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How to do a literature search

Before you can write your literature review, you need to find out what’s out there. To do this you need to do a literature search. Here are some tips to get you started.

Define your terms. The first thing to do is to define your topic or research project; or, if you have been given a set question, make sure you understand it. Ask yourself what the key concepts are. Compile a list of keywords – and synonyms for them – and this will help you to develop a research strategy.

Search creatively. When you’ve done this, you need to identify all the relevant information sources. This may include: libraries, indexes and electronic databases, and the Internet.

Use the library. Do you know what’s in your institution’s library that’s relevant to your topic? Make sure you do – it’s an obvious place to start so don’t forget it! Remember that every book and journal published in the UK is held at the British Library and you can do inter-library loans. Ask your library staff for assistance.

Journals. Remember that journals are the best place to find the most recently published research. And don’t forget that many journals are now online only publications.

Newspapers and magazines are a good source for current topical issues, although they are not always very useful for in-depth analysis. For example, if you are writing on a business-related topic you may find useful items in The Economist, Fortune and Harvard Business Review.

Don’t limit yourself to obvious sources. For example, libraries contain books and journals but they also contain unpublished MA and PhD theses that may contain research relevant to your topic. Similarly, make sure you do speculative searches i.e. try typing in ‘The Journal of [Your Topic]’ – you may be surprised what comes up.

Other less obvious sources also include:

Conference papers. These are collections of papers presented at conferences and, like journals, often contain ‘cutting edge’ research. These collections are published on the Internet, in special editions of relevant journals and in one-off books.

National and local Government publications. These include reports, yearbooks, White and Green papers, policy documents, manuals and statistical surveys.

Publishers’ websites. These sites often contain summaries of recent publications and the full-text electronic journals. Two sites that have comprehensive online resources are Emerald and Blackwell Science.

You should also identify and join online discussion lists relevant to your topic. A site like http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk hosts a wide range of discussion lists for the UK academic community. These lists are great ways to contact other people working in your area and are really useful for getting a quick answer to queries like ‘Can anyone recommend a book on X?’ They are also a good way of finding out what’s going on in your subject: people often post details of forthcoming publications, conferences and seminars – sometimes even jobs.

Databases. For many subject areas – particularly sciences and social sciences – there are online databases listing current articles.