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Literature Search: Literature search in 6 steps

In this guide you get an introduction to how and where you can search for literature

About academic literature search in 6 steps

Academic studies are based on research papers, and skills in literature search are for that reason crucial for students, researchers and knowledge workers in the future. For students at RUC, these skills are particularly important due to the PPL-model (Problem-oriented Project Learning).

Strategic literature search in an academic context is a craft and a technique that takes time to master. To simplify the process for you, we have developed a search strategy in 6 steps. If you follow this strategy, you will cover all aspects of literature search needed to build a solid knowledge base for your semester project, bachelor's, or master's thesis.

By building your searches strategically and thoughtfully, you can avoid some of the common problems and pitfalls, e.g. only using Google, Google Scholar, or in general conducting random searches. This libguide introduces you to search tools, library catalogues, and databases that you need to build your search strategy.

The literature search model in 6 steps is circular and should not necessarily be followed rigorously from step 1-6. Often, it will be necessary to adjust your strategy along the way, and maybe jump from step to step. Moreover it will most likely be necessary to go through the model more than once.

Search words and searchs strings

This step is about making your interest or problem searchable. The entire search strategy is an iterative hermeneutic proces, and it's natural for keywords and search strings to evolve from initially being a few general words to becoming more specific, more elaborate, and more complex over time.

This step is about defining criteria for your search. What kind og literature are you interested in? How extensive should it be - meaning how many articles can you manage to handle? In research, we talk about inclusion and exclusion criteria - some can be incorporated into your searches, but others need to be implemented through manual selection.

This step is about selecting the places where you search for literature. You should be aware that different databases can contain different types of material, that there can be differences in search functions, that databases may overlap, but not all material can be found in a single database, and that some databases, search engines, and other literature search software can be based on non-transparent algorithms and may even produce non-reproductible results.

This step is about conducting and documenting the actual searches, as well as collecting the material that needs to be included. Furthermore, some search strategies may involve including literature from various findings, such as chain searching and citation searching.

This step involves the actual work with the discovered texts. Typically, it begins with a more thorough selection process, initially at the title/abstract level based on the criteria formulated in STEP 2. Subsequently, of course, reading the found material, unless it is concluded that there is too much material to read, in which case narrowing down the search may be necessary.

This step aims to formulate reflections about the search strategy that has been developed. When you reach your final search strategy, either because you are satisfied with it or because you are running out of time, it is important to reflect in writing, within the methodology section, on how the choices and exclusions have influenced the knowledge base upon which you are building your work. What biases may have arisen, and in general, what strengths and weaknesses the strategy possesses.

Search strategy in 6 steps

Read more about literature search


Read the following text by Boell & Cecez-Kecmanovic from 2010. which has been the inspiration for our 6-step model for literature search. In this article, literature search is described as a hermeneutic iterative process.

Boell, S. K., & Cecez-Kecmanovic, D. (2010). Literature Reviews and the Hermeneutic Circle. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 41(2), 129–144. Link.