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Literature searching

A literature search is a well thought out, organised search and evaluation of literature available on a topic. A well-structured literature search is the most effective and efficient way to locate sound evidence on the subject you are researching.  'Literature' can include journal articles, newspaper articles, official publications, conference proceedings, archives, book chapters etc.

How detailed should my search be?

How detailed you make your literature search depends on its purpose.

To find information for an assignment or essay, for example, you would be expected to find key literature available on your topic, not everything which has been published. In this case, basic literature searching techniques using free text (your own terms) and a small number of bibliographic databases, would usually suffice.

When it comes to performing a literature search for a systematic review, for instance, then you would be expected to find all the relevant literature available on your research topic. This would mean that as well as using bibliographic databases you would need to use other types of resources, for example, those which provide access to grey literature. You would also be expected to use advanced literature searching techniques which involves performing a controlled vocabulary (subject heading) search combined with a free text search.

Resources for Literature Searching

Here you can find details of the various resources you can use when performing a literature search. The resources you use will depend on the purpose of your literature search:

Bibliographic databases

These are the key resources you will need to use for a literature search. Databases can be used to search for published studies and reports on studies relating to your topic.

Most databases allow you to create accounts which will enable you to save your search strategies and results that you find.

Details of key databases can be found in the Subject Guide most relevant to your research topic.

Citation searching

Citation searching involves selecting key studies you have found and, for each of these, searching for studies that have cited them and looking for references that your key studies have used themselves. This may help you to find studies that you did not find through your initial search.

Two key resources for citation searching are:

Grey literature

Grey Literature refers to research that is either unpublished or has been published in non-commercial form. Examples of grey literature include: policy statements and issues papers; conference proceedings; pre-prints and post-prints of articles; theses and dissertations; research reports; newsletters and bulletins and fact sheets.

Two grey literature resources you can use are:


Searching websites of key organisations relating to your topic may be useful. Many of these list their own publications. It may also be worth searching research funder’s websites and pharmaceutical industry websites if your review refers to a specific drug etc.

Hand searching

Hand searching involves browsing key journals either physically or online. This is necessary because:

  • All journals are not indexed on all databases
  • Additional parts of journals such as supplements may not always be indexed in databases.
  • Studies may be missed searching databases as indexing terms are frequently introduced or updated


It is worth contacting authors of key studies you find to ask about other research they can point you to.