Searching the Technical Literature

One of the first things you will learn as you begin to do research is the importance of spending quality time researching and reading the relevant research in your field. You will also quickly learn that the bulk of the information you need is published in the form of technical articles rather than textbooks.

In this section we will discuss some useful strategies for identifying the essential or "core" literature in your field that is relevant to your research project:

Online Resources

There are a number of useful on-line resources that will help you identify the core literature in your field. A number of these tools are useful across disciplines but some are discipline specific. A list of some of the most common tools is shown below:

  • American Chemical Society's SciFinder Scholar
  • Thomson's Web of Science
  • Pub Med Central
  • Elsevier's Science Direct
  • Thomson's Science Citation Index
  • Thomson's BIOSIS

For information on access to these resources and directions on how to get started using these tools, consult your college or university's science librarian and/or the library's website. As these products are quite expensive, depending on your institution's library budget for electronic resources, it may or may not have all of the resources identified above. Because of the cost many institutions are now partnering with other area institutions to form local library consortia. So, you are strongly encouraged to consult with your science librarian if your library doesn't provide one of the aforementioned resources as they may be able to direct you to another library located nearby where you can access these tools for your literature search.

Library Based Resources

While the resources available on the internet may make it seem as if everything of value can be found there, it is important to point out that you will miss a lot of valuable resources and work if you limit yourself to internet resources alone. You may find it extremely useful to visit the stacks in your library which hold books related to your project topic. As books are organized by topic in the library, you may find some useful resources simply by browsing the stacks that you wouldn't have located in any other way.

Some Important questions to consider as you begin your research project:

  • Who are the researchers that are publishing the bulk of the work in the field?
  • What journals should I be reading regularly if I want to stay current in my project and my field?
  • Is my project of current interest to researchers in the field?

General Search Guidelines

  • Begin by searching each word, phrase, and/or name separately. This will give you some idea of how much information is already known relevant to your project. Note that most electronic databases will search for an exact match to the words. If you search for an exact match you may miss some useful references. So consider using truncation (*) and/or wildcards (? or !) as appropriate. Truncation is a useful way to search for any terms that include a common root word. Wildcards are valuable whenever there are more than one correct spelling of a word.
  • If you find a large number of references, you will find it helpful to make your search specific. The easiest way to do this is by combining topics/concepts in your search using the appropriate Boolean logic gates such as:
    • And - will allow you to identify only those resources that contain both of the terms you use in your search
    • Or - will allow you to identify resources containing either of the words used in the search term
    • Not - will allow you to identify resources that don't contain the term following "not" in the search

    Note that you can use several logic gates when performing a search if there are three or more search terms you wish to use.

  • Once you obtain a set of references, there are several things you should do with the information:
    • Look over your reference list to see what different kinds of information are available to you. Most databases contain bibliographic information for the following types of information:
      • Dissertations
      • (Edited) books
      • Meeting abstracts
      • Patents
      • Review Papers
      • Technical articles including technical notes, communications, and full papers
    • Assess the quality of the sources you find. Not all of the above information has been evaluated for accuracy. The most common form of assessment is peer-review in which one or more scientists and/or engineers, working in the same field on similar research problems, provides an anonymous evaluation of their colleague's work. It is also useful to point out that there are different levels of peer review. Manuscripts published in technical journals are typically subjected to the highest level of scrutiny by the scientific community. Admittedly it will be somewhat difficult to evaluate the quality of your sources at the start of your project. However, you can begin to gauge which sources to trust by consulting your advisor and other faculty and advanced students (graduate and post doctoral). Although somewhat controversial, librarians and information specialists have been studying trends in the literature for nearly a century. Based on the frequency with which papers published in various journals are cited, these experts have developed a quantitative measure called the impact factor to reflect the impact of these journals.
    • Assess the quantity of the information you have obtained. How many references did you find? If you found only a few references this could mean that little work has been done and/or published in your area or it might mean that your search was too narrowly defined. If you found hundreds of references this may mean that a lot of work has been done and/or published on your topic or it may mean that your search was too broad.
    • Learn from your search results as a method of informing and refining your search. Many bibliographic database programs include tools that will allow you to examine and/or refine your search results according to:
      • date of publications
      • author name
      • journal name
      • language of publication

      Use of these tools with your reference list will allow you to identify who the key researchers are in your field, the names of the journals in which work relevant to your research project is most likely to be published, whether or not the research project is of current interest or not, etc. It is also a good idea to examine the words used in the titles of the materials you find. This may help you identify new and/or different words to use in your literature search so that you find all of the information that is relevant to your project.

  • Don't forget to save your search results and to document your search strategies in your notebook. You may find it useful to save your results in a format compatible with whatever bibliographic referencing program, such as EndnoteĀ® that your laboratory, college and/or university uses. If you aren't familiar with these programs, they are extremely useful for tracking and properly formatting references in technical papers, grant applications, and dissertations.
  • Obtain (on-line or at your local library) several of the papers you have found in your literature search. Read the introduction section in these papers as this section usually provides background information on the particular research problem that the researchers studied, the methods and materials used, etc. Look up any relevant papers cited there and read the introduction to those papers, too. You will soon find that you are able to identify a "core" literature relevant to your specific research project in this way.
  • Be sure to use several different bibliographic search engines and several different strategies in your literature search. No single database indexes all articles published in all journals. It is important to know what the breadth of the database, i.e., what kinds of information it contains, what time frame is covered, and the frequency with which the database is updated.
  • Periodically throughout your project, perform a new literature search. It is important to realize that the literature isn't static. This means that it is critical to periodically re-visit the literature for new citations relevant to your research project. Some databases such as BIOSIS and Medline offer customized e-mail alerting services that can be very useful in staying current with one's field. Some of the services that may be provided include notification when a new issue of a technical journal or when an article published on a particular topic is published.