How to search for literature?

One of the first skills we learn at the beginning of our university career is how to search properly for psychological literature. It reflects one of the first steps we employ conducting a psychological study and follows us throughout the entire research procedure when looking for additional knowledge.

The longest journey starts with a single step. A researcher would rather state: The longest research starts with a multiple literature search. Have you wandered from one database to the other desperately looking for a place to start with? Or do you never know when to end your search?


This post will give you an overview of some ideas where to start your search from, which sources to consult and how to find relevant and interesting articles in the mass of publications. Although we still suffer from the curse of limited online access to most journals (if you want to inform yourself more about Open Acces Journals our previous posts can help), there are still several ways to procure your desired articles.


Although this seems very obvious at first sight, finding a correct subject or research question of interest, is not as easy as it seems. There are two ways of literature search:

First, your research topic has already been limited to a concrete subject of interest. Thus, you can continue following the second point of this post.

Second, you only possess a vague idea of your research topic. Therefore you should locate your topic within a psychological field and check out a state of the art literature review providing you with an overview of scientific findings that have recently and generally been made within this topic. Search for authors and studies that have been cited or hinted at and the  snowball effect will help you multiply relevant information quickly. Never forget to collect controversial information, reflect critically upon results and collect a large variety of diverse information on your topic in order to overview your specific field better. The metaphore of a funnel might be adequate for your work. You collect as many information as possible and then limitate your focus onto a specific research question.


A good place to start from is Google Scholar. It gives you several ideas about what themes your topic could contain. Moreover, you can easily access it everywhere. More and more articles are currently accessible or listed via Google Scholar. Moreover, using Wikipedia to understand your topic always is a good source to start from despite its scientific sleaze.

As almost all libraries have acquired licences to international and national databases containing a variety of publications from a large span of journals. Examples of those databases could be  PsycINFO®, an abstracts database; PsycARTICLES®, full text of APA journal articles; PsycBOOKS®, full-text books, book chapters, and entries from the Encyclopedia of Psychology;  PsycEXTRA®, research from outside the peer-reviewed publication; and PsycCRITIQUES®, a full-text book and film review database.

Those databases are generally listed by subject category and will help you find resources in a wide array of psychological fields. The databases let you search by general topics or keywords. You can consult the Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms® to find the most current terms in the literature.

Type in key words you want to search for. Remember to check the Literature Reviews, Annual Reviews first. Skim through the abstracts of relevant articles. If you gather interesting ones, you can mark  them in order to store them in a specific folder. Exporting those articles and folders via mail provides you with a PDF of the articles such as its APA reference.

Moreover, you can contact the journal directly. In this case, you will have to pay for the use of their articles. Thus Open Access Journals incorporate the future way of accessing published research without a cost online.

Enough is enough

Collecting all those various articles the one more interesting than the other, how do I discover when to limitate my findings? There is no numerical answer to this questions. Nevertheless, these guideline questions might help you determine it:

  • Can you explain the theoretical background of your topic in an encompassing and coherent way to a novice?
  • Are there any questions that you have not answered to yourself?
  • Do you shed a controversial light on the state of the art literature?
  • Have all relevant research constructs been defined?

For some more information, check out this video: How to conduct literature review in psychology?

American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington DC: Author.

About the author

Sina Scherer Sina Scherer, studying at University of Münster, Germany, and University of Padova, Italy. I have previously worked as JEPS Bulletin Editor and am active in a NMUN project simulating the political work of the United Nations as voluntary work. I am interested in cognitive neuroscience and intercultural psychology, anthropology and organizational psychology (aspects of work-life balance, expatriation).