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Advanced literature searching skills: Introduction


lost found searchingThis tutorial was designed as part of the UG to PGT programme but it can also be used as a standalone tutorial for any student.  We're going to look at the advanced skills you'll need for literature and information searching. Keep a look out for the Test Yourself Quizactivities located throughout the tutorial.  You'll learn the following key skills:

  • How to use Internet sources more effectively and identify high-quality information sources, such as a university library's expert databases. 
  • Planning an effective search – choosing keywords, considering synonyms, alternative spellings, using search syntax, Boolean logic and truncation.
  • Working with the results – filter, sort and evaluate suitability, find new keywords and amend searches – taking a strategic approach.
  • Managing search results and exporting references e.g. creating saved searches and alerts; exporting references to bibliographic software.
  • Creating and managing citations and references – manually creating references or using 'Cite While You Write' (CWYW) EndNote with Word.

Let's begin with an introduction to the literature searching process and consider the importance of defining your research question. 

What is a literature search?

literature search is an organised way of finding articles and other publications for your assignment. boy binoculars
You'll have done some literature searching during your studies to date, but at Masters level, you'll be expected to undertake a more independent approach to information gathering. Developing sound skills now will help you not just at university, but throughout your life. Here is an example of the kind of approach to take:
Define your research question(s)
Choose the databases in which to carry out your search(es)
Your librarian will usually have grouped subject databases together with some information about the remit and strengths of each one to help you choose. If in doubt, read the 'about' section of the database to learn more.
Design your search strategy/ keywords according to the resource being used
The kinds of expert databases provided by university libraries are generally indexed and have preferred search terms that they want you to use in a thesaurus. Check out the 'help' sections to learn about this or ask your librarian if you are unsure how to access this information.
Conduct search(es), evaluate results
If you can get your search strategy right early on, it will save you time in the long run as you'll avoid reading a lot of irrelevant literature.
Refine search strategy and repeat as necessary
Take a look at the first few results: how many of them are really relevant?  If the answer is 'not many', go back and try a different search strategy.
Keep a record of your searches and the references you've found
Keeping track of which databases you have searched and the search terms used will help you to avoid wasting time by repeating the searches at a later date. You usually need to register and login to a database to save your searches online. It is well worth taking the trouble to do so.

Define your research question(s)

Before you login to a database to begin your search it's crucial that you analyse your topic, breaking it down into a number of chalk board research questions.  

Take, for example, this topic:  Are biofuels the answer to falling oil reserves?

You could type this sentence into a database search box, but that is seldom helpful, as the sentence may not contain the most appropriate keywords. Also this single sentence is unlikely to encompass everything that you want to find out. You need to break down the topic into a number of separate questions and then look for the answers. For this example here are some of the questions you could ask:

  • What is a biofuel?  
  • How are they made?
  • How much of our fuel is already from biofuel (market share)?
  • Could we make enough to replace oil and/or gas?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using biofuels compared with oil and gas?
  • Could we use biofuels for transport?
  • What is UK government policy relating to biofuels?

You may find the answers to all of these questions using a single search engine such as Google Scholar or a single Library database, but you are more likely to succeed if you match each question to relevant resources.


Let's move on now to 'starting your search'next page