Key concepts of literature searching

  • This guide is for students of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mathematical Sciences and the Department of Computing and Communication Technologies and it brings together advice on literature searching from a variety of Oxford Brookes University Library websites. For more information follow the links in the document or contact your academic liaison librarians Lindsay Robinson or  Penny Robertson

    • use single words or key phrases
    • use related words:
      • use broader and narrower terms
      • use synonyms
      • use a thesaurus to find synonyms and related terms
    • make a list of relevant keywords (the words that best describe what you want to look for)

    Example:The impact of computers and the internet on learning in higher education
    This can be broken down into the following concepts or elements:

    • computers
    • internet
    • learning
    • higher education

    From these concepts the following list of keywords can be identified:

    • computers, information technology
    • internet, world wide web, www
    • learning, acquiring knowledge
    • higher education, university, college

    (Source: Defining your topic - keywords)


    • Textbooks are a general introduction to a topic typically written by several authors. They are summaries of what is already known. They are only a starting point to a subject and they aren't high quality sources of academic information.
    • Monographs are an in-depth study on a very specific topic typically written by a single author. They are trying to contribute new knowledge. The good ones are high quality sources of academic information.

    Journals and databases

    • Journals are regular publications (often an issue per month) of a collection of journal articles, each just a few pages long and all by different authors. They are like a magazine for the latest academic research. Journal articles are a very high quality academic information resource as long as they have been 'peer-reviewed'.
    • 'Peer-review' is a process where an author sends their article to a journal editor who then asks two (or more) experts in the field to anonymously say whether they think the article should be published. If they both agree it makes a useful contribution to the literature on that subject then it is published in the journal, but they might also say that it needs changes or additions or that it isn't worth publishing at all. A journal that does this is 'peer-reviewed' and the articles that appear in the journal should be of very high academic quality because they have gone through this quality-control procedure.
    • Databases are collections of any kind of information but in academia it generally means collections of journal articles. Use databases to find journal articles on a particular subject. Your subject pages have sub-pages that list the key databases for your subjects (choose your subject from the subject list, then click 'Library Resources' and then 'Databases').

    The Internet

    • Wikipedia is a convenient source of reference information. Like a textbook it is only a starting point as it summarises what is already known. Use the references at the bottom of a Wikipedia article to read the original literature on which the Wikipedia entry is based. Similarly to textbooks they are not high quality sources of academic information.
    • Blogs are the opinions of an individual and as such are not necessarily accurate or authoritative. You should definitely critically appraise them using the checklist below. Blogs are not currently regarded as quality sources of academic information.
    • Other websites may or may not offer useful and trustworthy information. Be sure to critically appraise any information you get from the internet using the checklist below.

    Common searching features

    You can search any database [including the library catalogue] using one keyword, a phrase or a combination of keywords.

    • it may be helpful to search for no more than one or two keywords as a starting point. You can then assess how much information you are finding.

    In order to get more relevant references for your search you may want to link your keywords together. Databases use connectors to do this. There are three main connectors:

    • and - this is used to narrow down your search and find references which contain more than one keyword or phrase eg computers and schools will find references containing both these keywords.
    • or - this is used to broaden your search and find references which find either keyword eg computers or internet will find references which contain either computers or internet.
    • not - this is used when you want to ensure that an aspect of a subject is not included in the results of your search eg university not school will find references which include references to university, but do not include school.

    NB most databases will use the connectors and, or, not but some may use symbols instead. Check the database online help guide.


    Databases provide information from a number of years and will allow you to limit your search to a particular year or a year range. Check the online help if the date option is not obvious.

    Using truncation

    Truncation is a useful way of ensuring that you get as many relevant records as possible:

    • Keywords have variant endings as well as plurals all of which may be relevant for your search, truncation will find all these variations.
    • Type in the first part of the word plus the truncation symbol. Some databases use the asterisk* eg employ* will find employ, employee, employer, employment. NB check the online help guide for your database to check what symbol to use.

    Reviewing your search results

    • If you are not finding relevant information, think about the keywords you are using.
    • Alter them if necessary.
    • Keep a record of which words you have used and which have been the most relevant.
    • If you are finding too much information think about reducing the number of references, either by adding additional keywords or by limiting by date.

    (See: Finding books and journals and using databases: using databases)

    Ask yourself what, who, where, why, and when:

    • What is being said? Is it fact or opinion and are they providing sufficient evidence?
    • Who is saying it? Is there a conflict of interest? Are they an authority on the issue?
    • Where are they from? Does the website [or the information source] tell you anything about the location and affiliations of the author?
    • Why are they saying it? Using the answers from the above questions you can ask whether they have an agenda.
    • When does this information date from? When was the information written? Is it up to date?

    (Source: summarised from our evaluating web sources page)

    Why cite your sources?

    Citing your sources (also called referencing) is an essential part of your academic work for several reasons:

    • to acknowledge the sources you have used as the basis for your research. Failure to do this could be regarded as plagiarism.
    • to enable other people to identify and trace the sources you have used
    • to support facts and claims you have made in your assignment
    • to show that you have read widely and used a variety of sources

    (Source: Citing references in your work and plagiarism)

    Referencing styles

    There are many different referencing styles but the most common referencing style used at Oxford Brookes University is called Harvard. There is a guide on how to follow this referencing style at - PDF file


    You have the option to use the program EndNote to collect, store and manage your references. There is a desktop version (called EndNote) that you can use on any Oxford Brookes computer, and a cloud version (called EndNote Web) that you can access from any computer with internet access. Please see our EndNote pages for more information.

  • There is a PDF version of this guide that you can download or print from