I find the following quotation most helpful – I hope you do too. ‘I keep six honest serving men: (they taught me all I knew). Their names are What and Where and When. And How and Why and Who’ (Rudyard Kipling, ampoule The Elephant’s Child, pilule Just So Stories, 1902).


A literature search is a carefully planned and structured method of searching and finding all or selected information (published and unpublished) that is available and relevant to your chosen topic, theory, debate or author.

Purpose of searching

  • Finding material relevant to your chosen topic
  • Providing a rationale for the research, essay or area of study
  • Supporting your discussion with relevant reading
  • Finding what has already been done and any gaps in the literature
  • To make you better informed about a subject
  • To compare research on a particular topic
  • To enhance the credibility of findings
  • To reduce the effect of bias in findings


Identify the type of search to be undertaken.

  • Is it a scoping review, where the purpose is to find out how much literature exists?
  • Is it a mapping review, which aims to identify gaps in the literature?
  • Is it a systematic review, which aims to be comprehensive, well defined and clear?

Once you have identified the type of search, you will need to ask yourself, and answer, the following WHAT questions:

  • What is the topic? This will need to be clearly identified and defined. Look for several definitions.
  • What are the main concepts and key terms within the topic?
  • What is your research question(s), if it is research you are doing?
  • What do you want to find out?
  • What are the databases and types of literature in your field?


Once you have identified the type of search and what you are looking for, you need to know WHERE to look.

  • Where can you access the databases that you need to search?
  • Where are the specialist journals located?
  • Are there Subject Indexes/Internet search engines in your field? (These are information resources that contains references to other resources, categorised by subject).
  • Look at citations and references articles in journals.
  • Do you need to consider: global, international, European, UK sources?
  • Are there relevant books you need to access?
  • Is there Grey Literature e.g. conference proceedings, unpublished literature?


When you have identified where the relevant reading material is, you need to decide how far back you need to look.

  • How many years back? You may need to provide a rationale for this.
  • Is there a range of dates you need to consider?
  • Do you have your own plan for when you are going to carrying the searching? (It does take a long time).


Do you know HOW to carry out a search? You need a search strategy.

  • How much material do you need?
  • Get familiar with the electronic databases in your field. Talk to your ‘Librarian’ or Information Consultant if you are unsure about this.
  • Become familiar with the key words and terms that you need to search for.
  • Know how the Boolean operators OR is used to combine terms with same concept together, expanding a search. AND is used to combine different concepts together, narrowing the search. NOT is used to exclude irrelevant terms, thus narrowing the search.
  • Know how to use truncation (‘*’ ‘$’) and wildcards (‘?’).


This question should be asked all the time of all the above. Keep referring back to your question and/or area of study, this will keep your search focussed, as I know, it is easy to get side-tracked!  Good luck.


Once you have started searching for relevant material, you will know who is an expert in the field. Which authors are frequently cited when writing about your topic? What is the population or sample you are concerned about?

Sources of reference:

Booth, A. Papaioannou, D. & Sutton, A. (2012). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review. London: Sage.

Coughlan, M. Cronin, P. & Ryan, F. (2013). Doing a literature review in Nursing, Health and Social Care. London: Sage.

Good luck searching. Dr Pat Wood (Your Personal Proofreader – www.barwood-educational.co.uk)