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Literature Searching

What is a literature review?

A literature review is an important part of any research project, as it sets your research in context and identifies how it fits with the research that has been done before. You may be asked to write a literature review as part of a dissertation, thesis, or longer project, or as a separate assignment to develop the research, synthesis and analytical skills involved.

A key feature of any literature review is how you choose to group the literature into sub-sections or themes to enable comparison. This shows how you are conceptualising the topic. The structure you create helps you (and your readers) navigate and understand the literature. In a longer project, it is normal to refer back to the concepts in the literature review to help analyse your own results and provide potential reasons to explain what you have found. So it is important to set up these concepts clearly, and to explore and evaluate them in the literature review.

A literature review is a process (involving sourcing, reading, organising, and analysing the literature) and also a product (involving communicating your understanding and your interpretation of that literature). The outlines given here can help you navigate both the research process and the production of the final literature review.

What is a literature search?

literature search forms part of the wider 'literature review' process of almost any major piece of academic research. It involves finding out what other work has already been done in your field. It will help to shape your research by:

  • outlining the intellectual progress of research in your field to date
  • establishing whether your research is original
  • suggesting a narrow and defined scope for your study
  • putting your work into a wider context
  • suggesting possible methodological approaches.

Here are some tips on doing your literature search and guidance on what to do with the references you find.

What might you include?

The scope and quantity of the material you need to include will vary according to the level of the work you are doing – for example, for a higher research degree you will need to be far more comprehensive than for a short project. But be aware that there are many academically acceptable or rigorous sources besides books and journal articles – examples might be conference papers, government documents, legislation, statistics, theses, etc.

Where to look?

The first place to start looking is Primo, but you need to be aware that not every database to which you have access as a St Mary's student is indexed via Primo.

Search tips

Before you start your literature search it is a good idea to spend some time thinking about your subject:

  • What are the key words defining your topic?
  • Are there any alternative words you should use to ensure you don't miss something relevant?
  • What words would the researchers in your field use?

When searching your subject databases you will need to use some specific search techniques to ensure that you find all the relevant references. These include:

  • using the search operators (AND, OR) to combine your search words
  • using brackets to nest alternative words in your search statement
  • using truncation symbols and wildcards to find alternative word endings and spellings.

Locating the items you find in your search

If you are searching using Primo or any individual database subscribed to by St Mary's, it should be clear when the item is available either in print or full text online through Library Services at St Mary's. Items which are not available through St Mary's might be available in another university library – you can check a limited number of institutional libraries using Jisc's Library Hub – or you might need to use the Document Supply service.

Managing your references – Why do I need references?

If you keep a complete and organised record of what you have read, and what you intend to read, it will

  • demonstrate the breadth of your reading and research
  • help you to work efficiently and avoid duplication of effort and/or reference
  • enable you to include your own notes, comments and quotations where appropriate
  • help you to prepare for your bibliography.

What will I use them for?

In your essay, project, dissertation or thesis you must cite any published or unpublished work that you use and they must be included in your bibliography.

Good referencing:

  • Will be complete and consistent.
  • Helps to avoid any suspicion of plagiarism.
  • Allows your supervisor to find and check the material you have used.
  • Enhances the quality of your work.

Your reference lists/bibliographies should be presented in the style recommended by your School or Department, and the authoritative resource for all referencing styles in use at St Mary's is Cite Them Right Online

See the Referencing Library Guide page for information including information on Refworks.

There are several ways to manage your references:

  • Manually on record cards or in a document - This system may still work well for short essays. You can easily sort cards into the order you need, but you will need to be able to transcribe the details accurately into your bibliography.
  • Using the References feature in Microsoft Word - A facility in Microsoft Word lets you add references to a document and then create a bibliography at the end of the text. Please be aware that the references generated using this feature may not comply with the St Mary's Policy on Bibliographic Referencing, which is to follow the formats set out in Cite them Right Online, but you might still want to use it to keep a record for yourself.
  • Using RefWorks - RefWorks is an online referencing tool. It allows you to collect all your references and citations for a piece of work in one location and automatically keep them up to date. It can also be used to make bibliographies. Click here to access RefWorks.

Keeping up-to-date

New books and articles are being published all the time. Your literature review should be updated if your project is researched and written over a long period of time. You can do this by:

  • browsing tables of contents of new issues of journals in your subject – whether print versions or online
  • using alerting features on databases - such as re-running searches, email alerts or RSS feeds to be notified when additional articles on a subject or by a specific author are entered into the databases
  • using alerting services/newsletters from publishers.

Top tips

  1. Allow plenty of time for your initial literature search and keep up-to-date throughout.
  2. Consider what might you include. How much information? What kinds of information, and at what level?
  3. Decide where to look - use the Subject guide for your subject as a starting point.
  4. Master search techniques to find relevant references.
  5. Find out how to get hold of material if it's not in the Library.
  6. Decide how you will manage your references early on.

Adapted from material at University of Reading