all the published evidence on a topic. A comprehensive resource on conducting systematic reviews has been produced by the Medical Library
Before we move on, here is an opportunity to test your searching skills. Answers to the quiz are at the bottom of the page.
Which search term will return the largest number of results: ‘Tudor AND medieval’ or ‘Tudor OR medieval’?
Which search term will return the narrowest range of relevant results: ‘diet AND deficiency’ or diet OR deficiency’?
What is truncation?
How could you search for a specific phrase, rather than each individual word?
Why did the search term ‘theology OR belief OR creed AND Francis’ not return this relevant article?
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? Watch this video to explore some tools that will help you.
These are the answers to the quiz at the end of the section on Running a search. How did you do?