A dynamic guide to literature searching

Stratford Library

Every now and then we get the opportunity to play with some new tools to see what they can do to help students either make better use of library resources or to support their learning. Personally speaking, it’s one of my favourite aspects of the job, trying out new tools, seeing how they work and seeing if there are ways they can be used to support students. It was with this in mind that I realise experimented with a new tool that we can use via Office 365: Sway.

Sway’s an interesting tool. It’s somewhere like a cross between a PowerPoint and a Prezi. It enables you to prepare little tutorials that incorporate text, photo and video elements relatively quickly and easily. Admittedly, it took me a little while to get my head around how it works, but after a little playing around it actually seemed fairly straightforward.

To get to grips with how it works, I decided to convert my recent post on systematic literature searching into one of these dynamic Sway presentations. Of course, I had to take a slightly different approach when putting it together, in the sense that I needed to strip it back a little and make it a little less text heavy as it could become quite tedious with a lot of text on screen. So I stripped it back and made it a bit more concise, whilst also retaining the key messages in the tutorial (well, I think I managed that anyway!).

You can view the full Sway on literature searching for psychology here (you will need to login with your UEL email address and password to view it). If you have any feedback or comments, please do post them in the comments below. And if you have any queries about literature searching in general, plus do get in touch!


Strategies for systematic literature searching


Image by Philm on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

Literature reviews are a crucial part of the research process. Being able to search for the literature effectively is key to ensuring that you identify information for your research topic. Ultimately, a literature search should help you to identify gaps in the literature, as well as identify appropriate techniques or methodologies (Booth, Sutton & Papaioannou, 2016).

Of course, when searching the literature you shouldn’t restrict yourself to one database and one database alone. Rather you should seek to identify what databases will be relevant to your research topic and then seek to search them systematically, using the same keyword combinations and approaches across all resources as much as possible. So, for example, you shouldn’t settle on PsycInfo as the one database to search, you should look at others such as Academic Search Complete, ScienceDirect, CINAHL, Scopus etc etc (again, dependent on your topic).

Not only should you seek to search across a number of databases, you should also seek to employ a variety of strategies in conducting your searches. By using a variety of strategies across a range of databases, you ensure that you conduct a comprehensive search and, consequently, limit the chances of overlooking crucial papers that could have a serious impact upon your research.

The following are a number of key strategies to employ when searching the literature. They should never be used in isolation, they should be used in conjunction with each other to ensure effective lierature searching.

Thesaurus Searching

Thesaurus searching is a good and effective way to find all of the articles on a particular topic. Some databases (eg PsycInfo) use a subject term index to categorise articles. These terms are used consistently across the database, minimising the kind of variation you see with author keywords that are applied to articles (different authors may well use different keywords to describe the content of their articles). This is what is known as a controlled vocabulary (because there is over-arching control of the categorisation of all the articles).

Instead of searching the database, a thesaurus search requires the user to interrogate the thesaurus or subject index and use that to construct their searches (more on how this works on this video). As well as searching for an individual term, these subject terms can also be used in conjunction with each other (eg “Subject A” AND “Subject B”). When searching for a particular term, you can be pretty confident that all of the articles on that topic will be returned in your results.

However, it is not without its problems. New terminology or niche areas, for example, may not be indexed within the subject index (in which case you will need to do a keyword search). You may also find that it is quite a narrow search that results in a small number of results (depending on the topic), so you may need to broaden it out a little (which is again where a keyword search can help).

Advantages: Locates all the articles on a particular topic due to its use of a controlled vocabulary consistently applied throughout the database.
Disadvantages: May not be useful to find articles on emerging topics or niche areas of interest.

Databases: PsycInfo, Academic Seach Complete, CINAHL, MEDLINE (PubMed).

Keyword searching (free text searching)

Keyword searching is a much broader strategy and simply requires the user to enter their keywords in the search box to find results (much like how you would search on an internet search engine like DuckDuckGo). Compared to a thesaurus search, you are likely to find many more results, particularly if you only use one or two keywords. However, it is a more effective strategy for emerging or niche topics, because you will very quickly and easily find all the articles on that particular topic.

When keyword searching you can also use truncation (*) and wildcards (?) to help make your search more effective. So, for example, searching for child* would find child, children and childhood. Likewise, organi?e looks for organise and organize.

When using keyword searching, it’s best to restrict the search in the database to title, keywords and abstract, otherwise you may find you retrieve a large number of irrelevant results.

Advantages: Better for searching for niche or emerging topics if you use specific terminology.
Disadvantages: Can be too broad, returning large numbers of results which require careful filtering.

Databases: PsycInfo, Academic Search Complete, CINAHL, ScienceDirect, Scopus (and others).

Citation searching (bidirectional searching)

Citation searching can be a very effective way of finding studies. When finding useful papers, one of the first things most people do after reading it is look into the references to see details of the papers referred to in the article to then investigate. Bidirectional searching comes into effect when you look at not only the articles referenced in a particular paper (Paper A), but who has referenced Paper A.

Rather than searching for articles on a particular topic, you identify a key paper, then investigate who has cited that particular paper. You can thing dig into the papers that have cited that paper and repeat the process (this is known as snowballing). By digging into who has cited a particular paper or papers, you can quickly and easily build up a relatively decent amount of papers. Indeed, it is sometimes considered to be more effective than other forms of searching (Hinde and Spackman, 2015).

However, it’s worth noting that this kind of searching may not necessarily find all sources that cite a particular paper. Scopus, for example, indexes over 50 millions sources, but it’s primarily concerned with journal articles and books. Blog posts and other resources will not be picked up. Google Scholar, on the other hand, will include these kinds of web resources. However, the flip side to that is that there will consequently be more resources to plough through.

Advantages: Good way of building up literature by finding articles that have cited an article.
Disadvantages: Not all sources are necessarily indexed.

Databases: Scopus, Google Scholar.

Author searching

If you are aware of an author that has written a couple of articles on your research area, it may be worth digging into the rest of their research outputs. Scopus has an author search option (including an option to search by the author ORCiD) which can help you to find all their outputs (and, of course, all the times these outputs have been cited). You can also click on any author name in Scopus to find all the papers by that particular author.

Databases: Scopus.

Hand searching

Another way to search is to identify key journals covering your topic and search within them. Regardless of whether we have access to the journal in question or not, all journals enable you to at least search within them and have a look at the abstracts of the articles (you can then submit an inter-library loan if we don’t have access to one that you want).

Hand-searching can be effective, however it is a very time consuming process (Armstrong et al, 2005). One study (Greenhalgh and Peacock, 2005) found that a month of hand searching led to only 24 papers being identified – an average of one paper for every nine hours of hand searching (Booth, Sutton & Papaioannou, 2016). Of course, this could not be considered as a comprehensive method on its own, but it’s a useful additional strategy to employ.

Key Points

* Don’t rely on only one strategy. Use multiple techniques to ensure that you conduct a comprehensive literature search.

* Identify keywords and terms before you start searching. If you identify these first it will make the search process much easier and you will be less likely to miss key papers.

* Consider the databases you need to be using (as well as other resources) in the broadest sense. Will you need to look at clinical/health databases? Education databases? Searching in PsycInfo alone will not be enough. If your topic touches on other subject areas, then you will need to look at the relevant databases in other subject areas.

* Make sure, once you have identified your keywords, that you use the same keywords and keyword combinations across all the databases you search. This will help to ensure your search is comprehensive, as well as being systematic.

* Look for patterns when you search. If particular authors or journals keep cropping up, it may be worth considering an author search to find papers by a particular researcher, or hand searching to search more deeply into a particular journal.

* Google Scholar is useful for searching for grey literature, and can find more than citation databases or grey literature identification methods (Haddaway et al, 2015). However, as Haddaway et al note, it does miss relevant evidence and should not be used as a standalone resource. It should, as with other approaches, be used in combination with other search strategies.


Armstrong, R., Jackson, N., Doyle, J., Waters, E., & Howes, F. (2005). It’s in your hands: the value of handsearching in conducting systematic reviews of public health interventions. Journal of Public Health, 27(4), 388-391. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fdi056.

Booth, A., Sutton, A. & Papaioannou, D. (2016). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review (2nd ed.). Croydon, UK: Sage.

Greenhalgh, T. & Peacock, R. (2005). Effectiveness and efficiency of search methods in systematic reviews of complex evidence: audit of primary sources. BMJ, 331, 1064-1065. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.38636.593461.68.

Haddaway, N. R., Collins, A. M., Coughlin, D., & Kirk, S. (2015). The Role of Google Scholar in Evidence Reviews and Its Applicability to Grey Literature Searching. Plos ONE, 10(9), 1-17. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0138237.

Hinde, S. & Spackman, E. (2015). Bidirectional citation searching to completion: an exploration of literature searching methods. PharmacoEconomics, 33(1), 5-11. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s40273-014-0205-3.

Searching PsycInfo

Searching PsycInfo – a video guide

Thanks to the availability of a Mac with easy to use screen recording software, I’ve put together a short video that talks you through searching on PsycInfo using the thesaurus. It also explains searching on Academic Search Complete and PsycInfo together using keyword searching and goes through the filters that you can use to help you refine your search results.

I hope you find it useful!

What can your subject librarian do for you?

A quick video I knocked together on just one of the ways in which I can help you. The video was put together using Adobe Voice on iOS (using an iPad), it’s very easy to do if you want to pull together a quick informative clip. Aside from literature searching sessions, do let me know if we don’t have enough copies of key texts or if you have any issues with regards to library services.

The EU Referendum – an overview

The European Parliament, Strasbourg. Image © European Union 2015 – European Parliament and used under a CC-BY-NC-ND license.

You’ve probably heard quite a lot by now about the European Union (EU) Referendum that is due to take place this year on 23rd June. As the referendum draws ever nearer there’s likely to be an ever increasing volume of information (and propaganda!) thrown our way as we consider whether to remain in the EU, or leave.

Before the waters are muddied too much by the flood of claims and counter-claims, I figured now is as good a time as any to put together some useful resources in terms of the referendum.

The Question

Following acceptance by MPs of the proposal put forward by the The Electoral Commission, the question put to the people at the referendum will be:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Voters will be offered the chance to vote to “Remain a member of the European Union” or “Leave the European Union.”

Who can vote?

British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK, along with UK nationals living abroad who have been on the electoral register for the past 15 years. (Source: The Electoral Commission]


As with the last general election, Full Fact will be fact checking claims made during the referendum campaign. Full Fact is an “independent, non-partisan factchecking charity” and methodically analyses claims to check their veracity. You can find their analysis of some of the key issues at their dedicated EU Referendum pages.

The European Union

The official EU website is accessible at europa.eu.

A range of datasets relating to the European Union are available via Eurostat, the EU’s official statistics portal.

The European Court of Justice is the highest court in the European Law in matters of EU law and is responsible for interpreting EU law and ensuring it is applied equally across all member states. You can search for case law and view the most recent rulings at the Court’s official website.

Campaign Groups

Britain Stronger in Europe – The main cross-party group campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. Led by the former Marks and Spencer chairman Lord Rose, it includes figures from all major political parties and has received funding from a range of sources, including Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.

Vote Leave – A cross-party campaign led by the Labour MP Gisela Stuart. It is also backed by the Labour Leave group – the Labour Party’s campaign to leave the EU. It has received funding from Conservative Party donor Peter Cruddas and Labour donor John Mills. Vote Leave’s Chief Executive is Matthew Elliott, founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a right-wing think tank campaigning for low taxation.

Grassroots Out (Go!) – Founded by UKIP donor Arron Banks, Grassroots Out has been backed by figures across the political spectrum, including Nigel Farage (UKIP), George Galloway (Respect), Kate Hoey (Labour) and David Davis (Conservative).

The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition – An anti-austerity movement established in 2010, it is currently led by former Labour MP Dave Nellist and has a number of constituent organisations including the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party.


Details on how to vote are available on The Electoral Commission’s website, including details of how to vote by post.


What UK Thinks:EU is a non-partisan source of information on UK attitudes to the EU and the EU referendum and is run by NatCen Social Research, an independent social research agency. The website offers analysis by renowned pollster, academic and media commentator, Professor John Curtice.

Previous Referendum

An EU referendum was last held in 1975, when voters were asked “Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?”. 67.5% of votes were in favour of staying in.

It’s interesting to note after the controversy surrounding the government’s decision to send everyone a leaflet explaining the benefits of the EU, that the government distributed a similar leaflet in 1975. You can read the full text of the leaflet here and you can find details of more campaigning materials from that referendum courtesy of the archives at the LSE here.