Finding and using information

Literature Searching

It is important to carry out a review of the literature for a research project because it allows you to acquire an understanding of your topic. You can become aware of the key issues, and relevant research that has already been done relating to your topic and find out the latest information.

Searching, evaluating and selecting from the vast range of published information can be a time-consuming process, so it is important to know how to plan and carry out this task effectively. The aim of this guide is to help you to do this. You generally need to work through the following stages.

Define your topic

Clarify the meaning of the topic and particular words, using general or subject specific dictionaries/encyclopaedias if necessary. You can find subject specific dictionaries by a keyword search. For example you can enter the keyword search 'business and dictionary', to find dictionaries in the area of business.

Examples of subject specific dictionaries for business/management include:

Doyle, C.  (2011)  A dictionary of marketing. New ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Shelved at 658.8003/DOY

Heery, E. (2008)  A dictionary of human resource management. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Shelved at 658.3003/HEE

Decide on scope

If the subject area/topic is too general you may need to choose a specific aspect of it.

Think about constraints, for example:

  • how long your project/essay needs to be
  • how much time you have
  • what help and resources you might need and whether they are available to you. For example, are you going to need help using a particular database?

Draw up a list of keywords

Define your topic in terms of keywords to use for searching the various information sources.

In order to make your search as comprehensive as possible, you should think about the following:

  • Words that may be used as alternatives for your topic (synonyms) e.g. 'staff or employees' or 'work or employment. Some electronic information sources include a thesaurus of terms known as "descriptors" which help you to do this. ABI/Inform Complete is an example of a database which includes a thesaurus.
  • Alternative spellings, particularly American ones, e.g. 'labour or labor'.
  • Possible truncations e.g. manage* will retrieve manage(ment), manage(rs) and manage(rial).

Look at ways to link your keywords. Boolean searching is the name given to the method of searching that uses the words AND, OR and NOT as operators to link keywords in a logical way to include or exclude certain terms.

Set limits to your search

Set limits to your search, for example:

  • publication date - how far back do you want to search?
  • range - what types of publication or documentation do you wish to include? Do you want to include newspaper articles, for example?
  • geographical - do you want to limit your search to material relating to a particular country or other geographical area?

Draw up a list of sources/databases to search

Sources may be print-based or computer-based. There are many subject-specific guides to resources in the Library and on our website. As well as providing information about how to obtain material relevant to your subject, they supply links to some of the resources increasingly available on the Internet. These guides are available from the Library. 

Carry out your searches

The Library search engine, Summon, is a quick way to begin your search for subject information and to identify the key sources for your subject.  It allows you to search the Library Catalogue, databases, and collections of e-journals and newspaper articles all at the same time. It's a great starting point for your research. However, you may also need to do more detailed searching via the Library Catalogue tab of our the search box, or via individual electronic databases.

Start with the most recent publications and work back.

  • Keep a record of your searches. An essential part of literature searching is keeping accurate, consistent and correct records. These should include the years of every print-based and electronic database searched, and the terms used.
  • Record all useful references. The useful references should be recorded from print-based sources or marked and downloaded from electronic databases. A detailed record of everything useful you find will enable you to provide an accurate bibliography at the end of your project.
  • You should list your references using the Harvard referencing system. You can use reference management software called RefWorks to help you manage your references.

Review progress

It is important to carry out a review of your progress after an initial search.
Have you found material that is likely to be relevant to your topic? If there seems to be too much or too little, you may need to redefine your topic - and repeat the process. Evaluate what you have found in terms of relevance, reliability and usefulness. It is the quality, not the quantity of references that counts.

Obtain copies of useful references

It is very important to allow sufficient time to obtain copies of useful references. Most databases will have a mixture of full-text articles and bibliographic citations plus abstracts (summaries) of articles. Check Library Catalogue to see if the Library stocks the items you require. If the items you require are not available in full text via our Library they may be obtained via Inter-Library Loan, but make sure you have enough time before ordering.

Read, evaluate and absorb

The quality of the information you will find when searching will vary enormously depending on the sources you use. Therefore, it is important to be able to distinguish between academic and more popular or biased material. You must evaluate what you have retrieved. Is the information relevant? Is it reliable i.e. can you trust the source? Is it useful? Is it up to date? Has it answered your questions?

For further assistance in evaluating material look at “Critically analysing information sources” from Cornell University.

Once you have enough relevant and reliable material you will be ready to write.

Write up your work

Writing needs to be accompanied by a properly formatted bibliography. Refer to the guide on using the Harvard referencing system for assistance with writing up your bibliography.