How to Conduct a Literature Search

How to Conduct a Literature Search

As a third year undergraduate student, I can vouch that each of you have been or will be assigned at least one group or individual assignment that needs intensive research. You will need to gather information, select the most relevant data and finally cite your sources. So, how do you begin this literature search?

The Internet

The Internet is definitely a boon for any individual doing research work, given the massive amounts of information that can be freely and quickly accessed. The Internet provides information in many forms; the most common of which is factual websites (ie. Wikipedia and sites set up by various professional societies and journals). These are usually classified as advocacy sites (.org) or commercial sites (.com). Usually factual websites tend to offer a summarized version of the detailed information that can be retrieved from documents. More material on the Internet is provided in the form of catalogues, books, government documents, trade and research articles.

To survey original research, students can access various databases, which are packed with reliable information. Some of these databases are PubMed, which focuses on biomedical literature, Scopus, which has the largest collection of original research articles in science, engineering and arts, and JSTOR, which is a database for humanities. Students can access these databases for free, from their university library website. These databases provide access to original research that contains accurate, first-hand information.

Peer reviewed articles are also a means of obtaining an accurate understanding of topics. In peer reviewed articles, experts who work in the same field anonymously evaluate the original research work of a colleague. Sometimes, reviewers write an article reflecting on the essential parts of the findings, thus weighing the significance of the actual paper. For articles that are not peer-reviewed, be more cautious and analyze the reliability of the sources. Ask yourself, “Do the authors of the sources have motives in disseminating certain information?”

As you accrue sources, you can keep track of them with reference managers such as Mendeley, Zotero and EndNote. These reference managers can store pdfs of your sources, enable you to cite sources while you write, and allow you to generate a bibliography, at the click of a button.

Less Conventional Sources of Help

University libraries are equally as resourceful as the Internet. Librarians can direct you to relevant books- shying away from the large stack of books could be a mistake! Sometimes books available in the libraries have compiled more relevant information that would take you much more time to find individually on the Internet. However, time management is important since you can easily spend too much time reading irrelevant information. Scanning the book and locating the required data can be time consuming; hence if the assignment restricts you to only books are sources, one should begin working on it as soon as possible!

For some courses, you can find old projects and reports done by senior students in the archive section of libraries. These documents are samples which you can learn from. Even if the subject of research differs, students can benefit from seeing a template of the required format and writing style.

Talking to senior students can also provide you with good direction since they have already taken the course. They can point out the amount of time they invested in research and writing the final report, share the sources used and mention the level of accuracy required. These aspects can help you plan your work schedule and invest effort such that rewards are reaped accordingly.

It is very beneficial to approach professors (the people who assigned the task!) and ask for suggestions about the resources you can use. So, make the most of office hours! To benefit from the instructor’s office hours, do some work beforehand. By doing so, you can ask for help if you encounter any difficulties or at the very least, make sure you are on the right path. Instructors gladly guide students as long as the students show willingness to learn, understand and perform. Completing an assignment last-minute will guarantee little to no aid from the instructor!

Finally, it is important to remember never to copy and paste literature; paraphrase your findings and cite the original author(s) for their contributions. This paraphrasing will also help to improve your retention of the knowledge, since you are actively summarizing the information in your own words.

As the school year progresses, you will most likely have to conduct a literature search. So search, learn and make sure to cite! Good luck!


Image Credit: Caio 

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