Literature searching: structuring topic searches and other tips
From Marshall Dozier on October 8th, 2019
Introduction and contents
This presentation introduces searching for literature using keywords and a few ways of managing your literature-based work so that things are a bit easier.
I’ll cover an approach to structuring or mapping out your keywords for your search, and some tips for effective keyword searching.
I’ll suggest some ways to keep records of your work and sources so that it’s easier to remember what you’ve done, how your ideas are developing, and what publications you’ve looked at.
By structuring a search, I mean thinking a bit about what you’re looking for before you sit down to search. Literature searching is not usually a one-off process where you know exactly what you’re looking for at the outset, so be prepared to adjust or refine your plans, especially at the start.
This process includes thinking round synonyms or alternative terms for your key concepts and how they relate to one another.
Search plans can easily and usefully be part of a research journal where you record your thoughts as you go along the journey of your project.
When you are deciding on a research topic, it often starts just with a bare bones of an idea that needs to be fleshed out. However for the sake of ease in this exercise, I’m offering a scenario. You may want to pause this recording now so you can read the scenario on this slide.
Your regional health service has a recently established a health education team who have created mobile phone apps to help people living with diabetes better to understand what causes deterioration in their health, learn about improved lifestyle habits, and manage their condition better.
Engagement with the mobile apps is low, however. Adults with diabetes, or parents of children with diabetes, seem resistant to using the app and exacerbations of illness have not been reduced.
The health service director has asked you to find published research that could help understand barriers to uptake of mobile apps for health education.
Next, I’ll start structuring an approach to searching on the topics presented in this scenario.Venn diagram
I’ve created a Venn diagram with three concept areas – one for mobile apps, one for diabetes, and one grouping outcomes and study designs. I’ve also started a list of possible criteria for relevance – I mean, things I want to think about when I look at my search results to judge if the information in those results is relevant to the scenario I’m addressing.
Looking at the Venn diagram, you can see I have a few alternative terms in the circle about mobile apps – I’m sure you can think of more terms that could be added. Note that I’ve put in the word OR next to that list of terms. I plan to combine those terms using the combining operator OR because I would like to see results with either one or the others within that circle – for the purposes of my search topic, they are interchangeable, even if they don’t mean quite the same thing.
I have three circles with OR, and then where they overlap I’ve put the combining term AND. My plan is that my search results are represented by that overlapping area – my search results should have at least one term from each of my concept circles, and therefore more likely to be relevant to my needs.
Looking at the circle with Interviews, Qualitative or Barriers – here I have indicated not only an outcome of interest but also terms that indicate the methods or study designs that could yield the types of data that would help me address the problem we’re trying to solve. It might seem more logical to have study designs and outcome in separate circles – and for some research topics that could work best – but often I find that it is more successful because outcomes or findings of interest are not always described at the level of journal article title or abstract. If appropriate methods are described in the title or abstract, then I can look at the full article to see if they deal with the outcomes I’m interested in.
So although barriers as a subject of research and the methods of that research are not synonymous topics, I am treating them as interchangeable because I want to see results that combine barriers to uptake of mobile apps in people with diabetes, or qualitative studies that look at use of mobile apps in people with diabetes in case issues with uptake or barriers to use are discussed.
Here’s a summary of Boolean combining operators – these are powerful to use in building a search, and it’s important to use the correct combining operator.
AND is used to require both or all topics to be present, so its results are narrowed or focused down.
OR is used to include any of the terms in the results, so its effect is to broaden or expand the search.
NOT is used to remove or exclude – this is a bit of a blunt instrument and can lead to relevant publications being removed from your results, so we’d recommend using this only with caution.
In the previous slide I used both OR and AND in my Venn diagram – my hope is that that approach will be both sufficiently broad with synonyms in each concept area, but also sufficiently focused and relevant, with results containing at least one term from each concept area.Reverse engineering…
In planning your search, it’s worth making notes to push some thinking round what search results would be most useful for your project. The questions in this slide are probably more relevant to a research topic that is fairly well defined.
At an earlier stage, you may find it more useful to pick out angles that interest you – for example if you’re interested in diabetes, consider questions like Why are you interested in diabetes? Are you wanting to explore, for example, prevention? Early questions like that can help you formulate initial literature searches that lead you to publications that can help you to refine your ideas and develop your research questions.Iterative searching
Searching is an iterative process – it’s almost inevitable that after a bit of searching, you’ll want to adjust your query or research question. You may find you cycle through these steps a few times as you refine your search and your research aims.
Tips for keyword searching
Next we’ll look at applying our structured keywords to a literature database and a couple of search techniques to complement keyword searches.
I’ve chosen the database (actually it’s a set of combined databases) called Web of Science because it’s multidisciplinary and likely to have something on your own topic.
You can see I’m in the Basic Search, and I’ve got three search boxes. In each box, I’ve replicated what I planned in my Venn diagram. Inside each box I have my search terms combined with OR, and the separate boxes are combined with AND, so my final results should have at least one term from within each box – just what I was planning in my diagram.
If you look in the first box, you’ll see I have double quotation marks around the words Mobile app. The quotation marks force those two words to be searched for as a phrase. This is a technique you can use to help ensure your results have the concept you’re looking for and not just with both terms present but unrelated.
You can also see that at the end of a few terms, I have put a star or asterisk. This is to allow variations in the ending of those words. So, app could be application or apps. Barrier could be singular or plural. Interview could be interviewed or interviewing or interviews, and so on. This technique is called truncation. I’ve chopped off the end of the words and have placed the truncation symbol, in this case the asterisk, against the root of my search term. When you do this, make sure the root of your truncated term is not too short – this can lead to completely unrelated words being retrieved instead.
Next, I’m clicking on the search button…
…And here are the first few results. I can see I got 170 results (in upper left corner) so the numbers are not very big. At this stage I’m doing two main things.
Firstly, skimming through the result titles, I want to get a feel for how generally relevant they are – do the results seem logical, considering my search terms and aims? If not, if there are completely irrelevant results, then I may need to look again at my search terms to see which ones are leading to the irrelevant results, or I may need to look at my combinations in case I have a mistake in how I have combined my use of combining operators.
Secondly, I’m looking for authors’ use of terms that could help refine my search. For example in that first result, I see the word “acceptability” and I think that would be a good addition to my search, to combine with Barriers using OR.
Next, I’d like to move on to a couple of other approaches to searching that complement topic searching. First, key author searching, and secondly, citation tracking.
If you see a relevant looking paper, it’s worth checking to see if the authors have published other work in the same area. In this database, you can just click on one of the authors to perform a search on their publications indexed in the database. I’ll click on the first author, Astrid Torbjornsen.Web of Science author search
In these search results I can check to see if Torbjornsen has published other work in the same area.
I’ll use these results to illustrate what I mean by ‘citation tracking.’ You’ll be familiar with looking through reference lists at the end of articles to follow up on prior studies or publications. Those publications are necessarily older – you’re going back in publication time. Some databases allow you to work in the other direction too – if you look at the right hand side of these results, you can see the words Times Cited – that’s how many *more recently* published papers have cited the article listed here, as far as this database can establish. So result number 3 has been cited one time, and if you click on that times cited number….
…you can see the details of the more recently published papers. This is another very useful technique for finding relevant literature, and it is a good complement to topic searching.
I’d like to illustrate this in one other tool, Google Scholar…
I’ve pasted the title of the Torbjornsen paper into Google Scholar, and you can see at the bottom of the result entry, a link reading Cited by 4.
(so different than Web of Science) Clicking on that link …
….takes us to a list of those four more recent papers.
Bear in mind that people could cite a relevant paper for reasons quite different to your own area of interest, so not all citing papers will be relevant.
But this can be a great way of finding more up to date research in a particular area.
Keeping records of sources and your work
In this next section, I’ll cover points about keeping track of your workSaving search histories
As part of keeping a note of your work and making it easier to remember what you’ve already done, I recommend that you save your search histories. Most online database platforms allow you to register and create a profile for yourself, and to save search histories or other work in progress. This means that when you return to your searching, you don’t have to start from scratch each time. It allows you to document your work and this can be a great point of discussion at meetings with your supervisor, who can offer advice for refining your search topics.
You can also set up saved searches to send you periodic alerts – for example by email – with any new database records that match your search.
You should consider how you name pdfs you download, and where you save them so that you can easily find them again when you need to.
If you have printed articles or books, where do you keep them so you can find them again, and how do you annotate relevant sections so you can find your notes and relevant details again when you need them?
I’d strongly recommend that you use bibliographic management software, such as EndNote, Mendeley or Zotero. These are applications that are essentially database templates – you can use them to keep records of any type of source you’ve found, and you can also use them to keep notes, attach pdfs or other files, organise records into thematic or project folders. What’s really helpful is all these applications will work with Microsoft Word or other word processors to allow you to insert citations and create bibliographies somewhat automatically – these applications can save you a lot of time.
For the papers or sources that you choose to read in full text, I’d suggest you go beyond highlighting and practice writing out your responses to the paper. If you’d like to see an example template for note taking on readings, have a look at the Cornell note taking method – this blog post gives an introduction to the method and provides links to templates you could use. https://thesiswhisperer.com/2018/08/22/the-cornell-note-taking-method-revisited/Summary points
To summarise, the points would like you to remember and practice are:
Planning your search before you sit down at the computer can help to save time and provide you with what can feel a clearer and more organized approach to the literature. Though do bear in mind that literature searching is an iterative process and you can sometimes still feel a bit lost as you are exploring the literature. Keep exploring and keep reviewing your thoughts on what you’re looking for.
When searching for keywords, remember to use the powerful combining operators to make your search both inclusive and focused.
You can make your search more precise when needed by searching for exact phrases – some databases require you to put double quotation marks round a phrase.
You can truncate terms to allow for variations in endings – a very powerful way of quickly searching flexibly to allow different phrasings by authors.
To complement your keyword searches, use other techniques such as citation tracking and searching for publications by key authors in the area.
Keeping track of your work might seem like a bit of a hassle in the moment, but over time it allows you to be much more efficient and will save time. I suggest you get a special notebook or use your favourite note taking software and start a research journal.
You can save your search histories for working on later or to use for discussion and reporting.
Take summary notes of what you read – the more you practice summarising key points and issues from the sources you read, the easier it becomes to take an analytical approach in your writing – and hopefully your notes can form the basis of your final drafts.
Also, make a routine and use a system for yourself to keep track of the sources you use – whether you use particular software or tools is up to you, but it’s important you find a routine that works for you and that you get into the habit of keeping things up to date.
I hope that’s been a useful set of pointers for your literature searching – I hope you enjoy exploring the literature on your topic!
Bye for now.