Some time ago, I explained that you CAN’T be completely, definitely, utterly thorough when doing a literature search on a topic.
But it shouldn’t keep you from trying! Especially if your literature review is for a PhD or a research project.
So today I’m going to tell you how to be as thorough as possible for your literature review.
Define your subject
First things first: you need to know what your searching for. So, before going anywhere near a database, you need to think about your subject and all its ramifications. Define it as finely and as extensively as possible. What are its different aspects? Does it cross several disciplines? What are all the possible methodologies you might use? Etc.
Then, you need to write down all the possible keywords you might want to use. With no keywords, you have no search. Keywords are absolutely crucial. So you want to find good ones and to record them somewhere. Then, you can proceed…
Do not limit yourself to just one source
There are tons of different databases. There are thousands of journals in your field. You can’t just search just one of those and call it a day. Not if you’re looking for thoroughness.
And, I can’t say that strongly enough but: Google Scholar is not enough. Yes, it can be useful. Yes, you can use it in your search. But Google Scholar is not, in and of itself, a sufficient search strategy. Nor is Google, just in case you were wondering.
So what are you to do?
Well, as I’m often saying here, you need to go and ask your university librarian. She will be able to point you towards the most relevant databases in your field, explain how to access them and even give you advice on how to use them to get the most of it.
Then, try all those databases one by one. And use all the tips I’ve been publishing to help you do the best searches possible.
Keep track of everything
First, you need to keep track of your searches. It’s crucial so that you do not lose time doing the same search twice. You should also record if the search was successful or not, so that you know how to reproduce it later if it was good.
There are two ways to do that:
- The old-fashioned way: write down (on a notebook or in a Word document or any way you’d like) the database you used, the fields and keywords you chose, the ways you limited your search, etc.
- The fancy way: some databases (such as the ones hosted by EBSCOhost, for example) allow you to create an account and to save things such as your search history. If you can, do it! It’s the most efficient way! But that shouldn’t keep you from taking notes while you search: at the very least, you need to keep somewhere a list of all the databases you have searched and your account details…
The second thing you need to keep track of are the papers you’ve actually found. Once again, you can do this one of two ways:
- The old-fashioned way: write down (in your notebook / software of your choice) the complete references of the articles you found. And keep a printed or electronic copy of the full-text of the paper. Stay organised: you don’t want to have to look for that one cool paper you’re sure you had somewhere at the last minute when writing your review.
- The fancy way: use a reference management software of your choice. You can store all your references and full-text files in it AND it will make citing all of your sources much much easier (just one click vs having to write it all by hand) when the time comes.
Whatever you chose, do it the way you’re most comfortable with. If you’re tech-savvy and like trying new computer stuff, knock yourself out. If you like to have everything in paper, then so be it. Just make sure that you don’t lose anything along the way and that you do, actually, keep track of everything.
Capitalize on what you’ve already found
Once you’ve found some great articles, you can use them to find other great articles. I call it the “snowball strategy”. Here is what you should do, for each of those great papers:
- Check other papers from the same authors. Look in all your favourite database, Google them, follow them on social media. If their work was great, then you absolutely want to check out what else they did.
- Check other papers in the same journal. Look at what else was published in the same issue (just in case there was a theme to the issue… you never know). Search their website. Go over the summaries of their most recent volumes. If it’s your thing, haunt your library’s stacks to see the paper version.
- Check the bibliography of the paper. This is basics, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it. Always always always have a look at the bibliography of the paper you’re reading. Try and grab a copy of all the important papers that are cited to see if they are interesting. And check their bibliographies too!
- Check if this paper was cited in the bibliography of another paper. How do you perform that magic? Well, some databases will enable you to see if a paper has been cited by other papers which are also in the database. So, check all the databases you know. And Google Scholar does it too so check it also: under the name of the paper, click on “Cited by X” to see a list of papers which cite that paper. Note that it will only work for papers that have been published long enough ago (at least a few years)…
Make sure that you keep up with your field
Once you stop searching, you run the risk of missing papers on your subject which are just getting ready to be published…
To avoid missing any of them, you should put into place a “keeping up with the field” kind of strategy. It’s especially important if you’re planning to keep working in that field.
Here are some things you can do:
- Set up an appointment with yourself to go to the library once a month to check on the new issues of the journals in your field. You don’t have to read them all, but at least peruse the summaries to try and spot interesting articles on your subject.
- Or do that from home, using the journals websites. Keep a folder with the direct links to all of the interesting ones and check up on them regularly.
- Even more efficient: set up an RSS reader (Don’t know what that is? Have a look here.) and put in it all of those journals websites, plus any blog or site related to your subject. Check up on it regularly or you risk getting drowned under hundreds of new items every time you open it!
- Set up alerts from your most successful search. Many many databases allow you to do that, and you can do it in Google Scholars too. It means that every time that a new paper corresponding to your search is published and added to the database, you will receive an email (or an update in your RSS feed) that will bring it to your attention. How cool is that?!
So, do you now feel ready to be more thorough in your literature searches?
If you have other ideas or tips, do share them in the comments below!
The banner above was created using a photo by eflon - Creative Commons Attribution License