Top 5 tips if you’re stuck with your dissertation literature search

Are you stuck with the literature search for your dissertation or final year project? Not finding as much on your topic as you hoped? Here are 5 suggestions to help you move forward.

1. Look again at your search strategy.

By this I mean identifying terminology and keywords – also geographical or date limits for your search . Consider alternative terminology e.g. synonyms, alternative spellings, variant terminology, changes in terminology over time, abbreviations, etc. Increase the number of relevant keywords and you increase the potential of finding good material.

Example of basic research question, highlighting the main topics/concepts and thinking of alternative keywords that could be used for these topics/concepts.

2. Revisit your starting point.

I’m sure you’ve already carried out some scoping searches. Where did you start to do these – Google Scholar? DiscoverEd? Remember that in both of these discovery tools you can choose the Advanced Search function for more effective searching with multiple keywords or search strings. If you are using Google Scholar make sure in the settings you have the Library Links for University of Edinburgh enabled –  the short video Adding full-text links on Google Scholar (0:50) shows you how to do this.

Another tip : if you’re using DiscoverEd, the default setting is to discover only content held by the University of Edinburgh. But you can change this to discover more by searching, then ticking the ‘Expand results beyond library collections’ box.

3. Try searching individual databases and digital collections.

Following a DiscoverEd search, look in in the limiters at the left hand side of the page under ‘Collection’ to see what digital collections are providing results – these might be worth more detailed exploration.

You can also find lists of relevant databases in the Subject Guides for subject or school. Searching at individual database level can mean that you can access a subject thesaurus with terms purpose built for your subject area enabling more effective searching than keyword matching alone can provide. Plus, many databases – especially newspapers – are subscription resources behind powerful paywalls that large scale discovery tools like Google just can’t get into. To get at their content you need to go to the source database.

4. Journal literature just not there for you?

You may be looking for ‘grey literature’ – information produced by government, academics, business and industry in formats not controlled by commercial publishing. To help find this, as well as a guide to Official Publications, Edinburgh University Library’s subject guides have a useful list of statistical information sources. Other handy places to look are Greynet, the Grey literature network service, or OpenGrey for grey literature in Europe. Perhaps you’re interested in finding theses – see the Theses subject guide for sources to download digital theses.

Use Google Advanced Search to search for grey literature on specific companies, organisations, charitites, etc., websites.

5. Finally, you’ve found something really useful?

Try snowballing – follow up the subject keywords given to the article, or the references that it cites, to find related material. Some databases, such as Web of Science (and Google Scholar) have a citation trail function where you can look ahead to see who went on to cite the paper you are reading – see Tracking a Good Article to find out more.

Need more help? Your Academic Support Librarians can help you by email or may be able to meet up for a 1:2:1 chat – just get in touch.

Christine Love-Rodgers – Academic Support Librarian for School of Divinity and Acting College Lead for College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

[This is an updated version of a blog post that originally appeared on the SPS Librarian blog.]

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