Literature Searches: A Guide to Getting It Right


When performing literature searches, there are a number of essential points to remember to ensure that you gather the most relevant or essential papers. The exploration of research topics for academic or pure research must be properly curated to achieve the desired goals. To help researchers get it right, we are providing here a set of guidelines and reference links. This guide should assist researchers in performing improved, comprehensive, and satisfying literature searches. Some valuable articles for discovering the best ideas about your literature search are given in references (1–9). Those articles also provide many valuable insights as well as further links to resources and tools that will help you on your journey into the scientific literature. Finally, at the conclusion of this article, we have included a set of Technical Literature Search Information References and Links.

Key Points

1. Find the Optimum Search Terms

Ask several experts in a particular field what search terms they would use for a literature search on your topic—either in person, by email, or by phone. If that is not possible due to your circumstances, then look up the multiple articles by those you surmise to be experts in the field and collect the keywords used in their article titles and abstracts. Then expand your search using those specific search terms you have collected; at this point you will begin to discover the most relevant articles. Using the main or best keywords for your search is paramount for success. Avoid using general or generic terms and only one or two terms. Researchers do not often use a generic term for titles or keywords because the specific academic field has moved on after several years to more specific keywords and manuscript titles. For example, rather than using a broad search term like Raman spectroscopy you would need to use narrower terms for a specific Raman technique, like SERS. This example also points out another point to watch out for: SERS can be spelled out in two different ways, as surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy or surface-enhanced Raman scattering.

2. Identify the Databases to Search

Locating and having access to key databases is essential for finding the literature sources to meet your requirements. Depending on your available resources, you may or may not be able to access some of the more comprehensive database libraries or gain access to copies of published papers. If you are at a major university, then the library or scientific department staff can assist you in locating the best search channels or outlets. Note that some universities maintain databases of peer-reviewed articles and also archive other sources to find lists of relevant articles. Free databases include those shown in the following references, which also provide links to the databases (10–20). The paid subscription database Web of Science (WOS) link is given in reference (21). 

3. Secure Copies of Essential Papers

If you have access to university resources, you may often be able to retrieve copies of papers from your available subscriptions.You may also check university sites or specific research group home pages for access to published papers. There are open access sites like ResearchGate (14) that also provide free copies of some manuscripts. And there is always the “old school” method of contacting a researcher or research department and requesting a PDF copy of a paper for academic or teaching purposes.

4. Carefully Archive Your Information for Future Use

Be sure to organize your database searches and manuscripts so that they can be accessed in the future and easily perused. Given that you are going through all that effort to search the literature and gain access to copies of manuscripts, be sure that you can retrieve and use that information, months from now and also a decade or more into the future.

Technical Literature Search Information References and Links

(Accessed March 7, 2022)

Online Articles on Literature Search Strategies

(1) 7 Proven literature search strategies for scientific literature review:

(2) 8 Winning hacks to use Google Scholar for your research paper:

(3) How to write a search strategy for your systematic review:

(4) Systematic Reviews: a Practical Guide:

(5) Conducting a successful literature search: A researcher’s guide to tools, terms and techniques (PDF):

(6) How to Search the Scientific Literature:

(7) Curating the world’s peer-reviewed literature:

Links to Published Articles on Literature Searches

(8) LitSuggest: a web-based system for literature recommendation and curation using machine learning (article):

(9) Harnessing Scholarly Literature as Data to Curate, Explore, and Evaluate Scientific Research (article):

Links to Free Literature Search Websites

Note that some databases are not relevant to analytical science and were thus excluded from the list below.

(10) 10 Free Research and Journal Databases

(11) Google Scholar:

(12) Microsoft Academic:

(13) Semantic Scholar:

(14) ResearchGate:

(15) Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE):

(16) WorldWideScience:

(17) Science Direct:

(18) PubMed:

(19) Scopus:

(20) CORE (Open access database):

Link to Paid Subscription Literature Search Website

(21) Web of Science:

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