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HARC: Helpful Academic Researchers Companion

HARC has been designed to answer the questions researchers ask at every step of the research life cycle

Steps in Searching the Literature


The purpose of a literature search is to set up a framework for your topic, identify, select and synthesise, and find gaps in the published literature on a particular question or topic.

Brainstorm keywords

A good starting point in any literature search is to identify your main keywords. 

Have you tried using a Mind Map to Visualise your Research Topic?

Using a mind map can assist in:

  • defining your topic
  • organising ideas in a logical structure
  • seeing connections between ideas you already have
  • connecting new ideas to what you already know
  • identifying useful keywords (identifying which databases are the most appropriate to use)
  • identifying inclusion/exclusion criteria
  • externalising and visualising what you think your literature search should include.

MindMeister is an online mind mapping software available to all ECU staff and students.

Expand your Keywords

Think of different ways or synonyms for your existing keywords as authors may have covered your topic using different terminology.

Check if your subject databases use a database thesaurus or "controlled vocabulary" as this may assist in finding more articles on your topic.

Refine your Database Searches using Boolean and other search operators

Main Boolean operator



use OR to indicate any additional alternative keywords of a specific concept

For example:
aviation OR aircraft OR plane OR aeroplane OR airplane;
crash OR collision OR accident


use AND to narrow your search results by showing articles that contain both the 1st and 2nd concepts

For example:
aviation AND crash


use truncation (indicated by the symbol * after a stem word to find variations of that word

For example: 
child* finds child, child's, children
assess* finds assess, assessment, assessing


use quotation marks to denote a "phrase search"
For example:
"Sydney Harbour Bridge", "units of measure"

Other operators

Some databases may have an extended list of boolean operators which you may find very useful. Check out their HELP pages
For example: proximity - looking for terms within a certain no. of words of each other






















Example of a library database search using Boolean operators

The image below is an example of how to build your search by entering your search terms individually, then combining the terms using Boolean operators.

  • try searching your alternative keywords separately to see the most frequently used keyword, test if alternative spellings make a difference!

    • if you are not finding many items, it may be that you are not using the correct terminology!

    • you may need to do several scoping searches before you find the best keywords to use in the best databases

  • Using OR (green arrows) to EXPAND your search

  • Using AND (red arrows) to NARROW your search to find the most relevant items

Image showing examples of use of AND and OR in a database search

Select Databases to Search

Check your subject guide to select the appropriate subject databases.

  • try out the list of resources listed to see which may be of use

  • there may be an overlap in the coverage of sources indexed by each database

  • register yourself with the databases you will be using, to save searches, set up alerts, etc.

  • make an appointment with your subject librarian if you are having difficulty choosing which database to use or in using the database

Identify peer-reviewed articles in your results list

Peer reviewed articles are generally a preferred source of information as they have undergone some form of quality control, and the articles have already been evaluated and reviewed by other experts in the discipline. Most databases allow search results to be limited to peer reviewed articles only.

For further quality control tips, check out the page on Evaluating information found.

Searching Systematically

"A systematic review [methodology] attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making. (See Section 1.2 in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions.)"

Searching systematically

Even if you are not using the systematic review methodology, the benefit of being systematic and organised in your literature search is that it will help you do a thorough literature search.

When searching systematically:

  • document databases used
  • document search keywords used
  • registering with the database you are using is a good idea
    • most databases have the facility for registered users to save their search history
  • set email alerts
    • most databases offer email alerts of new articles which have been added to the database based on the user's specified saved searches. For example:
      • specify author/s you wish to follow
      • specify article/s you wish to follow (who has cited that article)
      • specify topic/s you wish to follow
      • specify journal/s new contents pages you wish to follow

Systematic Review Methodology

More information on the Systematic Review Methodology is available on the Systematic Review library guide. Searching systematically and doing a systematic review are not the same. However, researchers will find a reading of the Systematic Review methodology will provide many good guidelines on how to do a literature search well.

Set up an EndNote Library

EndNote is a software tool for managing bibliographies and publishing your personal list of useful references.

  • references can be downloaded from your database results lists
  • references can be organised into folders
  • each reference can be edited and annotated
  • add corresponding PDF or other additional files, personal keywords and personal notes etc. to each reference
  • EndNote can be used to format your references into over 5000 referencing styles
  • EndNote integrates with WORD, making inserting intext and endtext references into your paper or thesis much easier

All ECU students and staff have access to EndNote on campus and off-campus.

To save Google Scholar references into your EndNote Library:

Possible Use of Nvivo to analyse and code articles

Nvivo is generally used in the analysis and coding of qualitative data. However, you can also use it as a tool to keep track of information which you have found in your literature search.

Use your previously created mindmap as folders in Nvivo, then upload articles to Nvivo and use Nvivo's inbuilt functions to code passages within an article or other publication types ... never lose the spot where you found that quote. Nvivo will keep track of which articles and which parts of the articles cover nominated keywords.

Touch base with your subject librarian for assistance - make an appointment

Literature Search Checklist

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In particular ECU pays its respects to the Elders, past and present, of the Nyoongar people, and embrace their culture, wisdom and knowledge.