Institute for Academic Development
Institute for Academic Development

Literature searching

Some advice on managing a literature search.

Get support early on

Attend training: ensure you attend any training or orientation session about finding and using resources, and thoroughly study any information your programme provides on the subject at the start of your course.

Don’t wait until assignment time!: time spent early on getting familiar with literature searching and knowing the University’s libraries and / or online systems and resources will save you valuable time during the very busy and stressful assessment periods of your programme.

Finding resources: some tips

Some suggestions include:

Use reading lists: your module reading lists are the best starting point for credible sources.

Use other people: ask your lecturers which resources are the most important to read, and what are the most reputable print and online journals and publications. They can also recommend further specialist reading in topics you are particularly interested in.

Ask doctoral researchers in your area what books and articles they found most inspiring, and ask other students on your programme what resources or searching techniques they are finding the most helpful.

Use bibliographies: when reading articles or chapters, use the bibliography to find information on similar and related topics. Often one of two good quality articles may be the ‘key’ that opens the door to a whole range of literature on the specific topic you are researching.

Use the outside world: depending on your subject area, you may find material published by Governments, charities, commercial organisations, and policy bodies and think-tanks useful for studying and comparing how issues are discussed and applied outside academia.

Prioritise your resources

Know what matters most: ask for clear guidance on what are the most important topics to research. This is particularly important if you are time-pressed with work and / or caring commitments as well as your studies.

Check relevance: you might have located a large amount of interesting-looking potential sources. Which appear most relevant to the topic you are studying or researching?

Check credibility and publication date: be sure it is from a reputable and acceptable source for your programme, and check the date of publication: is research from this time period still credible for the purposes of your task?

Accept you cannot find everything: do your best within the time available to you. Make a list of your target sources to search, and set a deadline for researching a topic. At a certain point, remember that enough is enough. It can be easy to avoid actually beginning to write up an assignment, by spending too much time searching for more sources.

Using time effectively is important at postgraduate level: remember you also need to leave time for reading, reflection, note making, and writing up assignments.

University of Edinburgh guidance on finding and using resources

General guidance is available from the University library:

Further reading and resources

Books: There are a number of books available - both generic and subject-specific - on the topic of searching literature, and doing a comprehensive literature review.

Blackwells bookshop opposite the University’s Old College stocks a good selection of titles in its first floor study skills section. Most quality online booksellers will also stock a good range.

Online: useful online resources include: