Research Survival Guide Part 1: The Literature Search

You all use libraries and electronic resources to complete work for supervisions, so you may feel quite confident in your ability to find material – but how often are you simply finding material from a reading list provided to you? What we want to do in these blog posts is give you extra tools to ensure that you find as much material as possible for your dissertation or project but also for your general weekly work.

Let’s first think about where you are going to be looking for material.

For physical material, like books, the University library catalogues are the best place to start. LibrarySearch collates information on material held in most of the libraries across Cambridge. You will have access to your College Library, departmental or faculty Library and the University Library. You may also be able to gain access to other departmental or faculty libraries if there is material they hold that you can’t otherwise read. The same may be true of College libraries as well. The best thing is always to contact a library and ask whether you can come to look at the material – the worst that can happen is they say no, but often they will say yes.

Ask us to buy books!If there is material that is not available anywhere in Cambridge it’s also worth talking to faculty or departmental librarians, and your College librarians about whether it is something they would purchase or could order in using an inter-library loan. A lot will depend on how expensive an item is and whether it is in print. In College libraries we tend to want to buy books that will be of use to a number of students over the years, some more obscure texts are usually better placed in faculty libraries.

For electronic material there is nothing wrong with starting to search using Google or Google Scholar. Both will bring back an awful lot of references, but bear in mind that not all results may be freely available to you. If there is an article or database that you can’t seem to access do ask a librarian so we can check whether you can get free access. Whatever you do don’t get your credit card out before double-checking!

Particularly in some art subjects, also consider whether there are primary sources that you can access. For History of Art that might be a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, for Music or English lit there might be something in the University Library, or for History don’t forget that there are practically as many archives as libraries in Cambridge.

So let’s start the literature search. When you are starting a dissertation or project, perhaps even before you settle on a title, you will need to do a thorough literature search. Firstly, is there enough material relating to your subject for you to be able to produce the piece of work required? If your literature search only turns up a couple of articles, perhaps that is a topic for PhD-level research instead! You need to ensure that the topic you choose is realistic. Your supervisor may steer you on this to some extent, but looking at what has already been written round the subject will also give you a good guide. There’s no need to make life difficult for yourself from the start!

If you set yourself a really broad topic, there will obviously be a lot more literature out there to sift through. It’s very unlikely that you can read everything, so a bit later on you need to be discerning. But first of all you need to cast your net as wide as possible to find everything that might be useful. Then you can filter it down.

Knowing exactly what to search for can be tricky. Randomly putting search terms into the catalogue as you think of them is not the best strategy! In order to show you have a good grasp of your topic, you will need to conduct your research methodically. Think about your research topic – what question are you asking? Or, if you don’t quite know yet, what is your topic area. Break the research question or topic down into the key concepts that you will need to search for, like this:

Concept map for literature searches

Think of different ways to express each concept. Identify synonyms and variant spellings to make sure your search is as thorough as possible. Consider whether American or European researchers use slightly different terms.

Here’s an example:

Concept map for literature searches - example

In the example above there are question marks after ‘youth’, ‘adolescent’ and ‘teen’. In Heritage or LibrarySearch the ? is a wildcard character so if you search for Teen? you will get results containing the words teen, teenage, teenager, teenagers etc. If you were to put the ? at the start of the word you would get results including thirteen, fourteen, fifteen etc.

At the start of your literature search, make a list like this (You can use this template to help you), and use these terms to search the catalogue. Go through the list methodically, crossing off search terms when you have exhausted them. You will almost certainly come across new terms while you are reading, which you can add to the list. You may also want to note down any specific authors or journals that you are already aware of in your research area, authors’ names in particular can be very useful search terms.

If you are getting too many irrelevant search results you may need to refine your search – think about whether the terms you are using may be too general.

On the other hand if you’re not getting many results or aren’t getting any at all, try removing keywords or choosing a more general term. And don’t forget to check your spelling!

And remember there are more resources out there for you than books – consider journal articles, newspaper reports, databases, Google scholar, the web. Depending on your topic you may need to look quite widely.

Read on for Part 2: Evaluating Resources

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About homlib

The Library of Homerton College, University of Cambridge.
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3 Responses to Research Survival Guide Part 1: The Literature Search

  1. Pingback: Research Survival Guide: Slides, links and resources | Homerton College Library weblog

  2. Pingback: Research Survival Guide Part 2: Evaluating Resources | Homerton College Library weblog

  3. Pingback: Research Survival Guide Part 3: References and bibliographies | Homerton College Library weblog

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