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Performing a literature search

Performing a literature search is a skill in itself. Learning to do it properly ensures that you get the whole picture.

Digital literacy is a set of competencies that anyone should have, and researchers are no exception.

In the context of a literature review, a digitally literate researcher should be able to get the best information online that’s available to them. You will need to identify, critically evaluate and put to use the best quality information you can get. We’ll show you how to achieve this over the next few steps.

Finding good quality information

Where should you go to find the highest standard academic research?

If you’re a member of a research institution – such as a student or staff member at a university –your library will most likely have a subscription to the article you want. If they don’t, many libraries will still be able to source a copy for you free of charge.

If you’re not a member of a research institution, you can search for free academic information using the Directory of Open Access Journals and the Directory of Open Access Books. You can also search Google Scholar. While Google Scholar includes both free and paid books and journals, it often leads to free versions. Look for PDFs. Another way of getting hold of free versions of legally available papers is to use the Google Chrome add-in Unpaywall.

Your final, and most comprehensive, option to get to information you might otherwise have to pay for is to visit your library in person. Even your local librarian will be able to help you source access to the information you need and give you some guidance on your search strategy.

Review articles

The first thing you should look for are review articles. These articles are themselves simply literature reviews, so if they’re relevant to your topic they can often be a fantastic way of summarising the literature for you and pointing you towards relevant articles. They usually have ‘review’ in the title.

Finding grey literature

‘Grey literature’ is a term that refers to material that has not been officially published. This might include government or company reports, conference proceedings, theses or even good quality blogs and websites.

These are typically found by using a search engine or looking through websites.

What not to do

Most people find their information just by using a web search and social media. But you’re not going to be like most people.

There’s no reason not to google, but you need to make sure it’s not the only thing you do. Most academic research won’t show up in a web search.

You should subject whatever you find online to additional scrutiny. The internet doesn’t have peer review processes in place in the same way that academic publishing does. Anyone can say almost anything they’d like, so there’s a lot of misinformation around. Subject whatever you find online to the CRAAP test before you decide whether or not to bother reading it.

Academics typically use books and journal articles to communicate research, and for the most part you won’t find them without a targeted strategy.

Some academic information is freely available to the general public, but most of it isn’t. However, there are almost always legal avenues to obtaining a copy without payment, so make sure you have exhausted all other options before handing over your money.

Your task

Now that you know where to look, you’ll need to know how to look.

You identified your information needs in the previous step. Choose one of the needs you’ve identified and try to break it down into discrete concepts. You may well have done much of this during the previous step.

Take a look at the online tutorial from Deakin University Library for more information on defining search terms.

Then make a literature search using your library’s catalogue, DOAJ or Google Scholar.

Make a note of the key phrases that are working well for you and share them in the comments section.

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This article is from the free online course:

Why Planning Your Research Matters

Deakin University