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Advanced literature searching skills: Starting your search

Starting your search for information

We all use the Internet in our everyday lives and it can be a useful starting point for your assignments, providing you then move on to the extensive collection of Library subscribed resources to help you excel in your studies.

Remember that anyone can be an author online so you need to be especially careful to judge the quality and relevancy of the materials you find.  Fake news is on the increase and you'll need to be aware of biasedunreliable and out of date information. (If you feel you'd like some extra support with evaluating what you find or pulling your sources together to formulate an argument, the Skills Centre has covered this in a tutorial, see the section entitled 'Critical reading to critical writing'.)

The following short videos have been designed to help you to think about the kinds of information you will be using during your postgraduate degree course before you even begin it. Video One looks at the various types of information you can use and their relative merits.

Video two guides you through the process of using Internet search tools more effectively and researching authors before you begin your course.

Video three givees you pointers about how to evaluate the information you find via the Internet to determine whether it is an adequately credible source.

Choosing a Library database

PlanThe best database to search depends on the question you are asking. There are two things to consider:

1.  Does the database cover my topic?

Some databases index the literature from various subject areas, others are more specialist. You will normally choose a database from your own subject area but this depends on what you are investigating. If you are researching a multidisciplinary area such as environmental science you may want to choose a database that covers more than one subject, such as Web of Science or Scopus.

2.  What type of literature or data do I need to find?

  • Books are most useful for definitions and background information or to get an overview of a topic.
  • Academic journal articles and conference papers are most useful for up-to-date, in-depth research.
  • Trade press, news and magazine articles can be valuable for industry perspectives. 
  • Statistics or market research may be useful.
  • Depending on your topic, you could also consider searching for patents, standards, reports, theses.

Note that of the above, only academic books and journals are subject to peer review. The peer review process involves materials being checked by another expert in the subject area - this helps to ensure that the resulting publications are of high quality. 

Different databases cover different types of literature and data. We're going to concentrate on searching for academic journal articles


Types of journal articles

There are different types of journal articles.  magazines

Primary literature

Some articles contain original data from research projects: these are referred to as primary literature.  

Secondary literature

In a review, the author has selected the most important primary articles and given an overview of the key developments on a topic.  This is referred to as secondary literature. Review articles can be very useful when you are investigating a topic that is new to you as it gives an overview of the subject and the key literature. 

Most library databases allow you to filter for different types of journal article, including review articles.



Library databases vs Google Scholar

weighing scalesGoogle Scholar is a free index to journal articles from Google that's easy to use. 

When searching for a topic, Google Scholar results may appear to be more relevant than those from a library database.  This is because it ranks results using an algorithm which includes the frequency with which your keywords appear.  Library databases often rank results in order of date, with the most recent first.

The problem with Google Scholar is that you don't know what it is indexing, so you don't know exactly what you are searching. With Library databases you can find out exactly which journals or other content they index, so they are more transparent and reliable. 

Google Scholar normally returns a large number of results and you cannot guarantee that the key papers will be at the top of the list.  Library databases give you much greater flexibility for searching within the results to identify key information.  So, Scholar is a good starting point for a quick search, but we'd usually recommend using Library databases for more serious research, which is why we invest so heavily in them on behalf of our academic community. 

Example Library databases for finding articles

Logo for Scopus databaseThis is only a tiny selection of the 100+ databases on offer in the Library.  Logo for Business Source Complete databaseLogo for ACM Digital Library

logo for web of scienceLogo for APA Psycnet databaseLogo for IEEE Xplore database


Next we'll look at 'choosing keywords'