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How do I do a literature search?

A literature search is a systematic, thorough search of all types of literature (e.g. books, peer reviewed articles, etc.) in your topic. Commonly you will be asked to undertake literature searches as part of your Level 3 and postgraduate study.

It's important before undertaking any research to fully understand the shape of the literature in the area. Literature searching can be broken down into a series of iterative steps. You may want to revisit some of these several times throughout your search.

Planning your search

What to search for: Key words and phrases

Start the process by clarifying the research question you would like answered. Your next step is to use your research question to help you identify keywords. The language and terminology of your subject area will help you to identify the most effective words for your search.

You can also identify keywords by looking for background information on key areas within your topic online as this will give you ideas for synonyms and other words commonly used.

Where to search: Databases and Google Scholar

Now that you have your keywords you need to decide which databases to search. No two databases include exactly the same content. It is therefore advisable to search several databases to make sure you do not miss a key paper on your topic. If you are unsure where to search, the selected resources for your study page will help you find the most relevant databases. You may also like to use Google Scholar, which will search a wider set of resources, including items not available through the OU Library. 

Search techniques

Once you have your keywords you will need to combine them. This helpsheet on Advanced search techniques will provide assistance. The Library online training session Smarter searching with library databases may help with search techniques.

Further reading:

Byrne, D. (2017). Developing a researchable questionProject Planner. 10.4135/9781526408525. Sage Research Methods.

The Access eresources using Google Scholar page shows how to add the "Find it at OU" button to Google Scholar search results.

Byrne, D. (2017). Reviewing the literatureProject Planner. 10.4135/9781526408518. Sage Research Methods.

Evaluating information

You will need to evaluate the literature you find for quality and relevance. The PROMPT criteria will help you with this. If you have problems applying any of the criteria this activity on evaluating the quality of information (requires login) will provide more assistance .

Organising information

When conducting a literature search recording the information you find in an organised manner is essential. Literature searches require you to read and keep track of many more articles than you would read for an assignment. You may want to try using a bibliographic management tool to help organise the references you have found. The library page on Bibliographic management will help you understand the different tools available.

The Library's organising information activity will explain:

  • why it is important to organise information
  • what is meant by referencing and why it is important