Performing a literature review is a complex, iterative process that can develop and change throughout your project. Depending on your discipline and the requirements of your project, your literature search can be approached in a number of ways.In order to undertake an extensive and rigorous search of the literature (as is often required for PhD theses, it is important to do some planning before you start to search.
First, have a look at your research question (if you have developed it yet) or at the specific topic you wish to research. It is helpful to state your topic as a question that you want answered by the literature you will find.
Second, identify the two or three major concepts in your topic and make each concept the heading in a table with as many columns. List synonyms for each concept in the column below. If you need help with thinking of what to include, try doing some “quick and dirty” searching in Google Scholar or lookup some subject specific dictionaries to identify alternative terms which might be used for your concept in the literature. Reference Universe is a good source of reference books such as dictionaries and encyclopaedias.
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Your subject specialist librarian will be able to make useful suggestions about which ones are likely to yield good results. But it is a good idea to search widely – and you may be able to find this out for yourself. There will be discipline specific databases you can start with, but many multidisciplinary databases are useful to pick up articles from fringe area journals which might not all be indexed in the discipline specific databases.
Keep a systematic record of each search you do. Provide enough information so that you or someone else could repeat your searches. There are a number of ways you can do this:
- Print your search history – many databases have some kind of facility which shows this.
- Many database providers allow you to set up a personal account (eg: Ebsco and OVID) You can save your searches so you return to them later and/or set up alerts so the database will send you emails with any new additions of articles which fit your search.
- Record your searches in a table like the following:
Search terms / limits
Number of results
Number of useful results
Academic Search Complete
Such a table can be useful to demonstrate to yourself (and others) where you have searched and how useful each search was for your topic. It will also help you decide which search terms yielded the best results – and which databases had the most/best articles. It is useful to try different searches using the various synonyms (which could all be strung together with OR) and use a combination of Subject Headings (Controlled Vocabulary Terms) and Keyword searching for each concept. It can be surprising how different results can be when comparing results of subject heading searches versus Keyword searches.
You might also find it useful, when scanning through the articles in your result lists, to develop a set of inclusion and exclusion criteria. You may need to start checking through a few lists of results before you can identify what these are. These will help you to be systematic about what you are looking for within each article and you can continue to ask yourself how well the article is likely to answer your research question.
As you find useful articles, start adding them to your Endnote or RefWorks library. You can export them directly from the databases as you locate them. There are many things you can do to help organise your literature as you gather and read it – as well as assisting with Referencing as you write.
Citrome, L., Moss, S., V. & Graf, C. 2011, 'How to search and harvest the medical literature: let the citations come to you, and how to proceed when they do', AMWA Journal: American Medical Writers Association Journal, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 26-31.
Du, J.T. & Evans, N. 2011, 'Academic Users' Information Searching on Research Topics: Characteristics of Research Tasks and Search Strategies', The Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 299,299-306.
Jesson, J., Lacey, F.M. & Matheson, L. 2011, Doing your literature review :traditional and systematic techniques, Sage, Los Angeles, Calif. ; London.
Papaioannou, D., Sutton, A., Carroll, C., Booth, A. & Wong, R. 2010, 'Literature searching for social science systematic reviews: consideration of a range of search techniques', Health Information & Libraries Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 114-22.
Phelps, R. 2007, Organizing and Managing Your Research A Practical Guide for Postgraduates, London : SAGE Publiations.
Ridley, D. 2012, The literature review :a step-by-step guide for students, 2 edn, Sage, London.
Staying organised is important over long term research projects, where it could be months or years between starting your search and submitting the final document. We have some tips and tricks below that will help you spend more time researching, and less time looking for things!
It's a great idea to keep a record of your search history during your project. It ensures that you avoid duplicating the same search unnecessarily and can re-run a search you performed months or years ago. Search histories can be saved in individual databases, or you can record you searches in one place, for example see Search History Worksheet.
Data Management is important to ensure the security and safety of your valuable research data, but can also help keep your information organised and save you time.
At the start of your project, it’s important to pay attention to:
- Folder and File naming: Consistently and sensibly naming your files and folders from the beginning of your project – including articles you download and will save you time looking for the right document.
- Version control: Come up with a system of file naming, documentation or use technology to ensure that you always know which file is the most up-to-date version.
- Backing up: What can you afford to lose? A day? A week? A month? Accidents happen, so make sure that you have a system in place to regularly back up your work.
Learn about this in more detail with our Data Management Planning materials
Referencing software has a huge number of time-saving benefits and functions. It can help you to:
- Keep track of journals and resources
- Save a list of references while you search
- Automatically generate in-text citations and bibliographies
- Change between referencing styles
- Attach pdfs and your notes -> store everything in the one location
- Search documents - even in the full text of attachments
- Annotate and highlight the full text in EndNote
At the library we provide support for:
Start using a good note taking system early on. It will help you with your writing and very importantly help you avoid plagiarism. The Graduate Research School runs excellent workshops that cover note taking.
Save time by creating automatic alerts to keep up to date with new developments or resources in your field. We've listed a number of different alerts below and you can sign up to them through your email or using an RSS feed reader like Netvibes or feedly.
Set up alerts to receive the table of contents for key journals in your field each time a new issue comes out. We recommend using JournalTocs to subscribe to this alert via email or RSS feed.
Don't waste time repeating a search every couple of months! Set up a search alert to automatically let you know when new material is available. You can create search alerts in most databases and in library catalogues for books. They are set up differently in each database, so it is best to look for instructions in the help section of the database or Ask a Librarian for assistance.
- Web of Science - How to save your search history and set up a search alert.
Set up alerts for key researchers in your field to find out when they publish something new. You can set up these searches in the following databases:
Set up a citation alert to find out if a new publication cites a specific article. This can help you discover new research in your area and also can help you find out who has been citing your papers. You can create citation alerts through the following databases: