Finding information - literature searching

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Learning Objectives

One of the very first steps in beginning any research project is figuring out what you're going to write about. It sounds easy but once you set to work on your project, you may discover that you have many unanswered questions about getting started with a topic and finding 'research' to support your arguments.

This tutorial will provide you with an overview of how to choose a topic, determine the nature and amount of information you need, and select which sources to search for information. By the end of this tutorial, you will be able to:

   * Identify various methods for finding a topic
   * Identify the key concepts within a given research question
   * Describe different types and sources of information
   * Distinguish web search engines from article indexes/databases
   * Create an effective search strategy
   * Define key terms related to the research process

Defining Your Information Needs

Once you have chosen a topic for your research paper, you may feel ready to search the library catalogue or the Internet for information. But if you want to save yourself time in the long run, you should take some time now to prepare an effective search strategy. Developing a search strategy involves examining your research topic and determining the type of information you need, the amount of information required, likely sources of information on your topic, and the best order in which to approach these information sources.

Information Types

The type of information you need depends on the course in which you are enrolled, your research topic, and the nature of your assignment. Once you have determined the types of information you need, you will be better able to select the information sources that are most likely to contain that information. If you have any doubt about the type of information you need, be sure to talk to your instructor and/or a reference librarian.

Here are some examples of questions you might want to ask yourself regarding information types:

  1. Is the information required for your assignment scholarly, popular, or both?
  2. In which general discipline(s) (e.g. Sociology, Psychology, Biology, History, etc.) is your research topic situated?
  3. Do you require current information, historical information, or both?
  4. Does your topic have a geographical focus, e.g. are you interested only in a Canadian treatment of your subject?
  5. Do you need an overview of your subject, very specific details about a certain aspect of your subject, a combination or something in between the two?
  6. Do you need primary sources or artifacts? Primary sources include statistics, research reports, letters, diaries, and minutes of meetings. Artifacts are secondary sources - usually books and periodical articles. Or do you require both?

Amount of Information Required

Before you start your research, you should be aware of the amount of information you require. Are you expected to have read virtually everything that has been written on your subject or do you simply need a few authoritative sources to support your arguments? If you are not sure what is expected of you, ask your instructor.

Remember that time is an important factor when you are doing research, especially when you are writing a paper that requires you to read a large number of sources. It may happen that your library does not have all the materials you need for your assignment, in which case you may be able to obtain these materials from another library via Interlibrary Loan. Whether or not you will require materials from outside your institution, the best way to avoid disappointment is to start your research early! Not only will this give you more time to gather research materials, but will also give you more time to read, analyze, and synthesize information you gather into a cohesive paper, report, or presentation.

Likely Information

Finding Information - Literature Searching

In order to undertake research, one has to be familiar with what scholars reverently refer to as "the literature." "The literature" is the body of scholarly work which focuses on the topic of interest to the individual researcher. When people refer to a "lit review" they are making reference to an essay or report which reviews the body of work on the topic they are developing.

The first step that all researchers take when they are scoping out a study or a subject is a review of the literature which is often a big challenge. What work has been done on this subject? Where is it located? How will I find it? Unfortunately, the world of academic reflection does not have one uniform filing cabinet with a specified filing system that all and sundry use. Information is spread wide and far, and bringing it all together to assess or review is a big and exciting challenge.

There are a range of strategies which make this task simpler. This module focuses on strategies to help locate information.

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What counts as "the literature"?

Research is published in a variety of sources. Initially it may be published in a journal, and later be reproduced in an encylopaedia, a text book, in trade magazines and on web sites.

What do you know about sources of information?

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What are the features of an academic journal and why would you consult one?

An academic journal is usually discipline-specific, and quality-controlled. Research articles submitted for publication in an academic journal are usually subjected to peer-review, or scrutiny, by one or several experts in the discipline, prior to publication. This review by experts attempts to ensure that the material published is valid, the argument sound and the theoretical basis robust.

Journal articles contain references to other work in the field. You should use a journal for serious academic information about a field that has been reviewed by the disciplinary establishment.Check your answer

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When are books useful in finding out about research?

Books are useful when timeliness is not a concern. Publishing a book takes much longer than publishing a journal article, so most researchers will report their work in journals first. And, there are a wide range of kinds of books.

Trade books are published for a wide public audience, and are designed to sell, rather necessarily than to inform.

Academic books, on the other hand, are published by university presses and use a review process to ensure that the material they contain is robust and reliable. An academic books may be written by one author, or be an edited collections of work from several authors. The content and level of language is very similar to that contained in journal articles. Reference books are prepared for all levels of readership, from school children to university professors, and may include encylopaedias, dictionaries, almanacs and reports.Check your answer

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Are websites good sources of research information?

Web sites are fantastic for the ease of searching they present the earnest researcher. However, a web page can be developed without any quality control at all. All it takes is a bit of technical knowledge, and a payment for a domain name, and anyone can put information on line. The information may be presented in a way to make it "look" valid, and yet, it may be totally unreliable. However, not all web sites are unreliable, and many provide an excellent source of information. How can this be? The information published on web sites may go through quality assurance processes elsewhere. For example, an article that has gone through a full peer-review for publication in a paper journal may also be reproduced on-line. Respected scholars may use the internet to publish their work and ideas as well because of the ease with which it allows them to disseminate their views. The challenge is determining whether their work is valid on your own, without the assistance of the peer-review committees. Clues to reliability could be contained their affiliation with respected organisation and citations to their work from other respected, and quality assured sources. Check your answer

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What are other sources of information that we might consult to find out about "the literature"?

There are many other sources of information outside of journals, books and the world wide web. These may include organisations, individual researchers, unpublished theses and reports, conference procedings, handbooks, indexes and monographs. Newspapers, magazines and other trade publications may provide you with some background information, but are sources of journalistic, rather than research information.Check your answer

How to locate literature?

There a numerous places that literature is held. Books and journals are held in libraries, and libraries have catalogues enabling you to determine which titles they hold. Furthermore, if your own library doesn't have the journal or book you are looking for, they will be able, in most cases, to "interloan" it, or request a temporary loan from a partner library elsewhere in the country or in the world. Other documents can be held in archives, in on-line facilities, or on the world wide web. Some journals, for example, will be printed up and stored on the shelves of the library, but will also have full-text on-line editions.

Visit and scan the range of academic journals which are completely available on-line.

But when you start a literature search, you probably don't even know in which journals or books the information you are trying to locate is contained. So how do you start?

Search strategies

What is a search strategy?

A search strategy is a systematic method for taking an idea, transforming it into a searchable question, and implementing a plan around this question for locating information.Check your answer

Boolean search strategies

George Boole was a nineteenth century mathematician and philosopher who developed a system of logic which is utilised in searching for information. It uses the algebra of sets, with operations of union, intersection and complementation to identify articles which contain common and unique terms from various sets.

Boolean search strategies form the basis for almost all database and catalogue searches available in our libraries and on our computer desktops. To perform a Boolean search, you establish sets of information and then search for how these sets may overlap and complete one another.

There are four steps to the Boolean search which we will review on the subsequent pages of this module.

  • Identify a searchable question,
  • Break the question into its component parts, and find synonyms for the parts of the question,
  • Search each term separately,
  • Combine the search sets to find the most relevant sources of information.

Identify a searchable question

Let's say you are interested in a particular topic, like deep vein thrombosis in long haul air travel. You are wondering whether there is any research to support wearing elastic socks to prevent getting thrombosis while travelling. Rather than reading the promotional brochure provided by the elastic sock manufacturer, you would like to understand exactly what the literature says, and perhaps you'd even like to do your own mini-study on the subject when you travel to Europe next summer with a group of 30 other students. At the base of all research is a clear question, and from this question will emerge your search strategy.

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Formulate a research question for this topic

Do elastic socks prevent deep vein thrombosis in long haul airplane passengers?

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What is a research question you want to ask for your own purposes? Jot down a question that you might ask so that you can build your search strategy skills.

Define the search terms

Once you have a question, you need to look at it critically and determine how many parts it has, because each part will become a search term in your Boolean strategy.

Consider the previous question: Do elastic socks prevent deep vein thrombosis in long haul airplane passengers? How many parts does it have? Q parts.JPG

You will be putting each one of component parts into a search engine to locate results. However, the challenge is that sometimes the authors of research will use different terms than you will to refer to the same concepts. To reduce the impact of this, you will need to make a chart with each of these terms, finding as many words as possible that others might have used to describe the same concept you are searching. Your chart needs to include terms that are more specific and more general.

For example: Here's what your chart might look like:

Expanded parts.JPG

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Think about your own question: What are its component parts and what are some ways other people might refer to these terms?

Choose your database and search each term separately

Databases are organised sets of information. We use common ones every day, like music libraries and telephone books. But, in the academic setting, there are databases for a range of disciplines which organise research material in an electronic index. Some databases are freely available on the world wide web, but most academic databases are available by subscription in the library of a tertiary institution. You need to choose a database which carries articles in the area that your topic is situated. For example, to find research on the health impacts of air travel one would want to look in a database containing medical and health information.

You can peruse the list of databases available at the Bill Robertson Library on

All databases work on the same searching principles. Once you have opened the appropriate database (ask the reference librarian for help if you are not able to do this), you will see a page which looks something like this:

From this page, you should search each term separately. You will be tempted to search all of them at the same time - as there are three blank slots, but don't give in! One at a time!

Consider a few points when you start searching. Note the drop down box with "keyword" highlighted in grey. You will see that you can search for a text work, a keyword, a title word, and many other options. Choose this field carefully. You will hope to find your search terms in the title, but may have to search more widely in text or keyword fields.

When you push the search button, the search engine will generate a list of publications using the term you have used. You may scan the list of titles, but usually, it is a very big list, and it would be futile to look at the tens of articles and chapters containing just one of the search terms in which you are interested. Before you pay too much attention to the publication lists, search each term, as suggested above. On the next screen of this module, we will see how to refine the list to contain the most pertinent material.

So for now, it looks like you are just searching, without paying any mind to the results. That may seem strange, but it's OK. You can see the beginning of your search strategy on the "history" or "previous search" page of the search engine. It will probably look something like this:

If you have searched for your terms as well as the synonyms, you will have a history page which looks more like this:

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What database is most likely to contain articles about the research topic that you are exploring?

Check on if you don't know already, or speak with the reference librarian, or your lecturer for advice.Check your answer

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Please try the interactive tutorial at to understand more about choosing the appropriate database.

Links to more information on choosing a database:

Combine the search terms

The next important step in your strategy is to refine the relevant search as appropriate. In some cases, it may be important to WIDEN your sets, and in others, to NARROW them.

To widen your sets, use the word OR (this may be referred to in some instances as a "boolean operator"). For example:

compression socks OR elastic hose OR support stockings. This will result in a wider set of articles containing either compression socks, elastic hose, or support stockings. The illustration below shows three expanded search sets.

Once you are satisfied that your search sets are adequately populated with references, you will try to see which of the articles actually sit in all three sets, for an article which does so contains all three search terms, and is likely to be about your question. To discover these overlaps, we use the word AND.

You can see that the articles likely to inform you about this topic will be contained in the area containing the yellow star. Each one of these will contain all three terms.

In order to combine sets with the Boolean operators, AND and OR, you will need to follow the steps prescribed in the specific database you are using. Usually, you will do this through the "history" page of the database. If you can't figure out how to combine the search sets in your particular database, check with the reference librarian, or with your tutor.

Which Boolean operator allows you to expand to search sets by combining similar terms? a) AND b) OR Correct! OR will identify documents which contain ANY of the search terms. Sorry, wrong answer! AND will identify only those articles which have ALL of the search terms in the same document. Check your answer

Which Boolean operator allows you to combine sets so that all the terms are present in the final documents? a) AND b) OR Correct! AND will generate a list of articles which include ALL of the search terms you entered.Sorry, wrong answer! OR will generate of list of articles which include ANY of the search terms you entered. Check your answer

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Please try the interactive tutorial at to ensure that you understand the principles of Boolean searching

Review the results

After you have combined your search terms, the database will produce a list of results. In the best case scenario, this list may contain a few tens of titles, closely aligned to the question you have asked. In other cases, there may be thousands of results (far too many to scan), or in others, there may be a very small list of results, no results, or results that don't actually answer your question.

You may have to do more work to find the literature addressing your specific question. The flow chart below gives suggestions about how to proceed.


What is an interlibrary loan? (see for full details)

An interlibrary loan is a way of obtaining information which is not held at the Bill Robertson library but which is available in other libraries with which the Bill Robertson has an agreement to exchange.

Interloan check list:

  • Check to make sure that the article you are requesting is important to your research;
  • Check if the source is held in the Library - the Bill Robertson Library for Otago Polytechnic students;
  • Make the request at least two weeks before the information is required;
  • Carefully complete the interloan request form available at the information desk, or the on-line form at the Bill Robertson Library

Apply this process to the world wide web

World Wide Web

What is the world wide web?

It is a system of internet servers and computers that allows information in WWW form to be transferred between users.

Features of the world wide web

  • easy access for publication,
  • more open review processes,
  • easy access for researchers,
  • links to many other sources.

Ways of searching on the Web

Search Engines

What is a search engine?

It is an automated indexing system that locates words and phrases and answers search queries

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Name four search engines you can use to find literature on your research topic.

you can try:

and many more!

All search engines have advanced search facilities that will allow you to use a simplified version of Boolean search strategies. See below, for example, the advanced search page from Google (all search engines will have a similar page).

Notice that there are many helpful features on this page. For example, you can restrict the results to domains ending in .org, or, and in so doing, ensure that you only receive information from non-profit organisations, or academic institutions in New Zealand.

Domain names

What do domain names mean?

The domain name has a number of components - in the example the www refers of course to the world wide web, op is the name chosen by Otago Polytechnic. ac indicates it is an educations web site and of course .nz indicates the country New Zealand.


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Use two different search engines to research your question and compare the results.

Are they similar? Different? Always consider trying more than one search engine.Check your answer

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Web Resources

A few good www sources:

Google Scholar: Visit This is a search engine specifically designed to search scholarly literature.

Directory of Open Access Journals: Visit This site has 266050 full-text journal articles indexed for free access as of march 2009. Much of this is also useful for many disciplines.

Links to more information on web searching: How do we evaluate the literature?

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All information is not equal.

As a budding researcher, it is important to ensure that the information you have sourced is relevant, and above all, reliable.


Reliability of information

There are many ways to test the reliability of information. Test yourself below:

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What is the best source of information to answer the question about whether elastic socks will help prevent DVT in long haul travel?
  2. How to Survive a Long Flight: A Self-Help Guide
  3. Cause and Prevention of DVT in Air Travel, John Bloggs, British Journal of Medicine.
  4. Preventing DVT with Compression Stockings, Elite Medical Supplies.

Yes!3 is the best answer. This article is published in a peer-reviewed journal whose editorial board will subject the article to critical review by a panel of experts prior to publication.1, 2 and 4 are not the best answers. You can see that it is a commercial source (either web site, promotional or trade book), and while it may have some factual information, it will not be as reliable as a journal article which is reviewed by experts.

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Key points
A number of criteria can be used to establish the reliability of information.
  1. Was the information subject to quality assurance? How? By experts or by laypeople? generally speaking, reliable information is reviewed by knowledgeable experts according to the conventions of the particular discipline.
  2. Did the author or sponsoring organisation have any commercial investment in the information? Often, a commercial motivation can override reliability, when there is an incentive to sell a particular product promoted by the information.
  3. Did the author have particular qualifications or experience which made his or her findings more reliable? Degrees, in and of themselves, do not guarantee the quality of information. However, a strong researcher with an excellent reputation is likely to produce quality work.
  4. Did an expert organisation endorse the information? What is the evidence of this? A government office, an important non-profit organisation, or a professional organisation will often endorse quality information.

Primary and secondary evidence

Does the article contain primary evidence?

Primary evidence is evidence discovered or produced by the actual writer of the article. Secondary evidence, on the other hand, is evidence reported by the writer. This means that they didn't actually do the research, they are telling you about the research that someone else did.

Primary and secondary evidence have different uses. While, on the one hand, you usually want to get information directly from the source, to avoid the risk of the information being diluted, or misinterpreted by the reporter; sometimes, you must rely on secondary sources. For example, in historical research, you may not physically have access to the primary source, as it may be held in a faraway archive which you cannot access. When possible, and practical, it is advisable to use primary sources of information.

Every discipline will have its own priorities for evaluating information, in health care, for example, one speaks of "levels of evidence" and in commerce, of "the hierarchy of evidence." These are be based on the amount of background information and the methods by which it was generated in the creation of the source.

Click here to visit an example of a hierarchy of evidence table in science. Contrast this with the table provided by the University of Westminster by clicking here. This kind of hierarchy is typical of the sciences and social sciences, but is not used in the humanities.

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A question for reflection: How does your discipline rank information? What does it value in terms of evidence?

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Web Resources

Links to more information on evaluating web Information

Road Works.svg Work in progress, expect frequent changes. Help and feedback is welcome. See discussion page. Road Works.svg