Skip to Main Content

Literature Review: Searching the literature

This guide presents tools and advice for conducting a Literature Review.

Building a good search strategy

"For whatever kind of literature review you undertake, demonstrating that you have thoroughly searched for the evidence included in your review ultimately enhances the credibility of your review findings and conclusions."

(Booth, A., Papaioannou, D. & Sutton, A. 2012, Systematic approaches to a successful literature review, p. 70)

Ways to improve your approach to searching

search term chart

You can improve your search results by spending some time developing your search strategy:

  • Start by looking closely at your research question
  • Identify the concepts contained in the research question.
  • List keywords which authors would use to describe your topic concepts.
  • Don't just use one word for a concept, consider whether there are any synonyms, plurals, acronyms or alternative spellings that can be used.
  • Check to see if your database allows for thesaurus searching, i.e. MeSH in PubMed
  • Document the search process by keeping a research log
  • Try one of the worksheets below to help you explore your research question

Get the most from your search results

Learn from your initial search results!

  • Locate relevant references in databases and check what keywords and subject headings have been used to describe them and add any terms that you think are relevant to your search strategy.
  • Examine the references in relevant articles to identify more articles for your literature review.
  • Do a Cited Reference Search of a significant article to find out who has used that article in their own research.

Use the databases listed below to do a cited reference search:
Web of Science 
Click on the Cited Reference Search tab to identify your source article to see who cites it.
Google Scholar  
Click on the "Cited by" link under the article citation.
When viewing your source article,  and citing references are listed on the right side of the screen.

Search Tips

By thinking carefully about how you run your search strategy you can make your search more effective. Here are some tips to help you keep on top of the searching process.

General tips

Document the research process. Keep a research log, which documents where you searched, and what has or has NOT been found. Use the log to keep track of how you've searched and save time by avoiding repetitive searches.

Simplify the search process by searching for each concept individually within a database and then use the search history function to combine them into your overall search.

Most if not all, databases will allow you to create a personal account. You can use this account to save searches, create collections of references and set up alters based on your searches to help you keep informed of new research in your area of research.

Search tips

Boolean Operators

You can use Boolean Operators AND, OR and NOT to improve your searches. Use AND to narrow your search results, OR to broaden and NOT to exclude chosen terms. Check out this short tutorial on using Boolean Operators

Truncation Searching

Truncation searching allows you to retrieve references containing variations on a search term. When using a truncation search, type the first few letters (stem) of the keyword followed by an asterisk (*). The search results will include all potential endings of that stem. For example interact* = interact, interacting, interaction, and interactivity. Check out this short tutorial for more information.

Wildcard Searching

Wildcard operators act as a substitute for a character in a word.  Use this when trying to allow for to account for spelling variations, for example behavio?r = behaviour and behavior.

Phrase Searching

When searching for a phrase such as heart attack, you can improve your search results by placing quotations marks around the phrase i.e. "heart attack". This will force the database to search for those words in that particular order. See this quick tutorial for more information.

Proximity Searching

Proximity operators increase the relevancy of your free text search results by allowing you to search for words that are near each other in the record. For Example patient adj3 anxiety will retrieve records where patient and anxiety appear within 3 words of each other in any order.

Field Searching

Field searching allows you to search within a specific field, such as author or title. For example, If you already know the author of a specific article, searching by their name in the author field will pull more relevant records than a keyword search. It will ensure all results are articles written by the author and not articles about that author or just with that author’s name mentioned anywhere in the record.

Thesaurus Searching

Many databases have thesauri which standardise the words or phrases used to represent concepts. This means you don't need to try and figure out all the ways different authors could refer to the same concept. Examples of thesauri include MeSH in PubMed or CINAHL Headings in CINAHlL. While you shouldn't use thesaurus terms on their own they are very helpful in improving your search strategy. Check out this short video on using MeSH to improve your search.


Many databases allow you to limit your search to a specific type of article (peer reviewed or refereed for example), articles published within a certain time frame,or specific languages. Using limits will help you to exclude references that you don't need to see.

Evaluating your results

When reading critically the references you have located you must:

  • identify the author's arguments and the conclusions drawn in the text.
  • Evaluate the strength of the evidence that the author provides as support  for his or her arguments and conclusions, asking a series of questions:
    • is the evidence sufficient and relevant?
    • Are the authorities cited reliable?
    • Are the data and the interpretation of the data adequate to support the line of reasoning and the conclusions drawn in the text?
  • Identify the implicit assumptions which underpin the text and decide on how these assumptions affect the arguments and conclusions that are presented, i.e.what political moral and value judgments does an author seem to hold?
  • (Ridley, D. 2012, The literature review: a step-by-step guide for students, pp. 117-8) 

Click on the above tabs to find more information about looking critically at your references or check out our tutorial below.

Is the author an expert in the field of study? What are his/her credentials?

Is the author affiliated to any institution?

Are the authors findings supported by evidence?

What else has the author written?

has the author been cited in other publications?

Is the publisher a reputable academic publisher?

If a journal, is it an academic journal?

Whe was the information published?

Is the information current or out-of-date?

Are there later editions or revisions of the publication?

If you are using a web source, what is the date the web page was last updated?

Is teh information organised in a logical manner?

Has the research methodology been outlined?

Is the information supported by evidence?

Has the work been peer reviewed (reviewed by experts in the field) and if so, do the reviewers indicate its value?

Does the content of the source cover your research topic in detail?

Is teh author writing for a scholarly audience?

Is the source a primary information source (evidence that comes directly from the source or person, for example journal articles reporting original research) or a secondary information source (material that provides comment and interpretation on primary information, for example newspaper reports)?

Is the information appropriate in terms of  time period and geographical area?

has the author provided sufficient references?

Is the author's perspective objective i.e. free from bias?

Does the author or publisher demonstrate a particular bias?

From the author's writing style are you able to detect a factual or opinionated point of view?