Before you begin searching it’s helpful to set out a plan. A general search plan will cover:
The topic(s) you are going to search on
The search engines and databases you will use
How you will keep records of your searches and the items you find
You can find out more about reference management tools such as RefWorks on our Reference management pages
You can create personal accounts in many databases, and use these accounts to save searches and items
Start out with a plan - what do you want to find in this search? You might start out looking for specific items– for example, an article in the bibliography of a book you've read or an article recommended by a colleague.
As you read these specific items, you will develop an understanding of your topic. You will identify important authors, concepts, results etc. All of these can form the base for search terms in later searches. You can also use search terms which are based on your research question, taking key concepts and alternative terms for those concepts.
Many databases will have a thesaurus or list of subject terms. You can use this feature to look for search terms- it can be helpful to check if your search terms match the thesaurus, and the thesaurus can also suggest additional search terms.
Developing a search : using citation searching
Citation searching allows you to follow the research trail forward and backwards in time.
Following the trail backwards:
Look at the references at the end of a source to understand which items and which researchers the author read and cited.
Following the trail forwards:
Explore who has cited the article since it was published.
Which databases offer citation searching?
Many specialist resources provide access to articles which enable you to:
View the references at the end of an article of interest.
Find articles which have cited an article of interest by using the “Times Cited” or “Cited by” options.
Citation searching is available in a number of specialist sources. When choosing which source to citation search within you should consider the following points:
Does the resource cover my research?
What is the range and coverage of the citation data?
Do I need to run citation searches in multiple sources?
We recommend that you find cited by data using Web of Science or Scopus in addition to other sources you have used for subject searches.
Some specialist resources and databases offer tools to enable you to analyse the results of a search you have done. For example you may have found a number of results matching a keyword search. You could analyse the results to find:
Which authors published the most papers in your list of results.
In which journals the papers most commonly appeared.
The organizations the authors were affiliated with.
This can help you to identify:
Authors whose work you may want to read (you can then search for them to find out what else they have published.)
Journals you should be looking at.
Organizations you could search for.
Looking beyond the results of your search
When you have searched a database you will be able to look at your list of results. You can also use database / article page prompts to locate additional content that may match your search or research interest. These are often described as:
times cited/cited by
titles with your search terms
Having found your sources, you need to select those you want to read. You should have a set of criteria to help make these choices – these could be very detailed if your literature review is part of a systematic review. The criteria will vary from project to project, but common criteria are:
The authority and credibility of the source.
The relevance of the source material.
The age of the source.
Corrections are an important part of ensuring the body of information is reliable and are often included by the publishers of articles where it is thought these are necessary. If you find an article of interest, it can also be helpful to look out for:
Corrections related to the article from the authors or journal editor.
Correspondence related to the article in later issues of the journal that provide discussion or challenge, in the form of comments or expressions of concern.
In some cases, the issues with an article may be of a magnitude that requires it to be retracted by the authors or by the journal editor. The types of issues which cause retractions range from honest errors to misconduct such a plagiarism or fabrication. When a retraction occurs the article is NOT removed from the journal in print or online. The publisher will usually alert you to the fact that an article has been retracted, however this appears in different ways in different journals and library databases. Look out for notes and watermarks identifying retracted articles.
Retraction Watch is a blog following retractions. It can be a good way of keeping up to date with retractions and an interesting read for researchers.
You can search for data in a number of collections and sites.
In your planning you will set out the type(s) of source you’re looking for- articles, books, conference papers and so on. In this section we cover how to find sources such as conference papers, theses, grey literature, and policy documents.
Conferences are fantastic sources of information for keeping up-to date with developments within your field.
You can find out about forthcoming conferences in your subject by using:
email discussion lists
social media networks
Web of Science, a large multidisciplinary database, indexes conferences as well as other material – use the conference field in the search boxes. Some subject databases also index conference papers. Have a look at the Subject Guide in your area for more information on what the databases cover.
Doctoral and research Masters theses have been through a comprehensive review process to ensure their quality, and are often quoted in academic work. Undergraduate and taught Masters theses will not include marks (for confidentiality reasons) and it can be difficult to judge their quality.
SHURA (Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive) provides electronic access to SHU Doctoral theses.
If you would like to see examples of Article based PhDs or PhDs on the basis of publication, use the SHURA Advanced search and in the ‘Uncontrolled keywords’ field, type in either ‘Article based PhD’ or ‘PhD on the basis of publication’ (a search for ‘PhD’ in this field finds both types).
You can use the resources below to find doctoral theses from other institutions:
EThOS: Electronic Theses Online Service
You can search the library catalogues of universities in other countries to find details of the theses produced by their students. If there is a postgraduate thesis you need, and it is not available electronically, the Library’s Document Supply Service will try to obtain it.
The following sources may help you to find theses & dissertations in progress:
UKRI gateway to research gives access to information about publicly funded current research projects and outcomes of past projects. Some of the research will be doctoral level research.
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council awarded grants includes current and completed research grants, institute projects, fellowships, studentships and training grants which are funded by BBSRC.
Arts and Humanities Research Council themes gives details of current awards and funding opportunities are given under each theme.
Current Legal Research Topics Database covers research in progress by students studying for higher degrees in law in the UK.
Directory of History Dissertations from the American Historical Association. Lists theses in progress and completed at universities in the USA and Canada.
Other places to look for information
You can search for material in archives- including material in the National Archives’ collections- using the National Archives service.
to look in a particular archive, use the advanced search option and select ‘search other archives’ in the Held by section.
Government web sites e.g. gov.uk and individual government department web sites e.g. Department of Health and Social Care.
Organisations such as OFSTED and NICE and any databases they produce (e.g. NHS evidence.)
Charities, campaign, and pressure groups.
International organisations- e.g. the United Nations and its agencies, the European Union.
Learned and professional societies.
You can use a grey literature database such as OpenGrey which covers European material, but may not contain recent items; or BASE which has an option to search for conference papers, theses, and reports.
If a resource that you need isn’t available via the Library Gateway, you can request the resource or try to find it at another library.
The library may be able to obtain items for you if they are not available from our collection.
Using other libraries
You may also be able to access the resource at another library. Reciprocal borrowing agreements give you access to many other public and academic libraries.