Friday, January 18, 2013

How to Manage Your Literature Search

1-Create-your-bibliography-database (Photo credit:
by Andreas JW

The first step is to trawl whatever database(s) your college or university subscribes to. You do this by simply entering your search term(s) as you would in a search engine.

You will usually find yourself in one of two situations after having conducted an initial search:

a) You get too many results
b) You get too few results

A key research skill to have, and one that develops quickly, is to be able to narrow down your results to a manageable amount without running the risk of omitting key sources of information. If you get too many results you must conduct a more defined search.

For example, if you are looking for information on job satisfaction and you simply type in 'job satisfaction' in the generic search box you will end up with far too many results. You could then narrow the search down by:

a) Selecting a defined time period, e.g. 2010-2013
b) Searching for the term 'job satisfaction' in the article / book title only

If either of these then result in too few results then you need to expand again by:

a) Selecting a slightly longer time period, e.g. 2007-2013
b) Searching for the term 'job satisfaction' in the article abstract

The search process is therefore a stepwise process of narrowing down and expanding your results until you reach a manageable amount of information (just how far you want to narrow them down will of course depend on your individual circumstances and requirements).

Once you have finished your search you will have information from a range of sources such as academic articles, books, e-books, magazine articles etc. The question now is 'what do I do with all these results?'

The first step now is to sort the wheat from the chaff, in other words, you need to select which of these sources is in fact helpful to your work. There is no other way to do this than to familiarise yourself with the content. This is where article summaries or abstracts become extremely helpful.

If an article is available electronically store it in a folder on your computer or storage device. Doing this though is not enough. You need to keep a list of references, i.e. sources. Dedicated bibliographic software exists which helps you store and retrieve information you have obtained (for example Endnote).

If you are a postgrad then I would strongly recommend you look into obtaining some sort of bibliographic software. However, you could simply create a list in MS Excel, MS Word or use database software such as MS Access. Here are a few advantages of bibliographic software:

• Search for a specific reference (if you remember the author or title)
• Insert citations into your work easily
• Import references
• Keep track of what information you have

Whatever you do, whether you decide to use dedicated software or not, do not fall into the trap of thinking you will remember all those articles and sources of information you have found. Believe me, you won't. A small time investment in keeping track of your information really does pay dividends.

Go to for further tips and advice on how to maximise your time studying. This site covers themes such as writing reports, avoiding plagiarism and team work and should provide a useful source of information for anyone in education - written by the way by someone who actively teaches at university!

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