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Efficient Way of Searching the Literature

  1. Literature Review – Overview
  2. Part One – Literature Survey
  3. Literature Survey
  4. Efficient Ways Of Searching The Literature
  5. Where to Hunt
  6. Other Useful Info
  7. Citations And Notes
  8. Errors Of Judgment
  9. Planning Checklist


One useful approach to surveying the literature involves decisions about
(a) search strategies, (b) where to hunt, and (c) what to record and how to
record it.

Search Strategies

An approach some students use is the generally-browse-and-peruse strategy.
They hunt for books and journals in the broad area of their topic, then read
the sources in detail, hoping to find material that might apply to their project.
In our experience such a method is very inefficient. A specify-and-look-up strategy
is far more productive because it saves lots of time, eliminates wading through
pages that will be of no use, and guides you to where relevant material should
be located in your project.When employing a specify-and-look-up approach, you
first decide which functions you intend your literature survey to serve. Those
functions can be cast as questions you plan to answer, such as:

  1. What studies have already been conducted about my topic, and what conclusions
    did the authors draw?
  2. What key terms did the author use that can relate to my study, and how
    were those terms defined?
  3. What are methodological strengths and limitations of previous studies relating
    to my topic?
  4. On what theories have previous studies been founded”Or, which theories
    have been applied in previous studies?

Additional questions of this sort can focus on the other functions we described
earlier in this chapter. Armed with your guide questions, you skim through book
chapters, journal articles, or newspaper accounts to find the answers you seek.
As a result, you rarely, if ever, read a book straight through. Instead, you
hunt up answers to your questions. In some instances this will require a detailed
perusal of one or more chapters – sometimes an entire book or monograph – as
when you wish to thoroughly understand the theory on which the study was grounded.
In other cases, your task consists of hunting only for a key word or phrase
in the book’s index (as in learning how an author defined a term that will be
important in your project); then you read only the pages whose numbers appear
for that word in the index. Sometimes your search will be guided by a single
question. In other cases, you will find it economical to look up answers to
several questions at the same time in order to make the most efficient use of
a book, dissertation, or journal that would be difficult or inconvenient to
obtain on a future occasion.

Examples of key words used in a literature search

Here are two examples of key words whose meanings students might seek in their
literature search. The first example is from a project titled Social-Class Changes
in a Southern Town – 1945-1995. The second is titled Treatment Plans for Attention
Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Social-Class Changes in a Southern Town – 1945-1995: Key terms can be selected
either to address the project’s topic in general or to focus on a particular
function that the literature is expected to serve. General key terms for the
study of social class can include social class, social stratification, socioeconomic
status (SES), social structure, upper class, middle class, lower class, minorities,
the rich, the poor, wealth, and poverty. Words specific to a function, such
as that of generating research methods for the social-class study, could include
social-science research methods, survey techniques, interview techniques, social-class
scales, scaling methods, and social-class typologies.

Treatment Plans for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD): General key words for
the study of attention deficit can be attention, attention deficit disorder
(ADD), hyperactivity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), inattention,
and distractibility. If one of the chosen functions of the literature search
is that of locating ADD within the learning-disorders domain of knowledge, then
key terms – in addition to the foregoing general ones – could include learning
disorders, learning handicaps, disadvantaged learners, special education, remedial
education, and teaching the handicapped.
In summary, as you plan your literature review, you will likely find it helpful
to decide which functions the review should perform and then to select both
general and specific-function terms to guide your effort.

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