Tips for effective literature search

Regardless of whether you’re writing a short course paper or your thesis, you’re expected to have an overview of pretty much everything published in that particular field. The internet is vast and there are several databases and search engines to find literature.  Still, how to reach the right articles and books and to be sure not to miss out on something relevant? Here’s what you can do to ensure you know the most important and recent findings in your field.

1. Plan and track the search
Everyone knows how to Google, the key, however, is to search systematically. Before you begin, you should know what you look for–identify the likely keywords and the combinations of them. Furthermore, you should also include synonyms to these keywords in your search. Say you are interested in prejudices against elderly. Searching with these keywords will yield quite some results but consider using words like stereotype, bias, hostility and such for prejudice and seniors, aged for elderly. Also combining both and searching for ageism may also be reasonable. In addition, be sure to include of any spelling differences (is it favourable or favorable? Organisation or organization? Connection or connexion?).
Also, knowing to use some Boolean logic may make your life easier (see an illustrated summary). Finally, you should keep track of the search results to have an overview of your findings. You can start off by typing in the keywords and recording how many hits each yields in each database (Google, Google Scholar, EBSCO, ISI Web of Knowledge, etc.). For example, searching “elderly AND prejudice” in Google Scholar has 58 300 hits while Scirus gives 81 302 hits. In the next rounds, you should narrow it down by adding more restrictions to the search, for example filtering the results to have the keywords appearing in titles only or in abstracts only, you can specify some date range (published later than 1990) and so on.

2. Record key findings
Now that you know which keyword gives how many hits, you can take one step further and start browsing through the hits. Again, mark down all relevant information you find. Consider setting up a spreadsheet where you mark in which database the article was found, whether you can access the full text and any other notes regarding the article (general coverage, supporting one specific theory, study using a special method, done on some specific sample etc), anything that would help you to assess the relevance and ease of access of the article later on. This job may be easier (and automatic) when using a bibliographic software (see the JEPS Bulletin post for some free software). As you get into single articles, don’t forget to check the citation indices (see ISI Web of Knowledge for one example)—they track who cites whom and it is likely that the relevant article you found may be cited by other articles that may also be useful for your research. Some libraries may provide the SFX software for this, so be sure to click on that button in your searches to dig even deeper.

3. Obtain the findings
So you found the relevant article or a book. Good. Now try to access it: does your library have it or should you order it from another one. Is the book in print or already out of print? Checking out book stores and second hand book shops may help, too.  Also, see the tips JEPS Bulletin has provided on obtaining articles to which you have restricted access.

4. Keep yourself updated with the findings
Doing a search early in the project will give you a solid foundation to start writing the paper but it’s also important to know the latest advancements in the field you are concentrating on. Conducting such a search regularly make take a better half of your working time, so make it easier for yourself by ordering the table of contents from the journals that publish articles that are most relevant to your field (see APA notifications for an example), use RSS feeds to keep track of anything published in websites hosted by organisations that your work may be relevant to (WHO, UN etc). Finally, it might be good to have an overview of the conferences occurring in your field. Even if you cannot attend the event, they are likely to publish abstracts on the presentations (which usually include latest advancements in that particular field). Again, you can do this systematically to be sure not to miss out anything relevant. Why not set up another spreadsheet identifying the key sources, the date of latest access and any comments you might need to store. Also, consider setting up a Google Alert for the keywords you’re most interested in.