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Science 299

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Conducting a literature search

What is a literature search?

  • A literature search is a methodical search for all (sometimes a subset) of the literature published on a topic. 
  • An effective literature search demands an organized and systematic approach. A haphazard search will ultimately prove unsuccessful and of little use. 
  • Before beginning a literature search, you must develop a search strategy.

Developing a search strategy

  • Define your topic -- narrow down your research question
  • Identify the type of literature you're looking for (primary research, systematic reviews, research reports, policy documents, books, etc.)
  • Identify resources to search (databases, government or organization websites, library catalogs, etc.)
  • Develop keywords (search terms) that are logical and relevant to your search
  • Determine the scope of your search (what will you search for? What will you exclude from the search?)
  • Design a way to keep records for what you find 

Literature sources

  • Library databases
  • Government websites
  • Organization websites
  • Literature presented at conferences
  • Newspapers
  • Statistics
  • Patents
  • Books

Identifying keywords

  • Keywords have to be logical and directly related to your specific topic. Vague words like relationship, pros & cons, effects, etc., should be discarded as they can relate to any topic. 
  • Choose nouns instead of verbs, to make your searches more relevant. Databases work best when you use only nouns
  • For unambiguous topics, you can use phrase searching (a phrase in quotation marks), such as "universal health insurance"
  • Use Boolean operators (AND, NOT, OR) for more specific searching:   meiosis OR mitosis; "composite hydrogels" AND "phase separation"
  • As you look at your results list, you may be able to pick up more key terms to use in searches, for even more targeted results

Additional search strategies

  • Searching the reference lists -- look for possible sources in relevant articles you have found by reading their reference lists
  • Searching authors -- if you find many key articles by the same author, you could run an author search to see what else the author may have published that would be relevant to your project
  • Read journal tables of content -- check the tables of contents of journals that contain a relevant article to see if there may be more

Finding sources: Books

Books can be very useful to your project by providing background and context in a form that may be more easily understood than what is provided in articles.  Use the link below to learn how to find books.

Finding sources: EBSCO portal

  • Go to the EBSCO portal
  • Input your terms in the first search box
  • Input "chemistry" in the second search box, and select SO Source from the drop down menu. This ensures that the journals in the results list are all chemistry journals.

search box example

  • Click Search
  • Refine results by using the limiters on the left hand side of the page.
  • If an article is not fully available, request it from the library by filling out this form

Finding sources: Other databases

Finding sources: Journals and other resources

Finding sources: Patents

Patents can be another useful source of information for your project. Follow the link below to learn how to find patents.

What if I can't find any research?

If you run searches and can't find anything about your topic, this may be because:

  • You have not framed your topic correctly -- you will need to think some more about your approach to the assignment
  • You have not used the right keywords -- try other keywords, or work with a librarian
  • Research about your topic is old -- change the year ranges to several decades back (example: 1940-1975)
  • There is no research on your topic -- not every topic is of interest to researchers, so there may not be any research about your topic.  Discuss the issue with your instructor, and consider changing your topic.

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