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Search techniques

Advanced literature searching

There's a lot of stuff to find. How can you find the things you really need? In this bitesized session, we show you some advanced literature searching tricks.

Using operators

iconMost databases allow you to enter elaborate controlled searches using special words and characters ("operators")...

Other methods

Subject headings

Some databases will let you search directly against standardised subject headings. These headings use a controlled vocabulary and are applied uniformly across articles on the same topic, irrespective of the terminology used in those articles. For example: articles about cats, kittens, and moggies might be indexed under the uniform subject heading "felines".

Databases may also have a thesaurus feature which will map a search term (e.g. "cat") to the subject heading used (e.g. "felines").

catIn certain cases, subject headings may even be arranged in a hierarchy, for example "mammals" > "felines" > "cats, domestic", and may enable you to either search on a single level alone, or to explode at a point in that hierarchy so as to include all branches beneath.

Citation searching

Finding a single journal article can lead you to more texts on the subject. The author will have referenced other work to support their arguments, so looking at the references of a text you've found should lead you to similar material. 

Some databases will index these references within the article record, making them easier to locate. Some (e.g. Google Scholar, Scopus and Web of Science) will even link to later articles which have gone on to cite the text you've found.

The tree of cited and citing articles allows you to follow an academic argument through time

By tracing the cited and citing articles, you can follow an academic argument as it develops through time.

The number of times an article has been cited can act as an indicator of that article's perceived importance within a topic. Bear in mind that this may not be an indicator of its quality -- it may be a notorious paper for the wrong reasons! Also, bear in mind that the older a paper is, the more chance it's had to be cited. An article published this year is unlikely to have had chance to be cited.

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