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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 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: 

  • Are the results different?  
  • Do you need to refine the search by year or with additional key words?  
  • Do you need to broaden the search? 
  • Is the database suitable for this search, or would there be a better alternative?  


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.undefined

  1. Which search term will return the largest number of results: ‘Tudor AND medieval’ or ‘Tudor OR medieval’? 

  2. Which search term will return the narrowest range of relevant results: ‘diet AND deficiency’ or diet OR deficiency’?  

  3. What is truncation? 

  4. How could you search for a specific phrase, rather than each individual word? 

  5. 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?

  1. 'Tudor OR medieval' will return more results because it includes any article containing either of the two words. 
  2. 'Diet AND deficiency' is more specific, as results need to include both words. 
  3. Truncation uses an asterisk to include all possible endings of a word, for instance adapt* will search for adaptation, adaptations, adaptive, adapting, etc.
  4. Quotation marks will create a phrase search, so 'user experience' searches for the exact phrase, rather than any results including 'user' or 'experience'.
  5. The search term was not inclusive enough, so none of the key words in the term appear in the title or abstract of the paper. It would have been better for example to include truncation, as Francis* would have included Franciscan. More key words such as doctrine should have been included. 

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