How to conduct a targeted literature search

Kozzi-library_book-iconHighly successful academic writing requires two essential skills:

  1. a thorough understanding of the topic – its issues, arguments, theories, methodologies, and research results, in order to present logical arguments
  1. sufficient range and quality of evidence to substantiate your arguments, claims, or interpretations.

To achieve these two skills, you need to read a wide range of relevant references. These are likely to include journal articles, book chapters or sections, newspapers, magazines, and creditable unpublished documents, such as unpublished theses.

Email Bill Wrigley for any queries or further assistance .

Search Strategy Tips

There are several tips to help improve your skills in where, how and what to search.

Where to search

A good place to begin your online search is with Google Scholar. This is a comprehensive database containing journal articles, books and other documents with academic relevance. You can limit your search to a specific date range or to the more recent entries, such as from 2009 onwards.

You can also access the online databases in your university library. The most common are:

  • PsycINFO and Medline (Psychology and other social sciences)
  • Sociological Abstracts (Sociology)
  • ERIC (Education)
  • EconLit (Economics)
  • Worldwide Political Science Abstracts (Political Science)
  • PubMed, Mediine, Cochrane Library (provides reviews) (Biomedical and health sciences)
  • EMBASE (Biomedicine, Pharmacology)
  • ScienceDirect, Web of Science or Science Citation index (Science)
  • Biosis (Life Sciences)
  • PubChem (Chemistry)

How to search

First scan the title of the journal article, book or chapter or other document of each item in your search and determine if it appears, at a first glance, to be relevant to your essay topic.

If you decide the title seems relevant, next, read the abstract of the article, book or document (if it has one) to determine its relevance more accurately. If the description in the abstract convinces you it is relevant, save the PDF (where possible) to a folder of references for your essay that you have created on your computer.

Follow this process for each title in your search.

What to search

There are four important features of your search selection strategy that will ensure you maximize your ability to thoroughly understand your essay topic and present convincing, logical arguments. Make sure you select literature that is relevant for your essay topic, includes the most recent and up-to-date research, theories and issues, contains only reputable references, and your selection covers a range of sources.

Remember the four Rs: Relevant, Recent, Reputable, and Range.

Relevant references

Select literature that is central to your topic. Search for the key articles, that is, the ones that are as close as possible to your topic. Avoid spending time reading references that have peripheral or limited relevance.

Recent references

It is often useful to begin your search of recent years (for example, over the previous 1-5 years, depending on your topic) to obtain the latest, up-to-date developments and ideas on your topic. Although older references may also be important for your,  try to avoid selecting references based on literature that is mostly 5-10 years old or more (unless your topic is specifically about this period). This is likely to limit your development of a thorough and up-to-date understanding of your essay topic.

Reputable references

Select only references from your search that are reputable. Reputable references are those that are found in recognized books and journals, especially those that use peers to review each article (referred to as ‘peer-reviewed journal articles’), conference proceedings, reports, and theses and dissertations.

Using material from websites can be problematic and are best consulted with caution. Confirm that the website is from a reputable source, such as a recognized newspaper, for example, ‘The Times’, or reference websites, such as “The Oxford Dictionary’. Selecting websites, such as Wikipedia as a reference source citation in your essay is usually considered insufficiently reputable for academic writing.

Selecting reputable literature also means seeking the primary sources. Try to avoid selecting only the literature that reports on the key research, theories or ideas of others as your only or main sources for your essay. Although these secondary sources can be useful, seek out and read the primary sources where you can, and use these in your essay, otherwise, much of the information you rely on for your essay will be secondhand.

Range of references

The range of literature sources and types you select is also important. Selecting a wide range of material from journal articles, book chapters and other documents, both recent and old, and across a variety of authors enables you to read widely on the topic, helps you deepen your understanding of the topic issues, and makes it easier to write a convincing, logically structured document that is well-supported by evidence.

It is often useful to first search for the latest review articles and meta-analytic studies on your essay topic. These are very useful because they:

  • include a wide range of material
  • provide an up-to-date review of the main issues and controversies on a topic
  • provide a critique of the research
  • include a discussion of the various strengths and limitations of the research
  • offer directions for future research
  • provide a comprehensive bibliography that can give further reference sources.

Referencing Software

Your document or manuscript needs to contain accurate citations of evidence in the text and an accurate reference list according to the rules of the editing style you are using, such as APA 6th edition or Harvard.

The use of referencing software provides enormous advantages by making citation and referencing much easier, quicker and more accurate. The most popular  software are Endnote, Reference Manager, or Zotero. These can be used either on your desktop or online. Both free and fee-based software are available. Often your university provides it free via the library webpage.

If you do not have referencing software or are unfamiliar with its use, you can contact Dr Bill Wrigley to help you with the tips and tricks of Endnote.

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