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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Doing a literature search

Help with finding, managing and using information from the Wolfson Library Team.


This page is aimed at students looking to go beyond recommendations and starting a literature search. You can try this in iDiscover, but you should also make use of the extensive online databases at your disposal. There is an A-Z database LibGuide to help you choose those most relevant to your subject area.  Most of the ebooks and journal articles indexed in these databases cost money to view. The university pays for access to a significant portion of this research. If you are off campus, you need to make sure you are logged in via Raven to get access to everything to entitled to. Always link via the iDiscover or the A-Z database listing, rather than just Googling the name of the database.

However, you may also find material on these databases that we haven't paid for and which you cannot access. The Wolfson College Library can buy books that we don't have, just fill in the Suggest a Book form, or you can get a copy of an article through the Inter library Loan scheme

You can also use free databases such as 1findr (peer-reviewed material) and Google Scholar. This indexes the widest range of material but doesn't give you access unless Cambridge subscribes to it. To find out whether you have access to online resources in Google Scholar, you need to set up Library Links. Watch the video below to find out how.

Search Strategies

When you don’t have a specific reference to help you find a relevant book or journal article you’ll need to conduct a literature search. 

  1. Define your information need: do you want to one relevant result or everything ever published in a field? The answer to this question will shape where you look for resources and the type of search you conduct. 

  2. Articulate your search terms: Think about:

  • synonyms e.g. survey OR questionnaire
  • alternative spellings. Wildcards are symbols that replace a letter e.g. colo*r finds colour and color  
  • ​word stems. Truncation symbols allow for different endings e.g. educati* finds education, educating, educationalist 
  • proximity e.g. qualitative n3 research, will find the search terms within 3 words of one another
  • inclusion e.g. juvenile AND courts
  • ​phrases e.g. "political geography" ensures that the terms are adjacent and do not appear in an unrelated way

Please note that the symbols you need to use vary between different databases. The University of South Australia has produced a useful document showing some of the variants.

  1. Select your tools: are you after a book by a renowned author held in Wolfson library, a freely available government publication, an e-journal article you can view on your laptop in your room, or a thesis to find out the latest research? You’ll need different search tools for each. We have LibGuides for different types of resource (or you can browse the A-Z list of databases.

  2. Evaluate your results: How many did you get? Do you need to broaden your search? Be more specific by adding additional search terms (use AND) or expand your search by giving alternatives (use OR). Limit them by country of origin, date or funder. Again, different databases will give you varying degrees of granularity.

Sample Search Strategy

Here's how a strategy could look. The research question "The social impact of nuclear power" is defined at the top and the grid breaks it down.

Entered into a database or search engine it would look like this:

nuclear AND (soci* OR commun*) AND (impact OR outcome* OR effect*) AND (power OR energy) AND NOT (weapon OR bomb OR proliferation)

Grid demonstrating how to construct a search on the topic of the social impact of nuclear power

Slides and Resources

Plan your own search strategy using this grid

Introduction to Academic Databases

Finding related resources

No search is perfect and it is likely that you'll end up with too many or too few results. If you have found a really useful book or article there are several ways of using that item to find related books and journal articles. Here we introduce Browsing and Citation Searching.

Use BrowZine to browse journal titles by their titles and to see those titles in subject areas of relevance to you. Once journals are found, they can be stored into a personal bookshelf, or online personal library, if you like.  BrowZine then updates you with new articles published in these journals and clearly displays unread articles new to your bookshelf.


When you find something that is relevant it makes sense to use it as a springboard and connect you to other related material. There are a number of ways to do this for books on iDiscover: 

Browse the shelves: Books are arranged by classmark. The classmark is a number that links similar material together. You’ll find it on the spine of the book and the numbers on the end of the bookcases tell you which classmarks are on those shelves.  

Use author search for related material: It is probable that an author has published more than one book on a topic. Scroll down to foot of the iDiscover record and look at the information under 'Details' (see image below - click image to expand it). Click on the author to find other works by the same person. If you start from the Advanced Search on iDiscover, you might want to add a keyword or date range to exclude authors with the same name.

Use subject headings in iDiscover: this is just like browsing the shelves. Each book is assigned subject headings (see below - click image to expand it). Click on these to find books on the same topic.

iDiscover book information showing clickable author and subject headings

Citation searching for related resources

This is a great way to find related material. You can either find out who else has cited the work you are interested in or follow up the resources that are cited in the bibliography.

Databases such as Web of Science can give you a greater variety of citation options. This screen shot shows that you can follow up 86 articles that have cited this article (AND are indexed in Web of Science), 53 references in the bibliography, and find related records. These are articles that share at least one or more references with the original. Some of these results will be in your original search, but many won’t because they don’t share your search terms (keyword or title, depending on what you searched for originally).

Google Scholar is well known for linking to the most citations because it indexes so many books and articles. You can see that for the same article as above, it finds 386 resources that cite it. 

Spotlight on Google Scholar

You will find lots (possibly too many) results on Google Scholar. So that you don't have to keep copying and pasting the titles in iDiscover to check for access, set up Library Links to let Google Scholar know which institution you belong to. It will then tell you if you have access to the resource. This video shows you how.

More information on searching Google Scholar is available from their page on Search Tips

Spotlight on Scopus

Spotlight on Web of Science

Spotlight on JSTOR

Lean Library - Library Access

When searching for articles and online resources off-site you may find that you hit paywalls and have to repeatedly copy and paste the title into iDiscover to check for access. Install the Lean Library browser extension for a solution to this problem. It integrates subscription access with the Open Access alternative.  Once installed, the extension will deliver the article in the browser regardless of where on the Internet the search is made.

Other types of resource - click on the arrows to move slides

Download our Academic Skills Literature Searching Guide

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