Literature Searching: Resources for Graduate Students

This guide provides information on conducting comprehensive literature searches in preparation for writing the literature review section of a dissertation or thesis.

Where do I search?

We recommend searching all relevant discipline-specific and multi-disciplinary databases. This comprehensive approach improves your chances of finding every significant citation in your area of interest. Where should you start? Consider these strategies: 

How do I search?

Many databases offer useful features that facilitate serious research.

  • Thesaurus Terms/Subject Terms/Descriptors: Most databases allow you to search for the terms that are used to classify items into categories within the database. If you can locate these terms/descriptors, then you can construct more precise searches. In many cases, this method of searching will lead you to additional words that you can incorporate into your research.

  • Field Searching: In many databases, the drop-down menu next to the search box will allow you to search in particular fields (such as title or abstract). Field searching can help you narrow your search if you're retrieving too many irrelevant results.

  • Times Cited/Cited By: Many databases (as well as Google Scholar) will show you the number of times that an item has been cited by other items in that database. This type of feature can help you find additional relevant items and determine which items might be most influential in your area of interest. If an item focusing on your topic has been cited numerous times, then it's probably relevant to your research for one reason or another.

  • Database Accounts and Alerts: Most prominent database interfaces (including EBSCO, ProQuest, and Ovid) allow users to set up personal accounts. With most accounts, you can organize your citations, save particular searches, and create e-mail and RSS alerts for searches and newly published journal articles.

How do I manage the literature search process?

How do I know if I've found everything?

While it is nearly impossible to know with 100% certainty that you've found everything of relevance, the following questions can help you figure out if your literature search has reached critical mass.

  • Have I searched all the major databases relevant to my area of interest?
  • Am I seeing the same authors/sources over and over again?
  • Have I checked through the bibliographies/references of the sources I've found?
  • Am I keeping track of new publications through database/journal alerts and regular communication with other researchers?
  • Have I talked to a librarian?
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