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Education: research guide: Literature searching workshop - videos

Video walkthrough with examples

Each year, we teach a class on literature searching to the new PGCE students, going through an example with them. Watch the videos below for a walkthrough of some of the things to think about when you are planning your research.

You will also find transcripts and Powerpoint presentations with notes as an alternative to the videos.

Why do we need to search for articles? And the pitfalls of searching

We're going to take a concrete example. You have a vague idea what you want to know about, which is 'bullying among boys in secondary schools'. You might go to Google Scholar to search for that but if you just put it in the search box you get way too many results to read!

But equally, you might have a really specific topic that you're looking for on a website, and when you search you get no results at all!

Using Google Scholar to search Oxford's ejournals

If you are used to using Google Scholar, you can make it work harder for you by adding a Find it @ Oxford button - this will search SOLO for our subscriptions and give you direct access to paywalled journal articles.

You can also read a transcript of the video or follow instructions in Powerpoint.

What are you going to search for?

This involves breaking your question into concepts, thinking about the relevant importance of each one, coming up with synonyms, related concepts, broader and narrower terms, alternate spellings, that sort of thing. It feels like unnecessary work but it will save you time (and missing important content) in the long run.

You can also read a transcript of the video or follow instructions in Powerpoint.

We're going to take a concrete example. You have a vague idea what you want to know about, which is 'bullying among boys in secondary schools'. You might go to Google Scholar to search for that but if you just put it in the search box you get way too many results to read!

It's important to think about your terms - what synonyms might there be? What broader or narrower terms could you use? Do you get too many results or too few? How important are your concepts - do you really want articles that mention bullying in the full text but not the abstract, or the title? Are there alternative spellings or terms for some of the concepts? High schools rather than secondary schools, victimisation/victimization rather than bullying?

Mind-mapping is great for this sort of work. For the example above some of our students came up with:

mind mpa

Then you want to apply some handy searching tricks like *, ?, and "" - if you haven't heard about these, watch the video below to find out more.

You can also read a transcript of the video or follow instructions in Powerpoint.

We split the question into 3 concepts and tried to think of related terms for each one. Then we grouped them together and thought about how to would logically search for them with OR and AND (these are called Boolean operators). Some databases also allow NOT, but you have to be careful in using it because you can lose relevant papers just because they mention an irrelevant word in passing (e.g. girls)

Where are you going to search for it?

Think about how much time you have - it's usually worth using at least 2 subject-specific databases (if you have access to them) like ERIC, British Education Index, Web of Science, Scopus. 

You can also leverage Google's search algorithm to search within domains like or, for useful PDF reports - see our video on that below.

We're all pretty used to searching Google and perhaps Google Scholar - you plug in a few words and you get millions of results. You scroll down the first half a page, click a few links, and you're away. Fantastic. But what about all the stuff you're missing because it's on the 5th page, or the 50th?

Google will always try to give you as many results as it can, in what it considers the most 'relevant' order. But when you're searching for dry academic literature, this can work against you, and you run the risk of not finding important things, as well as wasting time reading poorly-researched stuff.

Google Scholar is a little different - it's trying to find scholarly articles and citations which match your search. But it will still include a lot of stuff that's completely unrelated to your topic if you're not careful, and it doesn't vet its contents, not does it contain everything ever written. And if you want to search really specifically, its attempts to be clever can work against you.

Subject-specific databases are very different from Google in that they don't do as much of the searching work for you. They won't search for synonyms or related terms, so you need to think about those first - luckily we did that in the previous section. But they are more likely to give you actually relevant results instead of a lot of noise. They are also curated by humans (or in the case of Semantic Scholar, machine-learning techniques), which means that someone has tried to work out what an article is all about, even if it doesn't give many clues in the title. Some databases tag articles with subjects or keywords drawn from a controlled vocabulary to help you, and some like Web of Science will tell you where an article has been cited later (although never comprehensively).

See the section on academic sources you might want to try searching in, as well as good sources of data and reports.

How are you going to search for it?

How does each website work? Is there an advanced search you can use for the words you came up with in 1? Can you filter by useful things like date or language? Do articles come with keywords, tags, or a thesaurus of useful terms?

You can also read a transcript of the video or follow instructions in Powerpoint.

Now we need to think of a way to search for these concepts. It's generally best to look for an advanced search option. That will tell you what search techniques are available - sometimes you can narrow down by date, language, and so on. Often they look a lot like this:

So I might build my search up in ERIC with: 

cyber-bull* OR cyberbull* OR “cyber bull*”  

I'm using * to say that I don't care what comes after the start of the word - this picks up things like cyber-bullying or cyber-bull

I'm also using the " marks to say I want to find a whole phrase and not the separate words.

And I'm using OR in capitals to say I want to match at least one of these terms because they're synonyms (sort of).

I'd probably also choose to search for these in the title, because I do actually want my article to be about cyber-bullying. I do that with the drop-down menu.

Then on the next line, I add my next concept, boys. I don't want to lose things that don't mention boys in the title or abstract if they mention other terms, so I'll search all fields for 

boy* OR male*

I type this into the second line down so the concepts are linked by AND, because I want to find something to do with bullying AND something to do with boys.

Then I move on to my third concept. I might search in the abstract for

"secondary school*” OR “high school*”

Having done that search I find much more manageable numbers of results. It's worth doing a few more searches with different combinations of title, abstract, full text, just to see if there are some I'm missing, but that's a really good start.

Obviously, ERIC isn't going to have all the articles ever on bullying, so you might want to try a different database like Web of Science (if you have it through your university) which covers more of the social sciences as well - you do get different things.

Other tips and tricks

Some databases have a thesaurus and a set of keywords for each article - this can be manually done by experts or via machine learning like Semantic Scholar. These are great if you've missed an important synonym or bit of jargon from the field. You're unlikely to find a perfect thesaurus term for each of your concepts, but you can use a combination of your own terms and those from a thesaurus to good effect.

Web of Science does lots of fancy work on citations - you can see who has cited a paper later. Google Scholar also does this for free so it's useful to check that out if you think you've found a seminal paper. To trace citations backwards, look at the list of references as you're reading and try and find them.

You can also read a transcript of the video or follow instructions in Powerpoint.

Searching Google

We offer a workshop to current students on searching Google for Academic Research. Check out the handouts below for latest tips & advice.

In our PGCE class we also cover searching Google - check out the video below:

You can also read a transcript of the video or follow instructions in Powerpoint.

Even Google has an advanced search option! After you've run a search it's under 'Settings'. You can use quote marks " to search for particular phrases or filter by region, language, date.

You can also use it to search a particular domain - say you want to know what the UK government has written about deworming - you can put in the 'site or domain' box (only one domain at a time, sadly). You can dictate that your search terms appear in the title of the page, or the url, not just somewhere in the text. You can also restrict the file type, so if you're looking for reports, PDFs would be a good bet.