Literature Searching and Information Skills


This guide is designed to help you carry out an effective literature search, by identifying suitable resources, assessing the results you get and managing your references. It also describes some techniques which you can use to develop information literacy skills which will be useful to you throughout your university career and beyond.

What is literature searching?

Literature searching can be defined as a systematic and thorough search of all types of published literature in order to identify as many items as possible that are relevant to your topic.

Why search the literature?

1. to find information for an essay, assignment, report, dissertation, thesis, presentation or interview

2. to keep up to date with the published literature

3. to find out if others are doing similar research to yourself

4. to find literature to support evidence-based practice

5. to find outcome measures in a particular area to use in clinical practice

Can't I just use Google..?

Typing a few keywords in to Google will almost guarantee that you get search results, but how good are they? Almost anyone can publish on the Internet, so you need to verify that the information provided is from a reputable source. Examining and evaluating lots of non-scholarly content to find useful results may be time consuming. The Library provides access to a large body of online material, which is available to you free at the point of use but search engines only index some of this content. So you may miss out on it if you just use Google - or you may find that you can't access it. For a comprehensive overview of published literature in your subject, you should use one or more literature databases.

What are literature databases?

Literature databases have been designed specifically to allow you to search for published literature from a range of different publishers. They allow you to search within journals for particular articles/papers and often for book chapters, conference proceedings, technical reports, dissertations and research papers. There are also other types of database which you may wish to search depending on your subject area, such as those that provide financial/economic and statistical data.

These databases offer keyword searching and various additional searching and limiting features to help you find previously published work in your field of research. They often offer alerting facilities so you are automatically emailed about new work that has been published in your area of research and you can export selected references to Reference management software - all features which save you time.

Some databases take you straight to the full text, but others contain references or citations. Some databases contain a mixture of full text and citations.

All of the databases included on the following page are available both on and off campus, by using your University of Essex username and password to log in.

Some additional databases are available free on the internet. Look at the relevant subject page for resources in your area.

Other sources of information

In addition to the literature databases mentioned above, there are a variety of other sources of information that you may wish to search. Some of these may be more relevant than others depending on the purpose and scope of your research.

Library catalogues (books)

Searching library catalogues will give you an indication of which books have been published in a particular area, as well as giving you information on where you can get access to the books. You can search the University of Essex catalogue using Library Search. COPAC, the unified catalogue of major research libraries in the UK, including the British Library is another place to look. If you find something on here we don't have, you can request it via Interlibrary Loan.

Online bookshops (books)

Searching online bookshops such as Amazon or Blackwell will give you a more general indication of books that are available in your subject area. Remember that these sites will list many different kinds of books, not just those intended for an academic audience.

Subject gateways (websites)

Subject gateways are websites which look at internet resources and categorise them in terms of their content and scholarly usefulness. They may include useful information such as the intended audience of the resource. For relevant gateways, see the relevant subject page for your area.

Discussion lists, news groups etc.

You may be able to find an internet or email discussion list that is relevant to your subject area to which you can subscribe. You could start by looking at the lists on JISCmail, which is the National Academic Mailing List Service.

Printed bibliographies

Bibliographies list other publications, and the library has a wide range in the Z section on floor 5 and in the stores. Use Library Search to look for your topic and add the keyword "bibliography"

Devising and carrying out a search strategy

Before you start searching, it is a good idea to think about your topic and your information needs and to plan your search strategy accordingly.

1. Allow plenty of time.

Get to know how the resource you are planning to search works by consulting the Help pages of the database. This will save time and help you produce better results.

2. Read the question.

Make sure you know the meaning of the question or topic you are researching. Check terms in dictionaries if they are unfamiliar concepts.

3. Choose keywords.

Think of keywords or phrases that sum up the information you want. Look for the major concepts.

4. Think about alternatives

There's no guarantee that the database will have indexed using the words that you have identified. Note synonyms and related terms, international terms, alternative spellings, or acronyms and abbreviations. (Some databases build this in to their thesaurus). It may be useful to construct a table or "mind-map" to chart all the related terms.

5. Timeliness.

Think about the sort of information you want to find and which sources of information will be relevant, for example, if you want to find the latest research, you may want to look for theses or dissertations as well as books and articles.

6. Truncation and wildcards

When you want to search for multiple forms of the same root/stem word, or for different spellings of words, then you may have to use truncation or wildcards in your search statement. Each database will vary, but * is commonly used to indicate many characters and ? is used for single characters, e.g.:

a search for comput* will find compute, computable, computer, computers, computing, computation...

a search for organi?ation will find organisation and organization

7. Boolean logic

Search terms may be combined using Boolean logic. Many databases will use a default operator, so it is important to understand how this works as it will affect your results:

OR - expands retrieval to include synonyms and closely related terms. Its says, give me results with "any of the words"

AND - narrows retrieval to make the search more specific. It says, give me the results with "all of the words"

NOT - narrows retrieval by excluding unwanted records. It says, give me results with this but not this

8. Phrase searching

This narrows retrieval by searching for keywords next to each other and in a specific order. It may be the default on some databases or you may need to enclose your terms in inverted commas.

9. Carry out the searches and assess the results.

Modify the search statement to expand retrieval if you are getting too few results or use filtering features or more specific terms if you have too many results. You can often limit your search by specifying the field the search is performed in, e.g. keyword in title, or title and abstract , or full text, or by restricting the date.

Searching is often an iterative process; the results that you get from a particular search might not be quite what you are looking for but you can use them to re-formulate your search statement in order to perform a more effective search, for example, by including additional keywords. You can waste a lot of time looking through a huge results set for a few relevant results when you could just do a further search and have a smaller, more relevant set to look through.

10. Saving searches/creating alerts

Most databases offer the facility to save a search to run again at a future date. This can save you time. The database may also have an email or RSS alert facility which will automatically let you know when new articles which match your search criteria have been added to the database.

11. Keeping records

Note all references in full as you find them. Most resources allow you to print, email or download your results. You will need these references to check against the Library catalogue, to apply for an inter-library loan or to include in the bibliography of the piece of work you are preparing.

Evaluating your results

If you decide to search more generally on the internet by using Google or another search engine, you will need to critically assess any results that you find. In particular it is important to consider:

1. purpose

2. authority

3. currency

These evaluation skills can also usefully be applied to other material that you have found in literature databases, library catalogues or subject gateways. Although for these resources the evaluation has already been done for you to some extent, it is still important to ensure that the information you are using is appropriate and relevant to your information needs.


Most academic websites will have a clear statement of purpose that is readily accessible from the homepage - look for About links. The purpose of a resource is often closely related to the intended audience. Knowing the intended audience of a book or an article can assist in determining its appropriateness for your research. If the author intended his or her work to be enjoyed by the general public, it may not be sufficiently scholarly for your purposes. However, if the targeted readers are other experts in an esoteric field, you may have trouble following the discussion. Determine if the intended audience of a source is right for your needs.


Look out for information about who is responsible for the website - again this information is usually prominent for academic sites and may be included in an About section, or sometimes at the foot of the page. The address of a website may also give you some clues - "" will be an educational site in the UK, ".edu" will be an educational site in the US, whereas ".com" will be a commercial site. Some useful points to consider are: Who is the author? Can you determine the author's credentials (such as education, current position, etc.)? Is the author qualified to write authoritatively on a certain topic? For books, you could look for information on the author on the book cover or introduction, or in sidebars or footnotes for journal articles. You can also use library catalogues and literature databases to try to find out what else the author has written. If the author is an organisation, what can you find out about this organisation? For example, what is its purpose? Does this have an effect on the purpose of the resource?


Know when your information was published, and decide whether this makes a difference. When was the book or article written? When was it published? Is the information still current or valid? Is there a last updated date on the website? Are citations in the bibliography up-to-date? Do all of the hyperlinks still work? If the information is no longer current, does it still have value for your needs? Is the date of publication appropriate for your topic? Know the difference between current, dated, and outdated information, as well as those sources considered "classics" in your field. Different disciplines will have different needs as to the importance of currency versus older, established publications and materials. Information in the sciences is updated frequently, and research on scientific topics demands up-to-date information. However, research in the humanities and some social sciences is not so dependent on currency of information, and older materials may prove just as appropriate.

Reading materials in full

Depending on what resource you are using to search, you may be able to read the materials you have found in full through the resource itself. Many literature databases contain the full text of journal articles, but some may just provide references which tell you where the article is published, possibly with a summary (abstract) of the article. The next step is to check the Library catalogue to find out whether the Library has the journal in print, or whether it is possible to access it online through a different resource.

For journals, you need to know the journal title, year, volume and issue number or pages.

Go to the Library Search. This gives details of both print and online holdings. You may choose to limit your search to "e-journals" but remember that we do have print journals as well. Remember that you must search for the journal not the article title.

If you find the journal, you must check the Holdings field to see what the Library has. We don't have access to all the volumes of every journal. If the Library has online access, you'll find a record with a clickable link for you to go straight to the online journal. You may then have to choose the year and volume in order to get to the article you want.

If the Library holds the print journal and the volume you need, then you can go to the shelf and find the article you want.

The same is true for any books, conference proceedings or theses that you have found citations for and now want to read in full; you need to check the catalogue by author or title to see if we hold the item or not. To search more generally for conference proceedings in the catalogue, enter "conference" and a relevant search term into the keyword search. To search more generally for Essex theses, enter "thesis", "Essex" and a relevant search term into the keyword search.

If the Library doesn't have access to the material that you want either in print or online, then you can apply for an inter-library loan. This service is free for students. Items requested are delivered to the Library for collection or, in the case of articles, direct to your desktop.

Alternatively, you can register to join SCONUL Access which allows you to visit and borrow from other member libraries.

You can also suggest that the Library purchases specific books by using the online book suggestions form. Suggestions for new journal subscriptions should be passed initially to the Head of your academic department.

Further help

If you'd like any further help with literature searching or information skills, please contact the relevant subject librarian for your area.


The University of Essex
Wivenhoe Park
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