Getting Started with the Academic Literature Search

As Ph.D. students, one of the first—and arguably most crucial steps in your research journey is performing an effective academic literature search.

While it might seem daunting given the vast ocean of scholarly publications and databases available, a well-executed literature search can provide you with the insights and resources needed to frame your research question, develop your methodology, and situate your work within the broader academic conversation.

Here are some valuable strategies to guide you in performing an efficient and comprehensive academic literature search on the path toward completing your doctoral research.

1. Define Your Research Question Clearly

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In this case, that step is to have a clear and well-defined research question. This will serve as the foundation for your literature search strategy, helping you focus on relevant materials and avoid wasting time on unrelated sources.

Defining your research question also allows you to decide on your study design, population, and what data you will collect and analyze. Like a compass, defining your research question sets the tone for your literature search and helps you navigate your research journey. For more tips on research question development, stay tuned for our upcoming blog article — or reach out to chat with one of our dissertation consultants.

2. Make Use of Library Databases and Search Engines

Once you have a research question, the next step is to identify where to look for scholarly articles for your discipline and research topic. There’s an abundance of literature search databases that give you access to up-to-date research papers and peer-reviewed journals, but it’s important to choose the right ones for your field. For more details, here’s our guide to finding databases, using the right keywords, and perusing your sources in your academic literature search.

Online databases like JSTORScienceDirectPubMed, and academic search engines like Google Scholar are invaluable resources. Your institution’s library also likely provides access to numerous databases tailored to your discipline.

Don’t overlook the help of librarians — they’re highly skilled in information retrieval and can guide you in your search. Most university libraries offer graduate students access to their research librarians for free consultations and assistance. Take advantage of all of the resources available to you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

3. Use Advanced Search Features and Boolean Operators

Everything you need is online, but getting to the most relevant materials might prove tricky. Try refining your literature search strategy using advanced search features and Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to enhance the effectiveness of your search.

These tools can help narrow your search to include or exclude certain keywords, search within specific fields (such as the title or abstract), or limit your search to specific resources or publication dates.



4. Manage and Record Your Search

Staying organized is crucial when conducting a literature search. As part of your literature search strategy, it’s important to manage and record your search to make sure you don’t lose track of critical sources. (Ask any researcher, and chances are they have a nightmare story about losing a reference that was crucial for their literature review).

We recommend using a citation management tool like EndNoteZotero, or Mendeley to keep track of the articles you find. At the very least, create your own file organization system in Dropbox or Google Drive with a clear categorization system so you can easily locate sources by last name and publication date.

For the purposes of your literature review writing, make sure to record the details of each search you conduct, including the databases used, search terms, number of results, and relevant articles.

You’ll need this information later on when you start writing your literature review or detailing your methodology. By managing and recording your search, your information will already be synthesized and you can avoid misplaced or lost details about your literature search.

5. Evaluate Your Sources

Not all sources are created equal. Evaluate the credibility of your sources by considering factors like:

  • Source type: Prioritize academic journal articles and academic monographs (books). Other sources that may be useful include governmental or NGO reports and published dissertations or theses.
  • Publisher: Give precedence to recognized scholarly publishers (university presses, Elsevier, SAGE, Springer etc.).
  • Author credentials: Are they associated with a major university, in a professor, assistant professor, or associate professor role? Depending on your field and location, give priority to tenured faculty at U.S. institutions, followed by Canada, the UK, and Australia.
  • Citation metrics: These data points help you gauge the influence or impact of a scholarly work by counting the number of times it’s cited by other works. A well-known citation metric is the journal impact factor, though it isn’t without its flaws and has been a source of criticism within the scientific community.
  • Whether the article is peer-reviewed: Some graduate programs only allow you to cite peer-reviewed sources. Journal articles without a double-bind, peer review process do not hold as much weight.
  • Publication date: Best practice is to cite sources published within the last 5 years. We recommend only going farther back than 5 years if your topic has a dearth of previous literature or if you’re specifically citing foundational theories/theorists in your discipline.

It’s essential to base your research on reputable, high-quality sources. Evaluating your sources helps you:

  • Find the most relevant information for your topic
  • Identify expert opinions, views, and research on your topic.
  • Weed out biased, unreliable, and outdated data.
  • Access accurate information that upholds the research standards of your institution.

Using unreliable and outdated sources could hurt your credibility and affect the quality of your research. Avoid this pitfall by evaluating your sources. Our team of academic experts can also help you do this through our research services.



6. Stay Current

Academic knowledge is a living, breathing entity — meaning that it’s continually evolving. As your own research and academic studies evolve, so will the literature in your field. Set up alerts for relevant databases and publishers’ websites to stay updated with the latest publications in your field.

Subscribe to journals that are of interest to you. Staying current ensures that your academic literature search remains relevant and up to date as research changes and evolves. It also helps you avoid duplicating research studies that have already been completed.

Remember, mastering the art of the literature search is a process. It requires practice, patience, and persistence. But, with these strategies, you’re well on your way to becoming proficient and effective at literature searches.

Next Step: Writing the Literature Review

Chances are, your literature search will culminate in writing an in-depth literature review for your doctoral research. Using the tips outlined in this article, you should now be able to organize your literature search strategy.

As you prepare for the next steps, stay tuned for our upcoming article on the literature review. And if you’re looking for professional support with your academic research, our team is here to help.

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