Literature searching and referencing

Literature searching

Literature Searching is the process of performing a thorough search of available literature (journal articles, books, official reports etc.) to determine what is already known, and not known, on a research topic. It is often closely linked to the Literature Review, where the aim is to establish where new or current research fits into the existing body of knowledge. Literature Searching can be thought of as an iterative process - in part because researchers need to keep up-to-date on the latest research relevant to their topic area as it is published, but also because the process of performing searches may need to be refined a number of times before the goal of having searched all available literature has been met.

Planning a literature search

To carry out an effective literature search you will need to plan your search by:

  1. Developing a search strategy.  This helps to ensure your approach to literature searching is consistent across each database used.  Our Developing a Search Strategy worksheet (DOCX 62KB) will help you to identify the key search terms and synonyms from your research question, and how to combine them using Boolean operators. Our Keyword and subject heading searching video (duration 5:59) highlights the differences between keyword and subject heading search techniques.
  2. Identifying the relevant databases to search in your subject area. For the majority of research needs, using a combination of bibliographic databases is the most effective method for getting comprehensive results when literature searching.  Our Searching the databases worksheet (DOCX 88KB) introduces some of the key databases and platforms recommended for the majority of researchers.  For further guidance on the databases to choose when literature searching, you can:
      • Consult our Guides, to find databases by subject area.
      • Go to Database Search in FindIt@Bham and browse databases by Resource Subject.
      • Browse our videos which provide an overview of key databases by subject area.

Literature searching for a Systematic Review

A Systematic Review is a formal research study that aims to find, assess and analyse the existing evidence that meets a specific set of criteria, in order to answer a precise research question. Systematic Reviews follow a clear, predefined structure and often take many months to complete.  Our Guide to Systematic Reviews provides a further introduction, including information on how a Systematic Review differs to other Reviews.  A fuller definition is provided by Cochrane - specialists in advocating the use of evidence-based research like systematic reviews to inform decision-making in health and health care.

Library Services subscribes to Cochrane Interactive Learning, an online introductory training course providing over 10 hours of self-directed learning on the complete Systematic Review process. The course is suitable for both new and experienced Systematic Review authors. Registration is required when you first access the course – please follow the guidelines on the Cochrane Interactive Learning FindIt@Bham record. 

Our Research Skills Team supports researchers with developing the skills required for the literature searching aspect of Systematic Reviews.

Training and Support

The Research Skills Team offers a range of literature searching training and support for researchers.

Please note that taught students can access support from the Academic Skills Centre.


Referencing is an important part of academic life, enabling you to:

  • Acknowledge an intellectual debt, thereby avoiding plagiarism
  • Give supporting evidence for your ideas and arguments
  • Provide readers with the information they need to verify, or follow up on, your sources

Our iCite Guide contains examples of specific referencing styles to help guide the correct use of the referencing style appropriate to your discipline. If you are a postgraduate researcher (PGR) and need guidance as to the appropriate referencing style to use, please consult with your supervisor(s) and/or School handbook in the first instance.

Reference Management software

There is a range of Reference Management software solutions available to help make the process of managing your references more straightforward.  Library Services recommends that research students (MRes, PhD etc.), researchers, and academic members of staff use EndNote Desktop. More information about EndNote (including how to obtain the software and training opportunities) is available on our EndNote Desktop webpages.


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