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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Searching the literature

Finding information is a continuous cycle involving Considering resources, Identifying search terms, Combining search terms, Using search tips to improve your results and Reviewing and evaluating your results.

Once you have decided what form your literature review will take, it’s time to start searching. The University of Exeter Lib guide on search techniques defines five key stage in searching for information (Figure 1). The first of these stages is considering information sources. Sources can be primary, secondary or tertiary in nature and each has its benefits and drawbacks. Primary information is original material, Secondary includes interpretation or analysis of other sources and Tertiary consists of the categorisation of a collection of sources. All are relevant to your review, but understanding potential biases and qualities is important. Most scholarly books and journals have underwent extensive peer review processes, whereas webpages tend to go through less scrutiny.

Next, it is important to consider where you searching. Google is fine, but in order to narrow your results to those of peer reviewed journals and books, using a search database specific to your field can help. There are a number of databases including Pubmed and Web of Science for science specific sources, or google scholar has scholarly pieces from all fields. We have included links to a video tutorials for these databases, but feel free to use whichever is most useful to you.

Once you have found a paper relevant to your topic, citation searching can increase your chance of finding related relevant sources. Citation searching is the process of using a paper to find additional, similar published pieces either using the bibliography of referenced papers or by searching for papers that have cited this particular paper in their own. Backward searching or bibliography mining involves researching the papers sourced in your chosen article as they will have included relevant papers but will not include any more recent sources than the date of publication. Many search databases including google scholar and web of science include a link to “cited by”, which will link to all the papers that have referenced your chosen source. This is known as forward searching as it searches more recently than the current source

Getting stuck?

You can book a 1:1 appointment with the library liaison team for advice and to help you make the most of the library resources. You can find out more and book an appointment on the Library Liaison LibGuide.

Whatever database or catalogue you are searching, without asking the right question you will never get all the information you’re looking for. In this section we will cover some useful search terms to improve your search results and save you time.

Firstly, make sure you are searching all the related keywords to your questions. For example if you are researching how small businesses fail, make sure to include failure, success, demise, challenges etc in your searches as different authors will use different terminology to describe the same issue. The same can be said for different spellings and acronyms or abbreviations. That way you can make sure you are finding all relevant sources. Start off by creating a mind map or word list of all the keywords in your chosen topic, as this can often help you include more terminology.


Use this worksheet to brainstorm and record your search terms.

Now that you have a long list of terms and ideas to search, we want to avoid finding irrelevant information as it will slow you down. This is where search terms come in. Search terms are words and symbols you can include in your search to improve the accuracy of your searches. Boolean operators are a selection of operators that can broaden or narrow your search based on the combination of terms you use. These are AND, OR and NOT. You can add these in between your search terms or use drop down options depending on the database you are using, and examples in the infographic explain their uses. Beyond this, Truncation and Wildcards broaden your search by including different alterations to a root word, and proximity searching includes searches where your key words are apart from one another. Finally, phrase searching using the quotation symbols allows for specific searches of key phrases, all of which are covered in the infographic, and database field searches based on authors or year of publication etc. For more information see the University of Exeter’s Lib guide on search terms.

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To improve creativity during your searches, an exercise from The Thesis Whisperer called the bedraggled daisy can often be useful. This works like a series of overlapping Venn diagrams that increases the connections you make between different concepts and key words. An activity sheet has been included to help you complete this exercise, where you add key words to each petal and use any two petals to create a new search field. Use your search terms to increase the accuracy, but connecting any two key words can create new links and potential arguments or ideas you haven’t considered.

There are closed captions on this video.

The most important habit to develop during your literature searching is good source storage and reference management. A reading and search log is important, but organising and storing your references will be vital during your research degree and allow the note taking and writing stages to run far more smoothly. Although you can save your references in a word document, or bookmarked, downloading a reference management software is highly recommended.

So you’re about to start collecting an endless list of papers, the most important advice any researcher will give you is to sort out a reference manager before you begin, get organised and it’ll be your best friend. Sure a basic spreadsheet or word document might work for a couple of references, but don’t become that friend with 50 tabs open and no system to remember which author said what. Reference managers are software packages that allow you to compile and organise your references whilst also using templates of referencing styles to import in-text citations and bibliographies directly into your word processing documents seamlessly! Many of these programmes are free to download and include downloadable word plug ins and web importer extensions that makes saving new references easy, with folders and search bars to make sure you stay organised. You can even download pdf files and make notes on the papers within the reference manager.

I personally wrote my undergraduate dissertation citations by hand and downloading Mendeley for my PhD (my chosen reference manager) has saved me so much time and confusion. My favourite feature is the in text citation option, as you can use the drop down list to start typing in the title, author or journal to locate your desired reference easily while you’re in the writing flow.

The University of Exeter Lib guides gives excellent summaries of the main reference managers used by most PhD students, but the important thing is you find one and stick to it, as trying to move all your papers over halfway through is not ideal.

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