How To Perform A Literature Search

Doing background research for a paper that requires a literature review or strongly documented argument can be a challenging process if a student does not know which search engines to use and how. Keep these tips in mind for locating peer-reviewed sources that are relevant to any paper topic.
Know What Type of Literature is Required for Sources
If writing a paper on a scientific, medical, or technical issue, sources from peer-reviewed scientific or technical journals should always be included. Similarly, if writing a paper on law, legal documents and law journals should be consulted, and if writing a philosophy paper, etc, peer-reviewed philosophical journals or books should be key sources. Make this the first area of focus for the literature search.
Determine the Accessibility of Search Engines and Library Resources
Many university and some high school library systems maintain a large database of scientific or peer-reviewed journals available at no cost to the student, provided they are logged into the system. Check with the school to see if they have access to these resources. Some high schools partner with local universities to offer more for their students, so ask about that as well.
If they provide free access to a list of relevant peer-reviewed journals, learn how to use a search engine. Most libraries offer informational sessions or private guidance for navigating scholarly search engines such as PubMed or JSTOR. When used correctly, search engines can make the literature search process a snap.
Know What Counts as Academic Sources
Peer-reviewed or scholarly sources are sometimes difficult to identify if a student is unfamiliar with the search process and the standards for academic sources. Though there are many tips for identifying peer-reviewed references, it basically means sticking to academic journals, sources on Google Scholar, books from reputable publishers, and government or university web pages.
Avoid just doing a general internet search for the paper topic, as most of the “.com” websites to come up in the results will be inappropriate for citations in an academic paper. When in doubt regarding an internet-based source, contact the professor for permission or find a replacement source.
Use Key Terms for Searches
At the beginning of a search, general information may be the most important; it is often a good idea to do a basic internet search for background information, as understanding the foundations of the topic will help clarify the direction of the rest of the literature search. Take note of the sources, authors, and key facts in these basic articles to inform the future search and refine key terms to search for.
Being specific about the type of information needed for the paper will make it easier to track down the most helpful sources. In most academic search engines, there are ways to get very detailed in terms of which words must be included in the results’ titles, subtitles, search terms, main text, etc. If after some initial searching it is clear that there are particular experts in the field, include a last name in with a general topic search to find more of their publications.
Put these tips to use during the search for appropriate sources, and finding reliable references should become a breeze.

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