Gathering information

Tools & strategies to help find and manage reading material

A reviewer’s job is to know what’s out there, so you need to start scanning a lot of publications. But the job is also to select wisely. The first sources you happen to find are just the tip of an iceberg. If you get stuck in a search for information, and think nothing has been published on your topic, you probably need to use different search terms and databases, because there is generally too much information out there these days, on every topic. A wide range of search terms and modern technology makes it so easy to find literature, we can find more information on anything in ten minutes today than we could have in a year, just a decade or two ago. And confronted with so many sources instantly, and finding many are quite contradictory, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and confused in the search stage. So a statement of your research problem and question will help you judge which sources will be most and least relevant to your project. You need to read broadly on your topic, but you also need to set very clear boundaries of relevance, so you mainly read what will actually help you discuss the specific problem your research needs to address.

Search strategies

If your literature review is going to be read by academic supervisors and examiners, or inform an organization, it will never do to just ‘google it’, because that strategy doesn’t put you in control of the search results. Google Scholar is a better place to begin, but to tackle the giant haystack of digitized information actually available online, you need databases to quickly find what matters most to your project. Databases online also help narrow a search according to the year of publication, the type of publication, and even the most frequently cited papers. You can also set up ‘alerts’ in databases or Google Scholar, to notify you of new material related to your previous searches.

You should continue to develop your list of search terms as you read more, picking up key words from publications, realizing which are most relevant. And as well as topic terms, you should include ones that help you find research using the theoretical approach and methods you’re interested in – such as quantitative or qualitative, tests or surveys, empirical or postmodernism, or whatever is relevant to you.

Other simple tips that help refine your search include combining various terms, by using ‘AND, ‘OR’ and ‘NOT’, and quotation marks. Play around with these options until you see what difference it makes. Using plastics pollution OR marine environments in Google Scholar, for example, gives about 1.5 million results, but using plastics pollution AND marine environments gives a lot less (around 124,000). To reduce the results further, and get only publications that use those exact words, typing in “plastics pollution” AND “marine environments” (in quotation marks) gives just 116 results. Even fewer results come up when a particular ocean is excluded (“plastics pollution” AND “marine environments” NOT “Pacific”).

Spelling accurately is obviously important, but also consider that some words in English may be spelled in more than one way, and that words change form to suit different grammatical functions in a sentence. Using the ‘*’ symbol helps you find various forms of the same word in the title of a publication – just type in the beginning of a word with * to find papers that use the word in any of its possible forms. Each database might have slightly different ways of refining searches, so explore and play.

Most importantly, you need to keep a careful record of what you’re finding online. When you’re scanning dozens or hundreds of papers, you can’t remember from one day to the next what you’ve viewed, so you need to document your process. It will save you much time in the long run if you begin and continue your searching for information by noting down all the search terms you’re using, where you’re looking, and what you find (or don’t find).

Bibliographic software

Bibliographic software helps you store, organise and quickly re-find sources of information, and also format your references in any of the common styles used in academic writing and publishing. Popular software for managing references and PDFs include Mendeley, Zotero, Endnote, Paperpile, and there are many others. If you’re enrolled in a university, your library probably provides this kind of software. If not, just search for bibliographic software products online, and check their features and costs – some of the very best ones are free. Many are also available in a web-based version that will sync with your desktop version, so you can access and add to your bibliography when you’re away from your own computer.

Review articles

As part of sharing topics last week, we searched for some review articles. Reading review articles is a useful short-cut to finding current literature. If someone else has spent months or more carefully selecting and discussing sources, for the benefit of other researchers, it’s wise to consult them. They can give an excellent overview of a field, and identify questions and problems that need to be considered in the future, and might help you identify an important gap that your research could address. Review articles can also help you identify who is who in your field, so you can further explore what else they’ve written, who is citing them, and who they are citing – these are all good strategies for building up your own bibliography, and working out where to focus your attention.

Conversation starters

  • Are you having any difficulty finding literature on your topic?
  • Do you have search terms to identify research methods and theoretical frameworks as well as topics relevant to your literature review?
  • Do you find it easy to see the difference between a review article and a research article that reports on a single project?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong