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Dissertation / Project Support: Literature Searching

A guide for undergraduate and postgraduate dissertation students

Literature Searching

Being able to find relevant and appropriate material on a topic is important at every level of study and research – whether it is finding articles for a tutorial or conducting a thorough piece of research for a dissertation or thesis. How you undertake a particular literature search will depend on the nature of the research, the subject you are researching and your personal preferences. However, broadly speaking, there are some stages you should consider when undertaking a literature search.

  • Analysing your topic
    How to analyse your topic.
  • Selecting keywords/search terms
    Guidance on how to select your search terms. This includes narrower and broader terms as well as synonyms and antonyms.
  • Selecting search tools
    Once your topic and search terms have been chosen you will need to choose where to search. This guide will help you choose your search tool including subject databases to search.
  • Planning and undertaking searches
    Information on how to plan and create your search strategy.
  • Evaluating sources
    Once you have completed your search, evaluating the sources you have fund will be important. Evaluation techniques such as CARS and CRAAP provide a framework for this.
  • Recording the sources you find
    You will need to recored the sources you have found in order to locate them again in the future. It is also helpful to record your search strategy and the results you have found in each database you have searched.
  • Referencing the sources you find
  • What are journal articles? 
    Information on what a journal article is including information on peer reviewed articles.
  • What are conference papers? 
    Conference papers are important in many subject areas. Find out what they are and how to find them.

Analyse your topic

Analysing your topic

First of all, take time to analyse your research topic – if you do this you are more likely to find relevant information.

Pick out the different aspects of the question and concepts involved.


An assessment of the alternative options for further constitutional change in Scottish politics.

Constituent elements:

  • assessment;
  • alternative options;
  • further;
  • constitutional change;
  • Scottish;
  • politics.

Select keywords / search terms

Select keywords / search terms

Once you have identified the constituent concepts of your topic, you should think about the search terms (or ‘keywords’) that you will use to search for material within databases. It is important to spend some time identifying alternative terms to express the same concept. It may be that an author has written a relevant piece, but has used different terms to those you have first thought of to express the concepts.

You may find that this is often the case if you are looking for materials from different time periods. You may also find that different terms are used in different geographical areas – so you may need to take account of this.

It is useful to take an original term you have thought of and systematically identify: Broader terms; Narrower terms; Related terms; Synonyms (alternative terms); and Antonyms (or opposite  terms).

For example:

Original term

Broader terms

Narrower terms

Related terms

Synonyms

Antonyms

Independence

Constitution

Sovereignty

Freedom

Currency

Defence

Trade

Taxation

Devolution

Federal

Self-government

Self-determination

Self-rule

Autonomy

Dependence

Union

 

Selecting search tools

Select search tools (databases etc.)

Once you have analysed your topic and identified search terms, you then need to select your search tools. These might include: SUPrimo, subject specific database services, official websites, or even general search engines (like Google or Google Scholar).

The important thing is to select appropriate tools for the research you are undertaking.

Database services enable you to search across and access a huge range of sources including journal articles, book reviews, research reports, policy documents, case studies, legislation and many more types of document.

Database services can be general in coverage or very subject specific. Some services are comprised of many individual databases, which can be searched separately or cross-searched simultaneously. As well as easy to use basic search options, you can use powerful advanced search options in some databases to retrieve relevant documents. Databases also offer options to sort and refine results (e.g. by publication date, whether peer-reviewed, type of document, etc.) or search within results.

By using database services subscribed to by the University you will be able to search more effectively and retrieve materials you might miss otherwise if using general internet search engines.

Database services can be:

  • Abstracting databases provide comprehensive indexes to journal articles, books, book chapters and reports. Use references found on these databases to locate full-text documents or use the Find it @Strathclyde button to check for electronic and print availability.
  • Full text databases provide access to the full text of documents.
  • Hybrid services combine abstracts with full-text documents where available.

You always need your DS username and password  for off campus access to database services and other online resources that the Library subscribes to. You may sometimes need these for on campus access as well.

If you know the general subject area of your research but don’t know which databases are available, then you can look at the relevant subject guide. Subject guides give you a list of key databases in your area:

Alternatively, you can view an A-Z list of databases available to you and select from this:

If you know the name of the database you can search for this using SUPrimo. Simply enter the the name in the search box (using the 'Library Collections' tab) and select search. You can then follow links to the database from the results record:

'Open Access' (OA) is unrestricted access via the internet to peer reviewed scholarly research. This includes: journal articles, conference proceedings, book chapters, monographs, research data, and open educational resources.

Gold OA is when the author makes their article openly accessible in a journal. This journal may be exclusively OA or it may be a hybrid, with a mixture of OA and subscription-only articles. Gold OA materials can be identified and accessed using commercial databases in the same way as other non-OA academic literature.

Green OA is when the author publishes in a journal and then deposits a version of this article into a subject or institutional repository, such as Strathprints. In order to identify and access Green OA materials you can use individual institutional repositories or services which aggregate repositories' materials in a single searchable resource.

Sources of Green OA

Planning and undertaking searches

Planning and undertaking searches

Take time to plan your search strategy. Which databases will you search first? Which keywords will you begin with? How will you follow up references to materials? Good searching requires you to move between different sources and types of source.

Also, bear in mind that you will probably need to conduct new searches across the same databases at different stages of the research process and, as you learn more about the subject, you may need to feed what you have learned back into new searches.

When planning and undertaking searches in a database you should know:

  • What the content you are searching across is,
  • Which syntax (operators and connectors) you can use to refine searches, and
  • How you can use other functions to restrict your results.

You should also understand the results you get back and how to work with these.

When using a database service, it is important to know what material you are searching across.

While it might be obvious that you won’t find a journal article if searching the UK Parliamentary Papers database, other considerations are less obvious. For example, you may need to check:

  • which sources are covered in a database,
  • the dates covered and
  • which countries are covered.

It is also important to know whether you are searching across full-text documents or abstracts (that is, summaries) as this can not only impact on what documents you retrieve, but also how you can search most effectively.

You can usually find this information by following links within databases to ‘coverage’, ‘content’, ‘information’, ‘about’ , ‘help’ etc.

You can use these connectors to express the relationship between search terms in order to increase or reduce the number of results.

Many are common between different databases, but some vary so always check the connectors you should be using.

Be systematic when constructing searches, as you add terms and connectors take note of the effect they are having on your results.

Below, you can see some of the main connector functions used across databases.

Operator Variants Examples Effect
Common operators/connectors
AND

&, +

Independence AND referendum

Restricts results to documents containing both terms

OR

 

“independence referendum” OR “constitutional change”

Expands results to documents containing either term
NOT

%, BUT NOT, AND NOT

“independence referendum” NOT quebec

Restricts results to documents containing the first term but not the second
NEAR

n/3 w/3, /3,

“independence referendum” NEAR/5 scotland

Restricts in similar way to AND but are more specific (e.g. searching for terms within a given number of words)

Exact Phrase

“     ”

independence referendum

Retrieves only documents which contain the terms appearing as an exact phrase
Wildcard

*, ?

Organi?ation

retrieves documents containing spelling variations or related words

Root Expander

!, ?, *

Scot*

retrieves documents containing terms with a common ‘root’
Brackets

(      )

“independence referendum” NEAR/5 (scotland OR catalonia)

organise and group terms

 

In addition to using connectors, you can also use field and date restrictors to refine your search results.

These options are often available in an ‘Advanced’ search, but may vary depending on the database you are using.

Field restrictors

A ‘field’ restrictor defines the section of a document a search term should occur in – e.g. author, title, subject, anywhere in the free text.

Date restrictors

A date restrictor indicates a specific date or a range of dates for when documents retrieved should have been created.

ProQuest date restrictor image

Once you have your initial search results you can often use functions in the results screeProQuest Refine results options imagen to work with your results and make them more relevant to your research. For example, you may use ‘modify’ and ‘search within results’ functions to alter your initial search. You might also use the sort and narrow (or limit) options to refine your results.

The information and functions available in a results list and individual records vary between database services.

However, other things to take note of in individual records include:

  • Whether the results are full-text or abstracts,
  • Whether an abstract offers a link to full text,
  • If not, can you check for full text using the Find it @Strathclyde button?
  • Do records offer the function to trace back research by viewing earlier documents references?; or
  • trace forward research by viewing later documents citing the one you have found?

Also look out for options to email or download records or export them to reference management software (such as Endnote).

Evaluating sources you find

Evaluating sources you find

Once you’ve undertaken searches and found results, evaluate the material and information you have found. Just because you have found it doesn’t mean it is high quality – think about who the author is, when it was written, is it biased and is it well-researched. Some of the information in abstract records can help with this.

  • Who wrote it? What expertise, authority, qualifications or experience does the author have? What else have they written? Is the publisher an academic publisher or a recognised institution? Is an article published in a peer-reviewed journal?
  • When was the work published? Are there more recent versions or editions? Has research moved on since publication?
  • Where was the work published? Where was it written? Which geographical areas or jurisdictions is it applicable to?
  • Why was it written? Is there any bias apparent? Does the author or publisher have a vested interest in the research? Is any bias declared? (That there is bias in a document is not necessarily a reason to dismiss it – but it is something to take into consideration in evaluating the work.)
  • What is the content of the source? Is it relevant to your research topic? Is it accurate and well-researched? Does it contain appropriate references and is the methodology clear and reliable?

When making evaluative judgments, abstracting and indexing databases can help you by providing supplementary information about a document. This means that you can often make an initial judgment about the value of the source before taking the step of accessing and reading the full-text.

An abstract record may provide not only a brief summary of the document, but also information about:

  • the author's affiliation (any institution or organisation the author is associated with)
  • the date of publication
  • the location (either where the document was published or the geographical focus of the text)
  • the main subjects and keywords associated with the document
  • whether published in a scholarly or peer-reviewed publication

In addition, abstract records may provide citation information:

  • how many publications the document you have found cites

and, importantly:

  • how many times the document you have found has been cited.

Many subject-specific databases provide abstract records and citation information.

However, key multi-disciplinary abstracting and indexing databases providing citation information include:

Articles in peer-reviewed journals are subject to a process of academic evaluation designed to maintain standards of quality in research. Database services often provide an option to limit results to peer-reviewed journals.

Peer-reviewed articles are generally regarded as being of higher academic quality than non-peer-reviewed articles.

Recording the sources you find

Recording the sources you find

Make sure you record your research.

Recording helps you to keep in control of the research process. You don’t want to miss out key resources or spend time searching a database you already searched! 

Recording what you find will also make it easier to create references and bibliographies in your work.

Reference management software, such as EndNote, can help you with this.

You need to record information that enables you (or someone else) to locate the source again.

You will probably find it best to record information in the form used to cite the source in a reference list, footnotes or a bibliography.

You may also find it useful to record the tools you used to locate sources (e.g. SUPrimo, individual databases, etc.) and searches carried out. (This information is not necessarily included in the final work, but helps you keep track of your research.)

You may already have a method of recording and referencing that you are happy with.

However, you may wish to consider how online tools such as reference management software (bibliographic management software) can help you.

The University Library supports EndNote Online and EndNote (Desktop) packages. You can find out more about these in the following guides:

Referencing the sources you find

Referencing the sources you find

Make sure you correctly reference sources you use in your work.

Appropriate referencing provides authority for your work by demonstrating your work is properly researched; it also strengthens your arguments.

Correct referencing also helps you to avoid accusations of plagiarism.

Reference management software, such as EndNote, can help you with this.

You can find out more information about:

  • why you should reference sources appropriately
  • what you need to include in a reference, and
  • the different referencing systems used at the University of Strathclyde

from the Referencing guide:

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