Most students writing their thesis or dissertation are never made to sit down and taught how to search for literature. Professors assume that the kids know how to look for the next trend in fashion so they must know how to look for literature? And, the students probably never ask the professors out of shame of revealing their incompetence in front of their peers. Therefore, many students feel completely lost when they have to begin searching for literature.
Frankly, it is pretty disappointing that such an important step is mostly skipped in most courses. I have always believed more than giving someone a fish, teaching him to fish would prove to be more helpful. So, I do not understand the hesitance among professors or supervisors from teaching their student to search for literature. How will a student ever know if he is doing it right when he feels like he is shooting arrows in the dark?
One of the most important things all of us have to do when beginning a piece of research is to find out what else has been said about our topic, and this becomes our literature search. More exhaustive your search, richer and juicier will be your dissertation or thesis. Literature search is different from literature review. Searching for literature comes way before reviewing the literature. The reading required for a literature review is far more conscious than the reading that you do when searching for literature. Literature search mainly involves you scan-reading through all the articles, whereas literature review is when you critically appraise the articles. It might be one of the easiest but one of the most botched up area of a thesis or a dissertation.
So, here are a few tips to get your literature search right:
Get your search strategy right: Before you begin writing or planning anything, the first thing that you pen down is your search strategy. The moment you think of a topic or a research question, you must sit down and search for literature to figure out if it is researchable or not. Figure out a search strategy that works for you and note down the changes that you apply to it as and when.
Decide your scope of search: You may be amazed at how much data you might find on any given topic on the Internet. Millions of articles are published every day, and the global and instant availability of data makes the Internet a tempting buffet of unending data. It is, therefore, your responsibility to decide how and when to limit your search. It is your duty to understand the relevance of this unending available data to your research topic. You may need to broaden or narrow the focus of your topic depending on your research question. There are some databases where you can save your searches as well, which may come handy when you have to write your search strategy.
Limit your search but not your resources: While searching for literature, it is smart to limit your search by applying inclusion criteria but you should definitely search for literature on your topic in various resources such as books, journals, and class notes. Although searching on the Internet gives you infinite results, you might still miss out on some good quality research.
Do not rely on Google Scholar: The first go-to place for any student is Google Scholar. I know because I was a student too. When you seem determined to find an answer to your research question, you will invariably accept a lot of garbage that Google Scholar publishes. You can’t trust Google Scholar because it publishes anything and everything. I remember my professor screaming out these words on the first day of my dissertation module “Google scholar is your last option.” There are many online databases (ASDL, CINHAL, Pubmed, Business Source Complete, etc.) that store peer-reviewed electronic resources. Search for literature in these databases first because the quality of the literature is better than that you find on Google Scholar.
Steps to search on various databases:
Combine terms with “AND’ or “OR”
Use Limits (Age group, Publication type, language, etc.)
Search for your term as a word in the title or title and abstract (using Limits)
Use index terms with subheadings
Use the Related Articles link, once you find a set of relevant citations
Use indexing: Indexing aides in forming more precise search statements, particularly for vague research topics. You can avoid the necessity of remembering every possible synonym or alternate spelling of your search terms by using indexing. Indexing basically means that the citations in the database are assigned terms from a controlled vocabulary (not all databases use a controlled vocabulary). This step will help you conduct a wide yet relevant literature search.
Save your searches: A person who saves his searches actually works on two sections of the thesis or dissertation simultaneously, the search strategy and the references section. Charts like the one shown in the table below help you organize what you have found in your literature search. You can also use various programs such as RefWorks, EndNote, Mendeley or Zotero, which simplify the process of organizing your search and reference list by customising fields in your database.

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