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Literature search

A search strategy is an organised method to retrieve information about a specific topic. Try the techniques described below to become a better researcher.
When using library catalogues or databases you need to pick your search terms (keywords) carefully. Search engines and library databases are not intelligent and will match up words without considering their meaning. This means a search for ‘crane’ will find information about both the bird and the machine. 


Here are some approaches to try when selecting keywords: 

  • Start your search by using words that are specific to your research topic and, ideally, not common elsewhere.
  • Are there other words with similar meanings? Using these alternative terms will find a different set of results.
  • Can your search term be spelled in different ways? UK and US spellings often differ, e.g. colour vs. color. Some databases and search engines don’t automatically search for the spelling or terminology of your locale.

Singular and plural

Some databases don’t automatically look for single and plural versions of a word. Try both.

Combining terms

You can usually search for phrases using quotation marks e.g. “television advertising”, and can combine terms using AND, OR and NOT, e.g.

  • television AND advertising (will find documents containing both words),
  • television OR advertising (will find documents containing either word),
  • television NOT advertising (will find documents which do not mention advertising).

Truncating terms

Most databases will allow you to search for terms that begin with the same set of letters, using a symbol such as * $ or ? For example, politi* can search for politics and political. (The symbol used will vary between databases so check the database’s help screens to find out which one to use.)

Notess, G.R. and Manafy, M. (2008:118-130)

Searching for research can take time, but it is very satisfying when you source something you are looking for.  Next month, I will discuss how we evaluate the research that you find.
In the meantime, if you need additional help, feel free to contact me directly (email library@oca.ac.uk)


Notess, G.R. and Manafy, M. (2008) Teaching Web Search Skills : Techniques and Strategies of Top Trainers. Medford, UNITED STATES: Information Today, Inc.

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Posted by author: Helen Barrett
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