Literature Searching: Pro Tips

The number of scholarly articles in existence is estimated at over 50 million, with more published every year. Add to that the millions of books, videos, non-scholarly publications, and other media that may be relevant to your research, and searching it all can be a big ask. Even in these days of online databases and Boolean operators, it can be difficult to access all the literature you need and stay up to date.

Here are some pro tips to help you as you dive into your literature search.

lit search

Online searching

  • Make use of Boolean operators and query modifiers – most databases support them, and they make your search more functional.
    • AND allows you to combine two or more search terms, e.g. sun AND star
    • OR allows you to look up alternate terms, e.g. sun OR star
    • NOT allows you to exclude a term, e.g. sun NOT star
    • An asterisk lets you search variations on a word, e.g. term* will return results for terminology, terminal, terminus, etc
    • Quotation marks let you search an exact phrase, e.g. “terminal velocity”
  • Beware of synonyms. If you are looking for literature on smog, and you only ever search for the keyword “pollution,” you might be missing out on sources which refer to carbon dioxide, acid rain, haze, and so on.
    • If you need literature on a particular species of flora or fauna, search both the common and scientific names.
    • If you use a particular keyword all the time, check whether usage varies around the world – e.g. in NZ a “college” is a secondary school, whereas in the US it’s a tertiary institution.
  • Use multiple databases. No one database includes all articles in a given field. Diversify your search platforms to get a better range of results.

Staying current

  • RSS feeds are your friends. RSS (Rich Site Summary or, colloquially, Really Simple Syndication) condenses all the web content you subscribe to into one nice, clean newsfeed. You just choose your favourite content aggregator (Feedly is popular) and then subscribe to the RSS feeds of anything you want to follow by clicking this button: rss-button-google-search-26x28-c. Subscribe to journals and blogs; you can even subscribe to particular search queries on some sites.
  • Google Alerts work in a similar way, but allow you to get email notifications when a new site matches your favourite search. This is great for very specific searches. Simply sign in to your Google account, go to google.com/alerts, and enter the search/es you want to monitor results for.

Pathways in the literature

  • Every scholarly article or book you read can point you to many more useful sources. Follow leads in the text, and mine the bibliographies for ideas of more sources that could be relevant.
  • Are a lot of your sources citing the same materials? Pay attention to commonly cited works; if they are foundational to research in your field, you will need to be well aware of them.

Archives, libraries, & museums

  • So the sources you need are in a particular physical space? No problem. Archives, libraries, and museums are terrific resources, and many will allow postgraduate students to do research on their artifacts even if they’re not on display (with the proper permissions, of course). Check these pages for info on doing research at Archives New Zealand, Auckland Libraries, the Auckland Museum Library.
    • Some scholarships are available for travel related to archival research; alternatively, you may be able to apply to your school or faculty for funds
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