Literature searching

Site: QMplus - The Online Learning Environment of Queen Mary University of London
Module: RDF: Information Literacy Skills for Researchers
Book: Literature searching
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Tuesday, 16 April 2024, 7:11 PM


Draft text.

1. What exactly is a literature search?

A literature search is in essence a detailed and organised search for work that has been done in your field of interest. The results are carefully recorded, and the searches themselves should be reproducible.

Broadly speaking, post-graduate and academic research is a source-driven process, and it is likely that during the course of your work you will make use of a greater range of information formats than previously. The picture below indicates some of the source materials you may encounter, although exactly what you use will be determined by your subject. 

It is also the case that the applied nature of certain areas of study and research means that our information needs will often extend beyond scholarly, peer-reviewed academic literature to include professional/vocational information, publications and services.

The tables below highlight the important differences between academic information and professional or vocational information:

Academic Information


What is it?

Published academic information. Based on either original research or experimentation, or on secondary research in the form of reviews or summaries. Includes footnotes and/or a bibliography and may include graphs or charts and other supplementary material such as data tables.



Written by someone with a recognised degree of authority in a particular field, typically an academic or researcher.



Read and used by other experts in a particular field, including students of a recognised academic discipline.



Produced in print and electronic formats.



Published by an academic association or a university/academic press.



Advances study and research by reporting new findings or ideas; also increases the author’s authority and credentials in the field.


Quality control

Usually subject to the peer-review process - i.e. other academics, researchers or specialists working in a particular discipline evaluate the quality and originality of the research as a precondition of publication.



Examples of academic information are scholarly, peer-reviewed journals such as:

Annals of Biomedical Engineering

The Lancet

Harvard International Law Journal

Past & Present

Professional/Vocational Information


What is it?


Professional/vocational includes industry news and analysis; product and market information; news about technical developments, materials and processes; reviews of software.




Written by a member of a profession or industry but not necessarily a researcher.



Read and used by members of a particular profession or field.



Produced in print and electronic formats




Published by independent commercial publishers and companies.



Informs, promotes and generally strengthens the profession, and enhances knowledge of current professional practice


Quality control

No formal evaluation of professional vocational information, but information from professional bodies is likely to be good quality up to date and relevant.



Examples of professional/vocational information include the following:

Engineering Industries Association

British Medical Association

London Mathematical Society

The Poetry Society

The Teaching & Learning Support Team are always ready to assist: Contact the T&LS Team  

2. Scheduling your literature search

Source: Public Domain

The organisation of literature searches will vary somewhat across disciplines, and for every subject the timeline of a literature search will be different. However, it is probable that you will actually do several literature searches during the lifetime of your project. These flash-cards suggest why this is a useful approach:

The key point is to be flexible and prepared either to revisit past searches looking for newly published material, or to construct entirely new searches if you find that your original searches are not producing useful results.

3. Starting your literature search

Source: Pixabay

There are a wide range of search tools that you can use to access the information you need. Investigate these tools when you are confident that you are clear about the main concepts covered in the chapter 'Developing Your Search Techniques'.

Sources can include library catalogues, search engines and gateways, as well as databases. See some examples here. 

A good starting point for your literature search is the Library website, particularly our QMUL Library Subject Guides.

These webpages list and link directly to databases and high-quality websites.

The Teaching & Learning Support Team are always ready to assist:  Contact the T&LS Team