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Literature Searching Resources

Useful resources to look at when starting to search for literature or writing a review.

Search effectively

While it can be tempting to launch straight into a search, knowing how to search effectively and planning your search before you begin (often referred to as a search strategy) will save you time, make your search more structured and ensure your search results are relevant.

Where to start?

undefinedStart the process by clarifying the research question you would like answered. And take into consideration what kind of literature you need to search for and any limits to your search.

You may have been given a topic or had to choose a topic yourself but in either case it is helpful to think of your research topic as a question. 

A good research question is manageable in scope - not too broad but not too narrow (think of Goldilocks, you want it just right). If your topic is too broad, you may become overwhelmed and find it difficult to organise your ideas. If your topic is too narrow, you may not be able to find enough information to include. 

It can be helpful to start with a broad idea, then narrow your focus by brainstorming related ideas. At this stage it can be useful to do some background reading on your topic or some general searches within DiscoverEd to read around your topic and get ideas. Think in terms of questions you want answers to, what do you know and what don't you know.


At this early stage it can also be useful to think about what kinds of literature or material you are needing to search for. This can help focus your search although it is likely you will will need to use a combination of different types of sources in order to fully explore your topic. 

Secondary sources - a secondary source has been created by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you're researching. Secondary sources interpret and analyse primary sources. For your research they are generally journal articles and scholarly books but can also include textbooks, reviews, commentaries, theses, conference reports and proceedings, TV programmes, documentaries, etc.
Tertiary sources - tertiary sources index or compile and summarise secondary and primary sources. Examples of tertiary sources can include dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies, etc. 
Primary sources - a primary source has been created during the time period being studied or was created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied e.g. a memoir. Primary sources reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. They enable you to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period. Primary sources can include diaries, correspondence, historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, newspaper and magazine articles, statistical data, speeches, audio and video recordings, art objects, etc.

Are there any limits to your search?

  • Time period 
  • Location
  • Language

And remember you may have limits on the amount of time you can spend on this.

Keywords are key

undefinedYou can use your research question to identify keywords for your search but you also need to consider alternative keywords that could be used.

Once you have your research question you should try to identify what the key concepts are. These will be your original keywords and phrases (search terms) that you will use to search for literature.

My example research question is:

To what extent does violence on television affect teenagers?


My key concepts therefore are:

  • Violence
  • Television
  • Teenagers

Think about different keywords to describe your subject or topic. 

It may help to do some background reading around your topic to help identify alternative keywords. And you may find it useful to use techniques such as brainstorming, word lists or mind maps to generate your keywords.


  • Synonyms
  • Related terms
  • Alternative spellings and variations in terminology
  • Variations in terminology over time
  • Abbreviations
  • Technical terms

It can be useful to think of both broad and specific keywords.



Where to search?

undefinedOnce you've thought of your keywords you then need to decide where you're going to search for literature on your topic.

In the main you will use the Library's research databases. The research databases allow you to search through millions of journal articles, book chapters and book reviews, reports and proceedings, theses, etc., at one time.

No two databases have exactly the same content so you should search several databases to ensure you don't miss a key paper on your topic.

If you know exactly what you're looking for e.g. a journal article, book, etc., then you should search for it in DiscoverEd as it searches both the Library's online and physical collection

However, ​you can also use DiscoverEd to do some basic literature searching, it can be a good place to start your search.

Google Web Search

Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature. From one place, you can search across many disciplines and sources: articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites. Like DiscoverEd, Google Scholar can be a good place to start your search but it does not allow for the advanced or complex searching you can do in the Library's research databases.

Access eresources using Google Scholar 

Google Scholar may not provide access to full-text, however, by linking to the Library you can access full-text where there is a University subscription. 

  1. Selecting Settings from the top of the Google Scholar Home Page
  2. Selecting Library Links
  3. Search for University of Edinburgh. Select it from the list and Save your settings

You will now see FindIt@Edinburgh links next to items in your Google Scholar results that you can use to access the full-text.

This short video below demonstrates how to do this.

Better searching - combining your keywords

undefinedIt's important to be able to combine your keywords together in different ways to ensure you are getting the best search results as possible. Boolean operators allow you to do this effectively.

To help you build a better search and allow for more accurate searching you can use Boolean operators to link your keywords. Boolean operators help you narrow or broaden your search results.

The Boolean operators are:

AND         OR          NOT

You use AND to combine different concepts. By using AND you're telling the database to only bring back search results if they feature ALL keywords. This will narrow your search.
You use OR to combine alternative keywords. By using OR you're telling the database to bring back search results if they feature ANY of the keywords. This will broaden your search.
You use NOT to exclude keywords from your search. This will narrow your search but use with caution as you may exclude useful or relevant material. The NOT Boolean operator is not used that much within arts & humanities.


Improving your search results

These are some of the techniques you can use to broaden or narrow your search results. Or that will help to increase the relevancy of the results you are getting.

Phrase searching allows you to be more specific and limit your search. With phrase searching you are telling the database to search for a specific phrase, rather than individual keywords. 

For phrase searching put quotation marks "" around the phrase.

E.g. "public health"   "First World War"   "genetic engineering"   "United Kingdom".


Check the database's help pages or search tips to see if phrase searching is supported, not all of them do and some will use something other than quotation marks.

By default most databases will search for keywords you enter against full records in the database, making your search very wide. To focus your search you can choose to do field searching, for some or all of your keywords.

Not all databases use the same Fields but common ones are:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Journal title
  • Abstract / summary
  • Publisher
  • Date / Year of publication
  • Subject

You normally have to go into a databases Advanced Search to do field searching. You can use the Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to combine your searches.

Field searching is possible in DiscoverEd if you click on the Advanced Search link.

Truncation allows you to look for all endings of a word. This is an easy way to broaden your search results.

Type in the stem of the word plus the truncation symbol and the database will search for all endings it can find for that stem.


teen* will look for teen, teens, teenager, teenagers.
entrepreneur* will find entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial etc.

While the asterisk (*) is a common truncation symbol not all databases use the same symbol. Check their help pages or search tips to find the symbol they use.

Wildcards are similar to truncation but you use them within a word and they tend to be used for alternative spellings. This is an easy way to broaden your search results.


organi?ation will find organisation or organization
labo?r will find labour or labor
wom?n will find woman or women

While the question mark (?) is a common truncation symbol not all databases use the same symbol. Check their help pages or search tips to find the symbol they use.

Chaining (or snowballing as it is sometimes referred to) is using one good reference to find others.

Let's say you have found 1 good journal article for your topic:

  • Have a look at the references they have used and follow up on these.
  • Has the article been cited since it was published? Are any of these articles useful for your research?
    • A number of databases will try to show you citations but Web of Science is the most comprehensive. DiscoverEd and Google Scholar also show some of this information.
  • What keywords or subject headings have been assigned to the article? Are there any that could be useful to add into your search?
  • Search for the author(s) to see if they have written anything else on this topic.

These are just some examples of how you can use one reference to find more.

SAGE Research Methods

SAGE Research Methods is a great resource to use when you are planning and conducting your research.

While it's more aimed at the Social Sciences it covers key research methodology topics that are applicable across subject areas. It includes books, case studies, videos, datasets and much more.

SAGE Research Methods also includes a project planner designed to guide you through a research project.

Study Hub - study skills resources

The IAD's Study Hub is a fantastic resource for taught students on academic and study skills. It covers advice on specific study skills topics, plus downloadable resources with useful study strategies. Skills and topics covered include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Reading at university
  • Time management
  • Effective studying
  • Making notes in class
  • Presentations and posters
  • Developing your English
  • Academic standards
  • Literature Review
  • Dissertation