Top Ten Tips for Conducting a Literature Search


1. Know the difference between a topic and a research question

Your topic will be the broad subject you’re searching, a research question is a directed line of enquiry. Your search results should help you answer your question.

2. Develop an excellent research question

Think of a good question as being like Goldilocks – it shouldn’t be too broad or too narrow, but just right. You’re aiming for something specific enough to get results, but not so specific you only get a few, if any, results. You also don’t want thousands of results that you could never possibly look at.

3. Find your search terms

Once you have your research question, pull out the key terms that you’ll need to use when you search.

4. Think of alternates for your terms

Are there any synonyms for your terms? What about variant spellings (e.g. colour vs. color, or women vs. woman)? Use these when conducting your search to try and vary what resources come up. Also remember to be flexible, try searching using different combinations of your terms.

5. Consider how your terms should interact

If you’re using synonyms, consider using OR between them; this will help widen your search to include both words (for instance, HR OR Human Resources). By putting AND between two terms you can narrow your search to items that use both words. Consider putting any phrases in quotation marks to get exactly those words in exactly that order – otherwise your terms may appear in an item, but not near each other. Searching for “social media” should get you results on that topic, whereas search for social media could get you a report about the social life of a media personality.

6. Set limits on your search

In the “Advanced Search” area of most databases, you can limit your results to those that were published in a certain format (like books or journal articles) or in certain years (like the last 10 years to find only recent items).

7. Choose where to search

Although it may be tempting to only use Google, this often does not provide directed results. Try using LibrarySearch or databases specific to your subject area provided by the library. To find these, click on “Finding Resources” and then “Subject Guides” from the library’s homepage.

8. Evaluate your results

Make sure you’re only using good sources. This is especially important if you are using any webpages. Consider the CRAAP test:

Currency How recent was it posted or updated?
Relevance Does it address your needs? Think of your topic and the intended audience of both the webpage and your own document.
Authority Who wrote it and/or published it? Are they qualified and unbiased? For example, a study about the benefits of corn syrup that’s funded by the makers of corn syrup perhaps is not the best source.
Accuracy  Is the information in the source correct? If there are any obvious errors, it’s best not to use it.
Purpose Why was the information created and published? Is it intended to inform or to persuade the target audience? Consider who funded or published the page.

 9. Use the citations and “cited by” for good results

Once you have found good sources, use them! Look at their works cited page to see what resources the authors found relevant – these may work for you as well. Also use any “cited by” or “related to” functions of your database to see who else has used this research as some of that may also be useful.

10. Save your results

Once you have found articles that you intend to use, make sure you save them so you can cite them or refer back to them as needed. The best way to do this is to create a RefWorks account early, and use it throughout the search process.


For any additional help or questions contact the library at library@abertay.ac.uk